The RIBA Workload Index for September remains buoyant. But could there be trouble ahead in the housing association sector? asks Adrian Dobson
The RIBA Future Trends Workload Index was unchanged in September 2015, with the headline balance figure remaining +21, as our forecast settles at a new equilibrium level. The figures this month appear to confirm a levelling-off in the rate of growth, but with practices remaining firmly positive about overall workload prospects in the medium term.
In terms of geographical analysis, all nations and regions in the UK returned positive balance figures. Continuing the trend of recent months, it is in London (balance figure +16), the south of England (balance figure +21) and the Midlands and East Anglia (balance figure +17) that our practices seem to be sensing a slowdown in the rate of growth. Confidence levels are higher in the north of England, Northern Ireland and Wales and the West, while Scotland emerges as the most positive with a balance figure of +50.
Analysing this month’s data in terms of practice size, large practices (51+ staff), with a balance figure of +25, and small practices (1-10 staff), with a balance figure of +15, remain in positive territory, but it is medium-sized practices (11-50 staff), with a balance figure of +56, that are most optimistic.
In terms of different work sectors, the private housing sector workload forecast rebounded a little, rising to +21 in September from +18 in August.
The commercial sector workload forecast was very slightly down, standing at +13 in September compared with +14 in August. Our public sector workload forecast increased marginally, up to -3 in September from -4 in August, but overall architects remain pretty cautious about prospects for growth in the public sector work pipeline. The community sector forecast was unchanged, remaining at +1 in September.
The RIBA Future Trends Staffing Index regained ground this month, standing at +12 in September, up from +7 in August. Ninety-five per cent of our practices expect their permanent staffing levels to either increase or stay the same over the next few months, and the employment market for salaried architects remains buoyant.
Small practices returned a staffing index balance figure of +7, medium-sized practices a balance figure of +48, and large practices a balance figure of +25. We also witnessed an increase this month in the proportion of practices expecting to increase their temporary staffing levels over the next quarter.
Consistent with the overall shifts occurring in the workload indices, it is interesting to note that a number of practices have opened offices and/or increased recruitment in Manchester and other northern cities in recent months, offering further evidence that the north of England is seeing an increase in opportunities and development activity.
Commentary received from our participating practices continues to paint a picture of a healthy market for architectural services, with more opportunities to negotiate better fee levels, and profit margins on projects beginning to rise. This improving fee climate seems to echo the findings of the recent Fees Bureau report.
One note of caution is that we have received reports that the changes to Housing Association rent criteria seem to be having a significant impact on sustainable delivery of affordable housing, particularly affordable rented housing, suggesting that there may be significant challenges ahead in the Housing Association sector.
Adrian Dobson is executive director members at the RIBA and author of 21 Things You Won’t Learn in Architecture School