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Is London a fetter on a socially mobile and inclusive profession?

Words:
Indujah Srikaran

The high concentration of architectural education and practice in the capital perpetuates the profession’s elitist and exclusive character, argues Indujah Srikaran

Is London preventing social mobility in the architectural profession across the UK?
Is London preventing social mobility in the architectural profession across the UK? Credit: Indujah Srikaran

Low levels of social mobility are inhibiting marginalised, conscientious, gifted individuals from gaining equal access to the UK’s architectural opportunities. With much of the policy-making, decision-making and opportunities centred in London, a geographical barrier precludes people without privileged backgrounds from outside the capital, from climbing the social mobility ladder. The split outcome of the EU referendum in 2016, and inequitable impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, have left a clear divide in attitudes and a disparity in jurisdiction between London and the rest of the country. So is the architecture industry helping to limit social mobility through a London-centric oligarchy? And is London hoarding all the talent, leaving local regions divested?

Hot and cold spots

According to the Social Mobility Commission’s ‘State of the Nation’ 2017 report, London accounts for nearly two thirds of all social mobility hotspots, despite high levels of deprivation in many parts of the capital. The Midlands, on the other hand, is the worst region for people from disadvantaged backgrounds; half the local authority areas in the East Midlands and more than a third in the West Midlands are social mobility coldspots. Since London is the UK’s capital, financial core and leading global city, and is at the international heart of higher education, teaching and research, it is no surprise that most architectural opportunities reside there. But is this situation desirable or beneficial?

Access to elite occupations such as architecture depends on high levels of educational attainment and London is home to several prestigious, highly-rated universities – such as the Bartlett at UCL and the Architectural Association. Between 2015 and 2016, one in six undergraduates and one in three postgraduates studying architecture, building and planning did so in London. The ‘QS Best Student Cities 2022’ ranks London first in the world overall and fourth in employer activity, showing just how sought-after graduates from London universities are by employers. Further, more than half of the world’s leading architecture built environment and planning research is conducted by London-based universities.

Economic development in London and the South East is far ahead of that in regions such as the North East and Midlands. Architectural internships are concentrated in the capital and around, making them inaccessible to many students starting out in the industry from elsewhere. Although unpaid internships are outlawed by the RIBA, unpaid work experiences are still arranged through informal nepotistic networks. These opportunities are exclusive to the wealthy and connected, closing doors and limiting prospects for talented and committed young people without connections or financial support. An RIBA article in 2016, ‘Stand out from the crowd’, stated that ‘research says the vast majority of people find work through word of mouth’ and that individuals should ‘consider relocating to follow demand’. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to live in London to follow demand and/or gain exposure to nepotistic opportunities.

Between 2015 and 2016, one in six undergraduates and one in three postgraduates studying architecture, building and planning did so in London

While London only makes up around 14% of the UK’s population, more than a quarter of architectural workplaces and architects are based there. The capital has many of the country’s biggest architectural firm headquarters along with the highest graduate starting salaries. And with around two-fifths (42.4%) of jobholders in London’s architecture sector aged 16-34, it looks an attractive place for young people starting their careers. But how many can seize the rich opportunities London has to offer? Peter Lampi, CEO of social mobility campaign group the Sutton Trust, states that: ‘London is essentially off-limits to ambitious people from poorer backgrounds who grew up outside the capital … those that benefit most from opportunities in London were either born there or are economically privileged from other parts of the country.’ Therefore, does the fast-growing density of architecture jobs in the capital deny prospects to the under-privileged outside the capital? And are such opportunities open only to those born in London or the economically privileged?

The Sutton Trust’s ‘Elites in the UK Pulling Away’ 2020 report, states that long distance geographical moves are associated with a privileged class background and shows London to be a ‘regional escalator,’ offering faster career progression than anywhere else in the UK. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds – either from London or moving in from elsewhere – are shown to experience higher than average rates of upward mobility. London is an elite centre and those working in the capital’s top jobs are disproportionately likely to come from privileged backgrounds largely driven by patterns of domestic migration. Approximately 56% of domestic migrants to London are from professional or managerial backgrounds compared to an average of 36% in the rest of the country, creating a geographical sorting effect. Consequently, rather than the disadvantaged migrating to the capital to gain upward mobility, it is more likely that the privileged are hoarding its lucrative architecture job opportunities. This not only creates a London centric oligarchy, it also draws talent out of regions and in search of its higher status and reward.

The London-centric oligarchy is a self-perpetuating cycle, excluding the financially disadvantaged and stealing talent, money, and status from the regions. It prevents an even distribution of architectural talent across the UK and segregates the capital from the rest of the country. Surrounded by people like themselves, those in London become less likely to see themselves as fortunate, and remain unaware of those struggling in social mobility coldspots outside the capital. Many in senior positions emerge from an elite background, and exclusive education. Their perceptions, and those of their peers, become narrow and perpetrate an exclusive ‘normality’, affecting their decisions on who is appropriate to hire, promote and progress, and on what should be built, by who and where.

Economic ‘super states’

London can be described in this context as a separate economic ‘super state’. Most investment and work centres on the capital so it is where the jobs are. So how do we encourage talent, research and inclusion in the architectural educational system and the profession as a whole? Could there be further stimulation of regional cities with projects which only local architects can bid for? Will investment in regional areas provide projects that in turn generate work for architects in these areas? Is it surprising that London is elitist when it is winning all the work and is enabled to exclude all but the most privileged? London needs to become more accessible, and devolution/decentralisation needs to be considered. Although Covid-19 had widened access through working from home and flexible working hours, breaking geographical barriers for those outside London, talent continues to migrate to the capital – perhaps now at a higher rate than pre-pandemic. The answer should lie not with degrading London’s success, but instead focus on creating more investment and architectural opportunities in areas with low levels of social mobility. Serious, radical devolution of power to a more accountable local level could give the UK’s diverse towns, cities, and regions the tools they need to grow while incentivising firms and students to stay local rather than moving to London – helping to give the socially mobile affordable prospects and allowing cities to retain homegrown talent.

London looks an attractive place for young people starting their careers. But how many can seize the rich opportunities it has to offer?

Chances to achieve in architecture are unfortunately not equitably distributed and sadly do not focus on the talents of the entire population. A healthy profession would be made up of a variety of geographical and socio-economic backgrounds. Concentrating opportunities in the capital risks the industry and cities across the rest of the UK becoming deprived, homogenised, and short-sighted in design. Continuation of the London centric oligarchy risks social mobility coldspots and excessive barriers within the profession. We need to champion more ‘city states’. We need more focus on creating local architectural opportunities in both education and practice – leading to more diverse and overall inclusive cities. Architectural progress should depend on aptitude and ability, not background or geographical location.

­Indujah Srikaran is a part II architectural assistant working in Warwickshire, interested in social mobility, racial inequalities and pedagogical methods within the built environment. Read her previous article 'Architecture is still some way off truly diverse representation' here.

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