RIBA FLOATS PFI BOYCOTT PLAN
It is not often that an issue arises out of the blue that shakes the great and good of the RIBA council from their collective slumber. Most of the issues that come in front of the institute's venerable trustees would be enough to send an ADHD kid with a king-size bag of blue Smarties off for a short cat-nap.
But last Thursday something fairly momentous happened. The council woke up, rubbed its eyes, and began to look properly at the real world that lies beyond its ivory towers.
In this case, the real world took the form of the very nasty and very brutish business of Private Finance Initiative schemes. While it is no great surprise that the council should be debating the pros and cons of the procurement method - it has looked at them on more than one occasion in recent years - what should come as quite a shock is that it seems, all-of-a-sudden, as if it might be about to take a stand.
And a principled one at that.
Under the leadership of its dynamic new chairman, Sunand Prasad, the policy committee has produced a policy document that looks at the structural faultlines in the PFI system, that all too often produce shoddy buildings more likely to encourage teenagers to go and shoplift at the local Woolworths than study for their future. Unsurprisingly, this document, which is also the brainchild of president-elect Jack Pringle, is going to morph into a charter - or guide, to you and me - on how the process can be improved in architectural terms.
'Not another policy document dressed up as a New Labour-style charter?', I hear you say. The difference is that this one might make a difference. How? Why? Surely not? Again, a questioning attitude is understandable.
The reason is that Prasad - with the qualified support of Pringle - has suggested architects should refuse to work with consortia or clients who refuse to sign up to the proposed charter.
While Prasad is reticent about using the word 'boycott' because of its militant connotations, that is what this policy would represent.
Imagine a situation where this 'boycott' actually took off - hundreds of commercial architects roaming the country 'encouraging' the money men and the contractors to sign up to a charter on design. A big step for architects and a very big step for PFI.
And this is what Prasad wants; less moaning and more action. 'I am sick of seeing architects waving their hands in the air complaining about the PFI system, ' he told the AJ after the council meeting. 'If it is really that bad then they should not be taking part.' Prasad and Pringle's charter, which remains in rough form for the time being, would include a guarantee that clients would use Design Quality Indicators, a commitment to whole-life costing and the early involvement of facility management firms.
The key aspect of the charter is the insistence that consortia must use best-practice standards to guarantee an extensive client-architect relationship.
This is the solution to the longest-standing gripe that the profession has with PFI procurement: that it is not possible to design a satisfactory building unless there are extensive communication channels between the design team and the client.
And what happens if consortia do not free up these channels? Boycott them.
'We often point to good practice and say that this is the way to do it, ' Prasad explained. 'But we have not said yet that we should not be involved if it is not adopted.
'Refusing to work is just an idea at the moment and not actually RIBA policy, ' he insisted. 'But it seems a very good idea to me.' But not everyone agrees.
Mike Nightingale, who has largely built his massively successful practice on the back of the PFI healthcare boom, warned that while a boycott was a brave idea, it might not have the desired results.
Architectural standards might even take a dive, he warned.
'My feeling is that this approach could be a little more subtle, ' he said.
'There is definitely the danger that less principled and less talented architects may come in and take up the work.
That would not be good. We do not want to end up pushing consortia in the direction of less scrupulous architects.' However, one thing is certain; this move is very brave.
Many harsh things have been said in recent years about the RIBA's ability to influence and react to external events, some fair and some less so.
Whether or not this criticism has been justified, it is refreshing to see some determined - and principled - action. Let's hope it works.