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REGISTERING DISAPPROVAL

It is perhaps not unusual for the world of conservation architecture to become heated and fraught with debate - one often hears that a row is brewing over one sensitive site or another. Rarely, however, does this world descend into internal warfare over professional organisations or institutes.

But two weeks ago this appeared to have changed drastically. The ARB's old nemesis, Ian Salisbury, turned his fury on a lesser known organisation called the Register of Architects Accredited in Building Conservation (AABC), sending an official complaint about the group to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

The complaint - which has also been brought up by other architects in the past fortnight - is a relatively simple one and concerns the route to AABC registration. Critics argue that it is extremely difficult to become signed up. And it would seem that they have a point.

The criteria for accreditation demand that architects prove that they have successfully completed five conservation schemes. This would be acceptable, critics argue, if the AABC, which was recently brought in-house to become the 'RIBA AABC', was seen as little more than a badge of honour.

But two years ago it stopped being a club for large conservation architects and became a very important factor for income streams for many architects around the country.

English Heritage (EH) and the Heritage Lottery Fund made the extraordinary decision that cash would only be granted to projects if the architect working on them was AABC registered.

To say panic ensued would be an exaggeration but it was not far off.

How does one complete the five schemes needed to join the AABC if one must already be a member to get any meaningful schemes? It was, and remains, a hugely reasonable complaint.

The decision in early 2003 to withhold grants to non-members sent shockwaves through the world of conservation. Architect Robert Adam said at the time the accreditation test would exclude younger architects. 'EH only allows you to do work if you are experienced but how do you become experienced if you can't get any work?' He said.

In addition, the fact that the source of last week's OFT complaint is Ian Salisbury really ought to concern the AABC; for if Salisbury turns even half the energy he used against the ARB on it, then it could soon find itself in trouble - he is nothing if not tenacious. The AABC is not on as firm a footing as the ARB, which used its legislative position so successfully to bat away Salisbury's attentions.

And to make matters worse, it seems that everyone connected with the process accepts that the AABC rules of accreditation are currently being bent to such an extent that the whole system is rendered a laughing stock.

Jim Cuthbertson, a conservation architect from Glasgow, where Historic Scotland has recently followed EH's lead to withhold grants to non-accredited architects, told the AJ that he was deeply frustrated with the current system. 'Architects are seeking ways around the problem, for example subcontracting the lead consultant role to a conservation-accredited architect - thus eroding the fee due to the architects who are doing all the work, ' he said.

'It is very difficult to see what this new arrangement will do to maintain or improve the quality of work carried out on the building, ' he added.

In addition, Cuthbertson claimed that in Scotland the AABC is seen by most practitioners as an exclusive club designed to ensure work is kept in the hand of the large elite. It is, he said, known as the 'Edinburgh club'.

Salisbury also provided evidence that there was a real problem with the rules of membership being bent. On one occasion, he said, he had complained to an EH officer that he was unable to join the AABC because he had only ever worked on one serious conservation job; the wholesale renovation of Leicester Cathedral. There is an easy answer, the EH officer apparently responded; divide the job into five separate phases and submit each as a different scheme. Salisbury claims he was told he would easily be accepted on to the register.

'Obviously I was unprepared to do that as it is wholly unprincipled, ' Salisbury said.

But where does one go for an argument in defence of the under-fire organisation? Who better than George Ferguson, the RIBA president who decided that the AABC should be brought under the umbrella of the Portland Place organisation? In addition, Ferguson's own practice, Acanthus FM, has itself been involved with a host of conservation projects.

However, not even Ferguson argues that the AABC is perfect, instead claiming that the RIBA was attempting to solve its problems. 'There is undoubtedly a question over the criteria for membership, ' he said.

'We need to look at it as it is a reasonable cause for concern.

'As for the OFT complaint, we'll have to wait and see about that when it reports its conclusions, ' he added.

If not even Ferguson is moved to throw his weight behind the organisation, who will? Things may change but the omens are not looking good. Do I hear the sound of knives sharpening?

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