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Fall in number of architects working for local authorities

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The number of architects working in-house for councils across Britain has dropped by a tenth in the last four years, according to new research by the AJ

A detailed investigation of the Architects Registration Board register, which covered more than a third of the UK’s 326 local authorities, found 41 fewer architects employed at the same sample of councils in 2015.

This represented a 9.7 per cent dip from the 421 registered architects at these 128 authorities four years ago (380 registered architects).

Alarmingly, 24 councils from the AJ’s sample – more than one in six – seem to have gone from having at least one architect on board in 2015 to having none today. Ten of those were from the Midlands or East of England.

Hampshire County Council has retained by far the largest number of registered architects, with 42 on its books. But even this was a slight dip from 44 in 2015.

London’s boroughs, however, bucked the downwards trend with the total number of architects employed rising from 29 to 44. Glasgow City Council also saw its headcount rise.

Local Government Association planning spokesman Martin Tett said councils were facing an increasingly tough financial landscape. While last year saw an increase in the planning fees councils can charge applicants, this was not enough to ensure sufficient capacity. 

‘The government should urgently implement the additional 20 per cent increase it consulted on in 2017 and also test a fair and transparent scheme of local fee setting, giving councils the flexibility to set appropriate fees to reflect local circumstances,’ he said.

‘Between 2010 and 2020, councils will have lost almost 60p out of every £1 the government had provided for services; councils in England face an overall funding gap of £8 billion by 2025.’

He added: ‘The government needs to use the upcoming spending review to tackle the funding crisis facing the vital local services our communities rely on, including planning and built-environment services.’

Leading figures in the profession expressed dismay over the drop.

Perkins+Will principal and former RIBA president Jack Pringle told the AJ: ‘Anyone dealing with local authorities over the past few years will have noticed the chronic lack of skills and professional capacity in their technical teams. To hear that this is getting worse is really worrying and will become an even bigger drag on development.’

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire added: ‘The decline in the number of architects working in the public sector is another example of the impact that funding pressures are having on local government.

Cutting budgets for planning and development teams is short-sighted

‘We’ve been clear that cutting budgets for planning and development teams is short-sighted. Without properly resourced planning departments it is impossible for local authorities to have vital and timely discussions about design quality.

‘The loss of design experience and the high levels of staff turnover are having a negative impact on the built environment and the quality of service the public receive.’

Another former RIBA president, Owen Luder, observed that during the post-war local authority-led construction boom almost half of all architects were employed directly by councils. But that number has dropped dramatically over the last 40 years. 

‘My guess is the reduction picked up in your figures and others is mainly councils cutting costs to balance their budgets. As many councils have a record of being very poor at looking after their buildings, it may be a false economy,’ he said.

At Glasgow City Council, where the number of architects has risen from 18 to 22 over the past four years, a spokesperson said that over the last 15 years most of the council’s capital programme had been designed by its in-house architects and engineers.’

‘The council currently has an internal multidisciplinary design team resource of 100, including 22 ARB-registered architects,’ they said. ‘Retaining such a rich pool of talent, experience and expertise within the council leads to a consistent approach to design methodology.’

Meanwhile, Hampshire County Council leader Roy Perry said the local authority had valued the role of architects since the department was headed Colin Stansfield Smith in the 1970s and 80s, and that their architects continued to win design awards. 

‘We are fortunate that in Hampshire, because of its scale and resources as one of the largest local authorities in the country, our county council is able to retain in-house capacity,’ he said.

Lepe jimstephenson 12 midres index

Lepe jimstephenson 12 midres index

Source: Jim Stephenson

The Lookout at Lepe Country Park, designed by Hampshire County Council

Enfield Council head of planning Vincent Lacovara said he was unsurprised by the AJ’s findings.

‘Local authorities have had to face significant funding cuts over a number of years and this has had an impact on many areas of local authority capacity, including planning and design skills,’ he said.

But Lacovara – who used to work at Croydon Council on the other side of the Thames –- was one of several figures to express hope in the future of council-run architecture.

‘There are positive examples of places where the trend has been broken,’ he said. ‘It is essential that we learn from these pioneers and have more, not fewer, people with design skills – including architects – working within local authorities.

‘Building the design and planning capacity in local authorities is critical to addressing the challenges that we face as a society. At Croydon we increased the number of design-trained officers, including architects, over a number of years in the face of a challenging budget landscape. Other pioneering authorities are doing the same.

Ken Rorrison - who worked in Hackney Council’s architects department in the 1980s and has rejoined three decades later as the east London local authority’s strategic design manager, said the reported drop in employment of architects at councils was ‘sad’.

We’re seeing an increasing number of architects applying, and becoming project officers and project managers

But he added: that his experience in recent years was that ‘interest from architects in working in the public sector is ever increasing. In Hackney’s regeneration, where we are direct delivering homes, we are seeing an increasing number of architects applying, and becoming project officers and project managers and, like myself and my colleague, who are both architects, design managers.

Architects in local government per local authority

Architects in local government per local authority

Colm Lacey, chief executive of Croydon Council’s development firm Brick by Brick, said: ‘There are a number of councils now with arms-length companies but they would tend to bring in their own architectural resources – typically resi specialists – rather than use architects who have been working for the council, who are often public realm/planning specialists.

Social enterprise Public Practice has been seeking to reverse the fall in architects working for local authorities. Over the past year it has been organising one-year placements for architects at councils’ planning departments.

Its chief executive Finn Williams said that after some dark years for state employment of architects, the picture was beginning to change.

‘We’ve now reached a turning point where many authorities are realising that short-term savings are bringing longer-term costs – for example an increasing reliance on agency staff. From Barnet to Salford, councils are bringing outsourced planning services back in house.

‘These councils are coming to Public Practice to find architects and urbanists to fill new kinds of roles. We had over 75 expressions of interest from authorities for our second cohort. Over 90 per cent of these placements are brand new roles, from helping councils to start building homes again to masterplanning new garden communities. For the first time in 40 years, I expect the number of architects in the public sector is now beginning to rise.’

An anonymous former council architect: ‘We refused to comply’

One architect who worked in a city council from 2005 and to 2007 told how mutiny broke out after its architectural skills were outsourced to fit political ideology.

Architecture always made a profit for the council but the department was closed in 2008.

Sometimes another department within the council, such as sports and leisure, wanted to spend more money than was necessary on a project to ensure next year’s budget allocation was as large as the year previously. Using the in-house architects meant that this was difficult.

The council tried to sell the department to an outsource provider that would supply architectural services back to the council, but this fell through as most became disgruntled and left.

There was no respect either for the [external] provider. Architects want directors who are architects, not people whose sole goal is to land government contracts as middlemen.

Architecture is a knowledge-based industry and we used to laugh as the provider had no idea about architecture. Without compliant architects, it couldn’t operate. We simply refused to comply and provide information, including leadership, en masse. So everything stopped.

The council now outsources services from the private sector – often from the architects that were forced to set-up in private after leaving the council.

The authority pays more for the same services and does not have the in-house support.

Allister Lewis, head of technology at Ayre Chamberlain Gaunt

Lewis worked for two councils in southern England, said architects often became disillusioned after changes in the way buildings were procured and departments were run.

Over time, funding sources have changed with clients wanting to explore different procurement routes. One result of this was that some secondary schools were required to go down a design and build route, rather than traditional delivery led in-house.

At the same time, restructuring led to changes which may have resulted in some architects leaving.

Less pay, better hours in councils

Luton Borough Council project design and delivery manager Toby Maloy worked for eight years in private practice before moving to the Bedfordshire authority four years ago.

’It’s great,’ he said of his current role. ’I get a wide variety of projects, my clients are generally trying to do their best for the town and architect opinion is often sought by different council departments. I got paid more in private practice but the hours at the council are more suitable for family life.’

Maloy said he hadn’t noticed any greater difficulties hiring architects in the public sector than he had in private companies. He added that his current employers encouraged him to win external projects as well as benefitting from internal work from the council’s extensive network of housing and infrastructure-related schemes.

‘At Luton we have tried to keep services in-house where possible,’ he said. ’Every council has their own views and in the age of austerity perhaps some architects were seen as a luxury. Our architects turn a profit and are seen as an asset.’ 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • The national total of architects working for local authorities is now only slightly greater than the 350 working in the LCC architects at its height. In 1981 there were 769,996 council homes in London, providing decent housing. Last year's national estimate of rough sleepers was 4,677, 165% greater than 2010, while the No of properties in England, empty for more than 6 months, rose 5.3%.

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  • I worked for a local authority for 13 years. I remember our department being warned that there was discussion at high level about the Architects department being given the chop, because the amount of award shortlists and wins we were achieving meant we must be spending far more than was needed to just get the job done.

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