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RIBA report: Workload optimism spreads across entire UK

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The RIBA Future Trends Workload Index shows confidence at its highest since the EU referendum, with the private housing sector rallying, writes Adrian Dobson

The RIBA Future Trends Workload Index saw a significant increase this month, rising to +17 in December 2016, up from +9 in November, and fully making up the ground it lost that month. Our key workload index remains firmly in positive territory.

In terms of geographical analysis, London (balance figure +15) showed a sharp pick-up in confidence levels. Practices located in the north of England (+25) and Wales and the West (+27) were the most optimistic about medium-term workload prospects this month. No UK nation or region returned a negative workload balance figure.

Analysing the December data in terms of practice size, large practices (51+ staff), with a balance figure of +29, and medium-sized practices (11-50 staff), with a balance figure of +50, were more upbeat than small practices (1-10 staff), with a balance figure of +13, but all practice size categories were positive about future work prospects.

Architects and their clients are either adopting a wait-and-see approach with Brexit or pushing on with planned work

This month we asked our participating practices specifically about the impact of the Brexit referendum on their workloads. The message we got back indicates that the initial uncertainty that the referendum created is starting to fade. Only 3 per cent of practices said that they had reduced in staffing levels as a direct result of the referendum, while just 4 per cent of practices felt that they were likely to make staff redundant during the next three months as a direct consequence of the decision to leave the EU. The longer-term impact of Brexit remains of course a matter of conjecture at this stage, but the signs are that architects and their clients are either adopting a wait-and-see approach or are pushing on with planned work.

In terms of different work sectors, the commercial sector workload forecast was unchanged at +4. The private housing sector workload forecast, however, bounced back strongly from its dip last month, standing at +20 in December compared with +10 in November. It is the private housing sector that continues to be the primary engine of growth in architectural workloads. The public-sector workload forecast fell back this month, down to -8 from -2 in November, and remains in negative territory. The community sector forecast increased slightly this month, rising to +2, up from +1 in November.

The RIBA Future Trends Staffing Index dipped marginally this month, dropping to +1 in December 2016 from +2 in November. Our Future Trends survey staffing data suggests a fairly balanced employment market for salaried architects, with no immediate expectation of a skills shortage affecting architecture practices. It is, however, uncertain whether the long-term impact of Brexit will lead to a shortage of skilled architects in the UK; many practices are concerned as to whether mutual recognition of professional architectural qualifications with other EU countries will be maintained into the future.

Medium-sized practices were the most positive about future staffing levels

This month it was again medium-sized practices, with a balance figure of +25, that were the most positive about future staffing levels. Large practices were more cautious about taking on additional staff and returned a balance figure of zero.

Commentary received from our participating practices continued to be predominantly positive, though we do continue to receive correspondence that indicates fees and profit margins have not fully recovered to pre-recessionary levels.

Adrian Dobson is executive director members at the RIBA and the author of 21 Things You Won’t Learn in Architecture School.  A full copy of the RIBA Future Trends Survey monthly report is available online.

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