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ARB fine on architect threatens freedom of speech, say former RIBA presidents

Architect fined £1,000 over email criticism of National Park planners

Two former RIBA presidents have warned that the profession’s freedom of speech could be at risk after the ARB slapped a £1,000 fine on an architect for criticising a planning department.

The ARB found retired sole practitioner Adrian Russell guilty of unacceptable professional conduct after he submitted feedback on the performance of the Peak District National Park Authority’s planners.

According to the decision published by the ARB’s Professional Conduct Committee (see attached), Russell had sent an email to the park’s chief executive, Jim Dixon, claiming ‘named planning officers were lying, cheating, petty, vindictive and committed illegal acts; that the planning process stank of corruption, and that the chief executive was morally bankrupt’.

Russell’s correspondence, a response to Dixon’s request for comments about the authority’s planning service, which was copied to 23 local practitioners – was found by the ARB to be ‘inappropriate, offensive and/or discreditable to the profession’.

The register conceded it was entirely proper for Russell to raise his concerns, but ‘the manner in which he had done so had crossed the boundary of professional conduct’. It added: ‘It is not the function of this committee to explore the adequacies or inadequacies of the Peak District National Park’s planning department.’

However, former RIBA president Owen Luder said the case appeared to ‘impinge on freedom of speech’. He said: ‘If the Derbyshire architect was overly critical of the Peak Authority, it was open for it and its responsibility to reply as robustly as it wished in the press.

‘If the architect’s comments were slanderous or libelous, the authority could use the courts for redress. [But] to complain to ARB – and [for] ARB to […] find the architect guilty of unprofessional conduct was not only incorrect, but an unacceptable device to silence criticism.’

Ex-RIBA president Jack Pringle said: ‘This worrying ARB action is a warning to us all. The ARB seems to say that, even if Russell’s accusations are correct, he deserves to be fined for unprofessional conduct for using direct language (even if that language was not foul or obscene) and for distributing his views to potentially interested parties.

‘Russell is a classic whistleblower, unafraid of the repercussions of his actions. We need more of those, and in other areas, such as the NHS, they are being encouraged.’

AHMM’s Simon Allford described the verdict as ‘another absurd action by ARB’ with ‘very worrying implications for free speech.’ He said: ‘Architecture is nothing if not about ideas and the forming and expression of critical positions and perceptions.

‘All this, added to recent other news, only reinforces my view that we should get rid of the ARB.’

Simon Howard, the ARB’s professional standards manager, said: ‘The case brought against Mr Russell was not that he did not have the freedom of speech to make criticisms, but that the way in which he did so was inappropriate and unprofessional. In his own evidence the architect conceded that he went “a bit far” in the language that he used.’

Russell told the AJ that he would not be letting the ‘matter die’ and intended to appeal. He said: ‘The ARB has acted like a kangaroo court and I was questioned under oath as if I were a murderer. It was all geared towards the complainant.

‘I did admit my language (towards Dixon) may have been overly strong. But I felt justified and had the evidence to prove the main facts of what these words were based on.’

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