2020 ended with fragile growth in confidence

In the latest set of results (December 2020), the RIBA Future Workload Index returned the highest balance score (+10) since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst 20% of practices expected a decreasing workload in the coming three months, 29% expected workloads to increase.  Just over half expected workloads to hold steady.

Confidence was beginning to return beyond the Private Housing Sector (+14, up two points from November).  Both the Commercial and Public Sectors returned to positive territory for the first time since February 2020 – the Commercial Sector at +1, up from -19 in November and the Public Sector at +2, up from -7. The Community Sector recorded an improvement although remained negative, returning a balance figure of -8 this month, up from -13 in November.

Confidence among large and medium and sized practices also continues to strengthen. Smaller practices have returned to positive territory after a dip in November.

Reports of personal underemployment are lower than they were a year ago.  Workloads are reported to have rallied too; during the first lockdown they stood at 67% compared to twelve months ago; December results (taken prior to the third lockdown) were 95%.

London based practices remain negative about future workload with a -6 balance score in December, up slightly from -7 last month.

All other regions are positive about future workload: the Midlands & East Anglia returned to positive territory with +7 in December; the South of England at +8; Wales & the West at +22, up from +15 in November and the North of England was the most positive in December at +29 – the most positive outlook for the region since 2019.

Concerns about future practice viability remain, though have lessened. Overall, 3% of practice expect falling profits to threaten practice viability. 46% expect profits to fall over the next twelve months, 34% expect profits to stay the same, and 9% expect them to grow (8% don’t know).

In terms of staffing:

  • With a slight increase on the previous month, the RIBA Future Trends Staffing Index returned a figure of +2 in December.
  • 84% of practices overall expect permanent staffing levels to remain consistent (up from 81% in November).
  • 7% expect to see a decrease in the number of permanent staff over the next three months (the same figure as November).
  • 9% expect permanent staffing levels to increase (up from 8% in November)
  • The anticipated demand for temporary staff has stayed the same as in November, with the Temporary Staffing Index falling at -1 in November
  • London is the only region to return a negative permanent staffing index figure (-9) – down from -7 in November
  • In London, the balance figure for permanent staff is -7 (up from -8 in October)
  • The Midlands & East Anglia are anticipating a falling number of permanent staff. In contrast, other regions are positive, notably Wales & the West (+9) and the North of England (+8).
  • Personal underemployment is back down to 20%. That’s lower than both last month’s figure and that of December 2019.  At both times the figure was then 22%.
  • Staffing levels are currently 96% of their level a year ago.  Overall, redundancies stand at 2% of staff.  6% of staff now remain on furlough.

RIBA Head of Economic Research and Analysis, Adrian Malleson, said,

“The growing optimism seen in our December results is heartening, with workloads being just 4% lower than they were a year ago and an increase in confidence in the commercial and public sector areas. However, additional commentary stresses the twin uncertainties of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Understandably, these make 2021 a highly uncertain year and the construction  market may get worse before it gets better.”

“The disparity in confidence between regions continues. In December London results continued to highlight a concerning set of indices: future work predictions, future staffing levels, assessment of future practice viability and personal underemployment, which are all lower than elsewhere.”

“Some practices report projects being held up by delays in the processing of planning applications but there are also reports of Public Sector workload beginning to increase.”

“It is a mixed and changing picture but with an overall growth in confidence. Whilst this confidence is likely to falter in the current lockdown, there is hope that it will return, once restrictions are eased.”

“We continue to be on hand, providing support and resources to our members as they navigate these challenging times.”