New white paper does nothing to tackle real threats facing profession, says Mark Middleton

Mark Middleton, Grimshaw

Mark Middleton, Grimshaw

The government launched its creative industries white paper at the end of last month which, in the wake of the Bazalgette review, looks to help “businesses innovate, access investment and skills, protect their ideas and export.”

Produced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in association with the Creative Industries Council (CIC), the document encompasses the games design, film, music, fashion and architecture industries. I am not sure why our profession is lumped together with games design as we have considerably different cultural capital.

Unsurprisingly, the white paper is big on investing in the regions to create “creative clusters” outside of London and the south-east. It also discusses the need to improve the talent pipeline through education and apprenticeships. But it contains little else.

The RIBA chief executive and CIC member, Alan Vallance, announced he was “pleased to have represented architects during the development of the Creative Industries Sector Deal” which seemed strange as there appeared to be little representation of architectural practices’ current concerns within the report.

If we take one of its focus points, “people”, the paper remains disappointingly silent on the issue of the talent gap facing the creative industries and there is no acknowledgement of our profession’s reliance on staff who will soon require visas to work here. Grimshaw, as an example, has 43% non-UK staff, with two-thirds of those coming from the EU. That pattern is repeated in most offices in London and the south-east. With the dreaded B word just around the corner, and with little certainty about the status of EU citizens working here, I wouldn’t be the first person to say we have resourcing crisis looming.

What is surprising is that even though the DCMS document states that “we must protect access to world-class talent to tackle existing and emerging skills shortages”, it doesn’t offer any practical help with this issue nor does it state that it’s even on the agenda to be dealt with. I’m surprised the RIBA didn’t mention this highly important topic during its consultation.

That’s not to say the document is entirely silent on people. The “new deal” commits to increasing the number of tier 1 visas available. This is aimed squarely at entrepreneurs with £2m to invest in the UK, which I’m confident rules out most architects.

It does make mention of the tier 2 shortage occupation list as a route for others to use but at present that list contains classical ballet dancers and visual effects animators but not architects.

Tier 2 visa applications are a long and laborious process, involving sponsorship and evidence that you have looked for a UK applicant. The biggest impediment for architecture is that most practices are SMEs and a lot of those are without large HR departments to help chart the tricky waters of an application. Surely opening up tier 2 visas to architects, with a commitment to streamlining the process, would have been more beneficial to us an industry.

If visas and access to talent is on one side of this equation, terms and conditions are on the other. Even if access to non-UK architects were solved, our relatively weak pound and the strength of other economies from which we traditionally get talent, such as Australia, New Zealand and America, makes it hard to attract people. London used to be a draw and its strength was that it was an exciting place to be, with the exchange of ideas generating its own creative energy – but you also received a salary that enabled you to enjoy all that London had to offer. It is fair to say that following the 2007 recession architectural fees and salaries haven’t fully recovered, meaning London now can’t compete on a salary/cost of living basis.

Indeed the capital now has to fight to get the best UK architects as well. With salaries for newly qualified architects working in Manchester and London only a few thousand pounds apart, many are heading to the north-west for a lower cost of living and the chance of buying a property of their own.

The engagement with the DCMS for this new deal was a great opportunity to put strategic measures in place to deal with imminent issues, but it looks like the industry’s governing body has fumbled it, again.

Proper consultations with practices and a rigorous and strongly worded mandate on behalf of the industry could have made a difference.

London-based firms have specific challenges ahead and it looks like government lobbying may need to come from the ground up.