1998 promises to be the year when the Architects Registration Board kicks in, and when most architects around the country will somehow feel its powerful pincers.
First there'll be the so-called 'Whistle-blower's Charter', where architects will be asked to 'snitch' on their fellow professionals. Along the way there'll be the slow emergence of what exactly constitutes 'incompetence' or 'unacceptable professional conduct' to encourage the snitching in the first place, defined over time according to the pattern of disciplinary decisions by the professional conduct committee. And then there's the thorny issue of education, and arb's wish to take greater control, snuffing out the riba's part in the process of joint validation. Presiding at the arb's helm throughout will be a 45-year-old solicitor with a penchant for antiques, design and visiting historic houses: registrar Andrew Finch.
'We're here to protect the consumer but, in turn, if we do our job properly, it'll be to the benefit of the profession as well,' he says. 'If we give the public confidence in architects, they will use them, but we've got to get the confidence of architects as well.'
That may be the battle. Finch is a relatively new appointment, since the Board itself has only been around since last April - the summer months were spent formulating the new code of conduct. The world of architecture is still a foreign one to Finch, although he is design-aware enough to realise that the arb's 'depressing' leased accomodation where we meet is either in need of a total refurbishment (to designs drawn up by Howard Copping of Copping Lindsay Architects) or the arb needs to 'bite the bullet' and move into a new home with the kind of 'clean, minimalist designs' Finch approved of in a recent visit to Delfina's restaurant in Bermondsey. 'It was very basic, but with a certain style,' he says.
He got the job as registrar - in effect chief executive - through answering an advertisement in a national newspaper and convincing his interviewers he was better placed than more than 160 other candidates. His immediate experience of working for a statutory regulator - the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors - in complaint-handling and the disciplining of the legal profession obviously struck a chord. Admittedly the oss's parent, the Law Society, was a bigger pond, since Finch had 55 people reporting to him and 80,000 solicitors on the roll, but it is not, he says, so much of a change. Before he joined the society he read law at North London Poly, did his articles partly in private practice and partly with a water authority, and set up a practice at the frighteningly early age of 27.
He is concerned to prove value for money to the profession by establishing that the new-look board is indeed a lean, tightly-run operation - a review of the effectiveness and efficiency of the staffing is under way, which will report in January.
So how does he see himself? 'I'm a strategic thinker,' he says, 'and I hope I also have a common sense approach. Initially it's an inward-looking role, but I wouldn't want it to be that for more than six months. I perceive my job as strategy.'
Despite the flak that the arb has faced - in this magazine at least - Finch says there have been no difficulties so far. 'It's important that we should build good relationships with the charter bodies, and it's important we have a relationship with the riba.' Thus he is working with riba deputy director general and education director Chris Colbourne on formalising the education paper beforeconsultation.
On the issue of the complaints procedure, Finch says the arb's outlook is towards 'the ordinary people, the Mr and Mrs Bloggs', since the big clients will vote with their feet concerning the big practices. As yet there is no discernible pattern to these complaints, but as soon as one starts to emerge - perhaps two years down the line - the Board will turn its attention to becoming proactive by looking to the charter bodies. 'We don't want to be negative. If we feel we see a trend in problems then we'll say, 'Can you address this?''
Alas, the term 'incompetence', writ large in the introduction to the board's code, is indefinable, says Finch. 'No professional body does define it.' Instead, as the conduct cases come in and are determined, it is the trend based on the committee exercising its discretion which will inform the profession exactly how serious a matter it is. Of course, this means some guinea-pig architects on the borders will be on the receiving end of uncomfortable verdicts early on, but this is perhaps unavoidable, and neither will the whistle-blowers necessarily be anonymous.
'We'd like to see consistency. When I was in private practice (as a solicitor), it was in my interest to report - if we saw a problem with a local colleague it was in our interest to do so, otherwise the whole profession would suffer.'
There is no one issue towering in importance over the others for the arb, but the education policy is 'absolutely essential', Finch says. In the end his message to architects is simple, and, he says, in harmony with that of riba president David Rock: 'Ensure that you meet your customers' requirements,' he says. Otherwise the pincers may snap.