Councils are ready to spend and they want architects’ input: make sure you are there and know how to play
Recent findings by the RIBA reveal a surprisingly bullish nascent attitude to capital expenditure among local authorities. It is surprising because, as we all know, public services continue to be savagely cut. However, another branch of government policy has seeped through some town hall corridors to re-emerge as what councillor Nick MacDonald, portfolio holder for jobs and growth at Nottingham City Council, loosely calls ‘the regeneration agenda’.
Look at the figures. According to the most recent government accounting, local authority spending in England on ‘new construction, conversion and renovation’ is expected to rise 45% to £12.5bn in 2014-15, while that on housing services is forecast to increase by 65% to £6.6bn. The biggest cultural change is the amount of borrowing not supported by central government, which is forecast to grow by a whopping 80% to £8bn in 2014-15.
One-to-one video interviews with council representatives confirm this trend. For example, MacDonald predicts many opportunities to create great architecture in Nottingham. His colleague David Bishop, corporate director of development and growth, anticipates an ‘exciting period’. John Betty, interim director of place at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, sees the reinvention of the city centre as the central plank in its regeneration. And Nick Watson, senior regeneration manager at Croydon Council, has developers knocking on his door to get a slice of the action.
This spurt of optimism is spurred by heady new fiscal and regulatory freedoms in the name of localism and decentralisation, which are galvanising local authorities across the country to produce fresh visions for economic recovery. Inevitably, investment in new built development is at the heart of this, and architects must take note.
‘The local community is the silent client – consulting them is the key foundation for future success’ Barra MacRuairi
Why? Because with increased spending and borrowing comes a heavy fiduciary burden to make it pay. As guardians of the public purse, local authorities need to maximise the value they extract from this regeneration, and for that they must turn to architects.
Indeed, local authorities need a range of architects with different skills, for two reasons. First, as conventional clients, local authorities need architects for their acknowledged design intelligence and consultation skills. This is especially true for flagship projects, whose design must be functional and accountable, but also emblematic of the authority’s ambition and aspirations. More than just buildings with a clichéd ‘wow’ factor, they must be strategically aligned developer-friendly adverts that inspire confidence that the regeneration is credible, under way, and sustainable.
Architects in demand
Second, architects are desperately needed to help formulate and endorse the regeneration strategy to set the right conditions for investment from private developers. In particular, their unique skills are needed to work out the spatial plan – how to implement the strategy on the ground by influencing the local planning system. After all, while local authorities understand the link between design and urban renaissance, they are less well equipped to deliver functional masterplans.
Since the demise of Regional Development Agencies and Regional Spatial Strategies, there has been a vacuum in the oversight of development. Now, however, the void has been partially plugged by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Stoke-on-Trent City Council is co-opting its LEP to inform its spatial plan. Betty wants to use it to allow his council to influence and effectively lead the standard of development and quality in the spatial management it expects from developers. He regards architects as ‘fundamental to how we build, change and make cities of the future appropriate for the society that needs them.’ He warns, however, that they must ‘masterthink before they masterplan’.
And of course, the more architects are involved, the more likely they are to be appointed to frameworks and win work directly from the authority or private developers in the region.
‘Talk to us, build the strength of partnerships, and help us to create the city that people want’ Ruth Rosenau, cabinet member for regeneration, transport and planning, Stoke-on-Trent
It would be wrong to characterise this spending as a frenzy – it is far too politically sensitive for that. Instead, it is a cautious gamble bound by prudential rules, and because of that architects do not have free reign to let their design creativity run riot. Local authorities are looking for what MacDonald calls ‘the world on a stick’ from them: creative genius tempered by the strict social, environmental and economic constraints.
The representatives of local authorities interviewed were unanimous in their appreciation of architects, saying they add greatest value when involved from the outset. As owner-occupier clients accountable to the taxpayer, local authorities want architects’ creativity to improve project viability and particularly whole life costs. They want a high quality end-product that attracts long-term tenants and is sustainable, easy to maintain, and can be adapted over time.
To get there, successful architects must show design leadership from the start and have the common touch – listen to all stakeholders fairly and respectfully, respond proportionately, and communicate appropriately. This cannot be over-emphasized. As Barra MacRuairi, strategy director for place at Bristol City Council, puts it, ‘The local community is the silent client – consulting them is the key foundation for future success.’ Laura Johnson, director of housing at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, agrees: ‘Good schemes have everyone’s buy-in, from the politicians to Mr Smith.’
However, successful consultation is merely one of several prerequisites – such as team co-ordination and creative problem-solving – of which perhaps the most desirable trait of all is surety. Betty says, ‘Local authorities don’t like surprises. We have quite rigorous processes in the full glare of public scrutiny for how we make decisions and commit to buying a building. Understandably, we need reliability.’ This surety is equally sought by incoming development partners or contractors. Bishop describes this as ‘continuity of advice’ that attracts investment by giving certainty to developers, and manages risk.
So architecture is valued, needed and wanted by local authorities, but there is a suspicion that this in itself is not enough. Betty foresees a focus on delivery at the expense of quality. ‘What we are in danger of losing in the cost squeeze is the value of thinking, design and the understanding of space. Architects need to help educate clients about the value they bring.’ Barra MacRuairi is clear that architects’ free-thinking and problem-solving skills are rich and powerful, although concedes that ‘packaging them into something you pay for can often be difficult’.
The answer, perhaps, is proposed by Ruth Rosenau, cabinet member for regeneration, transport and planning at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Her one piece of advice to architects is to ‘talk to us, build the strength of partnerships, and help us to create the city that people want’.
TOP TIPS FROM PUBLIC
1 Build relationships with regeneration teams within planning departments; express interest and share ideas generously.
2 Respect local authorities’ need for whole life value, sustainability and design that drives economic, social and environmental health across their community.
3 Remember that people come first: local authorities’ first responsibility is to the community they serve.
4 Educate and reinforce the message that it is the added value of good design supplied by architects – and not building for building’s sake – that justifies capital expenditure.
5 Reliability and sure-footed risk management – surety – is prized by local authorities since their procurement activities are under intense public scrutiny.
6 Local authorities are obliged to follow strict procurement protocols; when pitching ideas, agree how services should be provided before investing too much time speculatively.
RIBA CLIENT ENGAGEMENT PROGRAMME
The RIBA’s Client Liaison Group is running a series of roundtable discussions to listen to and understand external perceptions of the architectural profession and the value architects bring to the project team, and ultimately to identify the tools needed to promote architectural services in these sectors successfully.
The feedback from interviews with public sector clients is included here, with 60 second clips of the one-to-one interviews available on architecture.com