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RIBA presidential candidates should stop playing safe


One of the occupational hazards of standing for RIBA president is the inevitable outbreak of nostalgia for some imagined era of top-quality candidates and razor-sharp debate. The contrast between the newcomers and past and present presidents is made all the more acute by the fact that the latter have benefited from the intensive media training which is one of the perks of the job. Annette Fisher, George Ferguson and David Thorp have to contend with the fact that the last two presidents enjoyed a public profile before they joined the election fray - Marco Goldschmied had the kudos of his position at Richard Rogers Partnership, while Paul Hyett had established notoriety through his column in the AJ.

The current presidential hopefuls remain elusive, determined to downplay the characteristics which most obviously differentiate them in the eyes of the electorate. Fisher, who, if elected, would be the first woman and the first black person to hold the post, opened her speech at last week's debate with the words:

'I am not a woman and I am not black.' The unwillingness to be typecast is understandable, but could become self-defeating when applied to policy as well as personal qualities.

During the debate, Fisher reiterated her intention to raise sponsorship for the presidency; Ferguson expressed the view that only certain architects should be allowed to work with historic buildings; while Thorp announced that he would be happy to consider raising the RIBA membership fee to £1,000 a year - three potentially incendiary policies with the makings of a highly contentious campaign. Yet each of these points had to be teased out of the candidates, all of whom seemed happier to dwell on the areas of consensus - notably their shared belief that public relations should be a vital aspect of the presidential role. Safe ground - but not enough to flatter the electorate that it is voting on policy as opposed to personality. It looks as though the post will go to the first candidate to decide that the way to win friends is to demonstrate a willingness to make foes.

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