And there is more good news – charge-out rates are rising for sole principals by as much as 8%, and there is less regional divergence between rates; surveyors in northern England and Scotland are finally seeing their rates improve.
Now for the bad news. Consultants agree that growth in the public sector is helping to fill their coffers, but not all sectors are performing equally well. And many wonder whether the growth in public-sector fees can be sustained – especially as more and more clients are turning to online reverse auctions to choose their project QSs.
Can you rely on the public sector?
"Major clients are starting to ask consultants to bid on the internet – hair-raising stuff, as the lowest bid always wins," says Roger Fidgin, senior partner at Gardiner & Theobald. "The sector is highly buoyant, but it's also likely to get more competitive – and it's hard to compete."
Fidgin says he expects to see the public sector make more use of online tendering, despite the government's support of best value procurement. "I'm not saying there's necessarily a conflict there – the consultants who are chosen to bid are checked out in terms of their value for money. But they will still be looked at in terms of cost at the final round."
Consultants agree that a dip in fees for office and retail jobs is likely to encourage more practices to bid for health and education work – further stepping up competition in the public sector. According to the survey, fees in small retail jobs have dropped as much as 0.5%, and in the office sector by 0.2%.
QSs have mixed views about whether this downward trend is going to continue. Danny Chalkley, director of NAP Sherwin, says his London-based office is still receiving plenty of expressions of interest for small-scale commercial jobs. "We're not feeling the downturn in the office sector – in fact, our fees have gone up slightly." Others, though, are less sanguine about the prospects for commercial work and even worry that events in the Middle East could send it deeper into the doldrums.
"Over the next year I'm expecting to see a steadying off in work," says Ken Cowdery, partner at London-based Measur Construction Consultants. "Our developer clients tell us that banks are already cautious about the prospects for the market over the next year. If something went off in the Middle East, that'd create uncertainty in the market and that could have a knock-on effect for us."
Although the outlook for many sectors is uncertain, most consultants agree that fees in the infrastructure market are set to grow. Richard McGill, senior partner at EC Harris, says there are not many companies that are expert in the area, which means that fees are likely to keep rising. "Infrastructure, especially anything to do with PFI, is a huge growth area and at present there are few players in that market," he says. "Fees will continue to rise as demand for services increases."
Consultants agree with the survey's findings that the hourly rates for senior QSs are at last seeing step increases. Gardiner & Theobald's Fidgin says surveyors are getting more confident about demanding an "economic" rate for their time. "Our rates still fall short of those charged by other professionals like accountants and lawyers, but we're now getting bolder about charging for what our time is worth," he says. Fidgin says that, whereas rates used to be paid out of the general fee charged as a percentage of a project's cost, senior QSs are now getting used to charging by the billable hour.
The increase in partnering work could be a factor that is pushing up charge-out rates. "Partnering and framework agreements are helping to stabilise rates," says Vincent Clancy, managing director of cost consultancy at Turner & Townsend. "Clients working in this way are prepared to pay for quality people. But rates still have to be competitive; partnering certainly doesn't mean getting showered in cash."
In contrast to their seniors, junior surveyors are not enjoying any hike in their fees. Most consultants say these rates, which jumped as much as 25% in some regions last year, are now at a stable, competitive level. Few consultants anticipate large increases in the future, despite the continuing shortage of entrants into the profession.
Overall, consultants are expecting a competitive year ahead as companies chase the growing markets. As Clancy says: "Companies are swift at diverting their resources to where there's most work – and though charge out rates are increasing, you've got to be very good to sustain them."