When is a borough architects’ department not an architects’ department?
When it is in Croydon Council, of course.
Claims made last month by one of Croydon’s most senior employees that the council was about to re-establish an in-house team of architects has been decried as “total nonsense”.
Inside Croydon‘s loyal reader may recall a report in the Architects’ Journal a month ago in which Colm Lacey, Croydon’s director of development, claimed the credit for this retro move to bring such services in-house.
Lacey even took time out from his busy daily schedule in Croydon’s Council offices at Fisher’s Folly to write a lengthy self-promoting article for the trade magazine.
Lacey explained that an in-house architects’ department was necessary to design a number of small-scale housing projects on council-owned sites because outside firms would not take on the work: “It seemed that the best of London’s architectural talent wouldn’t get out of bed for fewer than 30 units,” Lacey said.
The Architects’ Journal faithfully reported: “The London Borough of Croydon has created an in-house architecture practice to design housing schemes across the borough.
“The move bucks the trend of recent decades, which has seen councils ridding themselves of architects departments. Croydon said its new unit will assist a newly formed development company established by the council to deliver new housing on 80 sites it owns…
“…Chloe Phelps… will move to head up the unit… Her team will directly design some projects while leading stables of private practices on others in a ‘collegiate approach’.”
Note the use of the words “unit” and “team”, clearly suggesting that Phelps would have the responsibility for others within the in-house department.
But the Architects’ Journal was misled.
Inside Croydon has discovered that the Croydon Council architects’ department will consist of just one council employee, Phelps herself.
According to a response to a Freedom of Information request, asking for details of the staffing levels of the architects’ office, “There is one full-time member of staff (Design and Feasibility Manager),” the council was forced to ‘fess up. “Additional staff may be recruited on a project-by-project by basis where there is a cost and programme benefit of the design services being delivered in-house as opposed to external consultants.”
So, in fact, no different from the pre-existing situation, unless you happen to be a director of a council department apparently desperate to make yourself appear more important among your peers.
We asked the council for the architects’ department’s budget, and the answer provided under FoI was: “The budget will be based on an agreed fee per project to cover the costs of undertaking the design work. Projects will be undertaken in-house where there is a cost benefit of the design services being delivered in-house as opposed to external consultants.”
As for a business plan, “Design services will be delivered internally to the council where a cost and programme benefit can be identified on a case by case basis as opposed to procuring the services in a different way (e.g. via external consultants).” Or just as has always been the case for the past decade or so.
Negrini is in charge of what Croydon Council has given the ludicrous title of “Place Department”. That she is behind passing off one member of staff as a new internal architects’ “department” is clear from a further FoI response: “The role of Design and Feasibility Manager was created as part of the formal restructure of the Place Department. The establishment of posts and corporate structure is the responsibility of the Chief Executive/Chief Officers.”
Increasingly, Negrini appears to be taking decisions without much reference to Croydon’s elected councillors. It was Negrini, for example, who pushed through the deal to lend £3million of public money to Boxpark for them to set up some take-aways and bars in shipping containers next to East Croydon Station.
We asked a source with experience working at Croydon Council at a senior level about the realities of the architects’ “department”: “One person can hardly be considered as a new department,” they said.
“Croydon don’t seem to have been very honest in their announcement of a new department. It is hardly practicable to recruit on a job-by-job basis. They will be stuck with the cost of this new post irrespective of design fees and one can hardly hire and fire additional architects for each commission. Maybe they are thinking of agency staff.
“There is only mention of design. It is equally important to supervise and project-manage works, so I am not clear who will be doing that. Architects are traditionally not the best at the on-site work and employ Clerk of Works, quantity surveyors etc.
“The response indicates a half-hearted approach that is more about promotion of Croydon or vanity than a viable new department. To me it seems like a total nonsense.”
It may be worth noting that Negrini’s Place Department has overseen the building of just 12 new council homes in 18 months.
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