If Keir Starmer wants to fix Britain, he should start with procurement

Procuring architectural services is not a simple task; it’s not meant to be. It is not about ‘buying services’, or ‘winning work’. Selecting a design team requires both sides to take a leap of faith to see which group would make the best fit.

Factors such as age, ethnic make-up and socio-economic status are all considerations on how firms are practising in non-traditional ways. The procurement process is grappling with how to give voice to non-traditional micro-practices. So why not redefine the role of the SME and allow procurement to be a platform of opportunities, not a barrier to participation? To be clear, there are positive examples of creative procurement to learn from, Meridian Water being one, as is the restructured Be First framework, which creates an architect-led team of consultants. Be First has the foresight to understand that it’s all about the team, not the scheme.

These seven suggestions are just a starting point. If Keir Starmer really wants to improve the procurement process, he should reach out to architects, large and small, to understand how we work and the value we provide.

With polls suggesting Labour will win the next election, our industry should send the Opposition a message: improving the built environment begins with a healthy methodology of procuring design services. A misaligned procurement process isn’t just poor management; it is the origin of costly projects, poor public spaces and buildings that are unfit for purpose. If the next government, likely formed by Labour, wishes to stimulate the economy through retrofit, infrastructure, affordable housing, high street regeneration and so on, then changes are required. Here, then, are my seven suggestions for Keir Starmer.

  1. Drop the MEAT (Most Economically Advantageous Tender) acronym 

The process suffers from a managerial ‘cover your backside’ approach when measuring quality. RFP documents contain an excess of response criteria, creating a defendable (from the client side) box-ticking exercise. Overly prescribed RFP’s do not select better teams; they select teams better at answering an RFP. The process is becoming Kafkaesque, one where Chatbox will win out. Understand what ‘quality’ really is and rethink how it is measured.

  1. End free design work

This takes time, imagination and capacity to communicate. The public sector’s well-documented resourcing squeeze and the private sector’s aversion to risk are harming the procurement process. The process itself is faltering at national, regional and local levels.

Requests for proposals (RFPs) often read like a ‘pass the parcel’ from author to author, each with conflicting aspirations, details, and deliverables. Scoring criteria are often disproportional to the evaluation method. Demands for exceedingly high levels of PI insurance and turnover don’t help to reduce risk; they simply limit the field and eliminate a significant percentage of capable practices. Stop the assembly line approach to writing RFPs and set your criteria at a level in balance with the task at hand.

  1. Be less prescriptive

RFPs which continue to request ‘early thoughts’ are out of touch with the everything that has been discussed regarding ‘look, listen, then draw’ approaches. Either eliminate design responses created in a vacuum, or make the client team available and pay for the design work.

  1. Stop enabling the fee race to the bottom

Drop it the minute you take power. It’s neither funny nor catchy. It’s offensive; and it’s quite surprising that the procurement world doesn’t see that words matter. Stop treating architects like animals fighting over a rancid carcass. It is a cynical attitude that festers cynical responses. We are not bidding for a piece of meat; we are interested in practising our profession. We are painfully aware the process is about fee. Ditch the meat and take a more vegan approach.

  1. Align aspirations with evaluation criteria

Dennis Austin is co-founder of Daab Design Architects, managing director of HomeGrown Plus and a former associate partner at RSHP


The best project approaches result from collaborations between client, community and design team. It is oxymoronic to select a team based on early concepts without the benefit of client, community and stakeholder engagement.

Projects are being subjected to multiple stages of procurement corresponding to RIBA work stages. The rationale is that certain practices have certain strengths. This is fine; but why not procure the project with a hybrid team from the outset? This will ensure design continuity and improve delivery. Playing telephone with a project does not deliver better nor more economical buildings. It delivers buildings which take longer, cost more and fall short of project goals.

  1. Cherish non-traditional small practices

Our practice is on Southwark Council’s framework where fee structure is part of the original selection process. Yet at each call-off project an opportunity for ‘commercial adjustment’ in fee is offered. This inevitably stirs a hornet’s nest of fee reduction. Terminate this vicious cycle of undermining fees, which is crippling our profession.

  1. Abandon piecemeal procurement