Empire-building architects’ department doesn’t add up

CROYDON COMMENTARY: A former member of the borough’s engineering department, DAVID WICKENS wonders why the council is to re-establish an in-house architects’ department

I read with interest the council’s decision to resurrect an in-house architects’ department. As I recall the previous incarnation was disbanded in the mid 1980s.

architect plansGovernment legislation for compulsory competitive tendering in the 1980s to early 1990s resulted in the demise of a number of in-house services including architects, engineers and other professionals.

This legislation was replaced in 2000 with a slightly different approach, as it required that councils sought best value for which issues such as performance, effectiveness and quality became important criteria.

One of the main difficulties for in-house bids was that their council was the sole client and that, especially for construction-related services, continuity of workload could not be guaranteed. When councils were responsible for some utilities (for instance, water supply and sewerage) and major house-building and schools programmes, they could be quite competitive, with local knowledge helping keep costs down. However, in more recent times utility companies took that work back and housing associations took over most new social house building.

It is stated that Croydon Council is having difficulty in securing architects to undertake their housing work as it is relatively small-scale. “It seemed that the best of London’s architectural talent wouldn’t get out of bed for fewer than 30 units,” Colm Lacey, the council official in charge of the new department, told the Architects’ Journal.

The rate of council house-building in Croydon borders on the pathetic, especially given the number of people registered as homeless. Thus, to create a new architects’ department to improve delivery is very laudable and it might meet some criteria under the new 2000 regime. However, can it be best value in monetary terms and this is very important with cuts to council budgets?

Currently, the council is building around 10 homes per year. These might cost about £1.5million to construct. Professional fees would normally be in the region of 15 per cent, of which the architects’ share would be about 8 per cent. Thus, the cost of employing private sector architects would be around £120,000 per year.

Now it is proposed to establish an in-house practice working predominately on housing. Unless there is other fee-earning work envisaged, the cost of the in-house provision must be kept in the region of £120,000, otherwise it is unlikely to be best value in purely financial terms.

I would suggest that it is going to be a very small department given that one has to consider both salary and on-costs such as pension, employers’ NI, accommodation, expenses, equipment, recharges from other departments and so forth. An architect might be paid around £50,000, but I suspect the true cost of providing one full-time architect is going to double the basic salary figure, giving £100,000.

Without a significant increase in house-building or other fee-earning work, then the new department is going to have to be restricted to just one or two people if it is not to fail on the financial aspects of best value.

I suspect, though, that Croydon Council has something more ambitious in mind. I wonder what workload they envisage?

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