THE DEPARTMENT of the Environment has told local authorities that they must rely on their own architects, those working for other local authorities or the National Building Agency (NBA) to design any new social housing schemes from October 1st.
The revised arrangements, notified to local authorities last month, have been interpreted by private sector architects as a way of denying them commissions to design social housing – although this was denied by a source in the department.
A circular letter, issued at the direction of Minister of State for Housing Michael Finneran, gives local authorities three options of implementing new projects approved by the department under the much-reduced social housing investment programme.
They must either “utilise available in-house professional services to provide the required planning, design and management services for the project” or “enter into a shared service agreement with another authority to provide the required services”.
The only other option given to the local authorities is to “engage the NBA to provide the required planning, design and management services for the project, including the procurement of such additional professional services as may be needed”.
The NBA will also continue to be available to provide technical advice on major regeneration programmes, feasibility studies and projects proposed by housing associations, according to the circular letter signed by principal officer Eddie Lewis.
However, with more vacant houses being leased long-term to meet social housing requirements, the number of new housing projects being approved by the department is likely to be small – leaving local authority architects with less work to do.
According to the source, who did not wish to be identified, the purpose of the circular was to ensure that local authorities would look to their own resources in the first instance, or to other local authorities which might have in-house architects available.
The source also emphasised that turning to the NBA did not necessarily mean that its architects would design new housing schemes, as there was explicit provision in the new arrangements allowing it to commission private sector architects.
“The NBA is not being given additional resources,” he said. “The big issue is getting value for money.
“And the reality is that there’s going to be fewer social housing units built because of the leasing arrangements. Hence, there will be less design work”.
He pointed out that 9,000 units would be provided this year for people on local authority waiting lists, despite a 25 per cent decrease in the overall housing budget.
“That’s because there are so many vacant houses that can be leased long-term instead.”
At a function last week to open an international workshop on architectural education, Minister for the Environment John Gormley said it showed “an optimism that architecture . . . will be resurgent as a profession when our economies come out of recession”.