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Time to step up a gear

Stephen Hodder

Procurement is centre stage this year. With your help we can make our voice heard

Looking back at last year’s Stirling Prize, one of the striking things about the finalists was that five of the six buildings were commissioned by public bodies. At a time when the public sector faces incredible pressure on resources, it was refreshing to see the recognition that as a society we see good design as something that is worth investing in.

It also made me reflect on one of the main frustrations I hear from members – the UK’s approach to public procurement. Let’s start with the facts: the UK’s system is expensive, unwieldy and bureaucratic. But from my perspective, the biggest frustration is that design all too often plays second fiddle to cost when it comes to awarding the contract.

Addressing the shortcomings in the procurement system is a continuing priority for the RIBA. In 2012 we published ‘Building Ladders of Opportunity’, our analysis of the problems and a call for action. The next stage in our work will be later this year when we publish a guide for local authorities on how to procure architectural services. It will set our key priorities and – we hope – help ensure that procurement processes start to ask more of the right questions.  It should also help local authorities put the right procedures in place to ensure that practices of all sizes can bid on a level playing field and bidders are assessed solely on the quality of their proposals.

Architects need to become procurement experts if they want to win contracts

We’ve chosen to do this now because we’ve reached a critical time in the debate about the UK’s procurement system. At the end of 2015, new EU Procurement Directives will come into force across the UK. Combined with the UK government’s reforms, there is a real opportunity to tackle the tick-box culture and bureaucratic mess that all too often characterises procurement process in this country. It can also help address the constant downward pressure on fees. On a recent visit to Northern Ireland I was struck by the practice there of specifying minimum fees for architectural services on some procurements. Stronger rules on accepting bids that fall well below other quotes will also come into effect.

And with even more stringent budget cuts for the public sector likely to follow the general election later this year, the stakes for architects and our future public buildings couldn’t be higher – we need to keep making the case that a building that is well designed is also the best value for money. 

But the onus is now on us as a profession to drive reform. The Cabinet Office’s mystery shopper scheme is one avenue we should look at more closely. It allows you to submit anonymous complaints about procurement processes. So whether it’s high turnover requirements, weighting for past experience or complex PQQs, we need to start being more vocal and highlighting our concerns directly. 

Importantly, we also need to recognise good practice when we see it. Architects need to become procurement experts if they want to win contracts – but we must recognise that many of the bodies looking to hire an architect will have little or no past experience of working with architects.  

We also need to be realistic. Things aren’t going to change overnight, and they won’t change at all unless as a profession we get better at highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly that we encounter when bidding for work. This means speaking to your local councillors and members of parliament, raising these concerns with your local RIBA representatives and letting RIBA staff know what is going on in your area so they can feed it into their discussions with government.



RIBA Awards 2015

Submit your entry for the 2015 RIBA Awards. Projects of all sizes and budgets across UK regions and nations are eligible for entry. Deadline for all UK entries, excluding Scotland, is midnight on Friday 6 February 2015.

Last year’s regional award winners