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The RIBA needs to be more open and reveal its inner workings

The presidency of the RIBA and the role of the council has become an almost ceremonial front to an institute in crisis, says Christine Murray

It is good for once to see the RIBA doing its job in a simple, uncomplicated way. In recent years, the 28,000-strong membership organisation has been mired in bureaucratic scandals, from deficits and failed no-confidence votes to rumoured in-fighting between the council and the board.

The presidency of the RIBA and the role of the council has become an almost ceremonial front to an institute in crisis - as the recent disconnect between the onerously PQQed competition to design the RIBA headquarters and Walter Menteth’s excellent work on procurement reform shows.

This week, we were passed the RIBA’s paper for the Labour party, written by RIBA president Stephen Hodder, commissioned to influence and inform the party’s former planning policy.

Inside, a strident Hodder writes that the coalition’s planning changes have embedded ‘a short-termism at the heart of the system which overrides any recognition of the longer-term costs that poor development will bring to communities and the public purse. The rules on viability are increasingly undermining the ability of councils to take decisions which promote sustainable development and this has been compounded further by the dismantling of the infrastructure needed to promote good design outcomes. The abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and CABE, coupled with deep cuts to planning departments has left a void in design expertise and capacity. Local authorities are now stuck between a rock and a hard place.’

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Please excuse the lengthy excerpt - but I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is the kind of language we have been waiting for - a surprise and a relief to see it come from the RIBA, given the recent impotence of its mealy-mouthed press releases, which ‘welcome the government’s’ this and ‘express concern’ about that.

It’s also a hopeful sign for Hodder’s presidency - but he will have much to overcome. We know there are intelligent people doing good work within the RIBA, such as Hodder, Angela Brady and Menteth, but we are also told of the ‘grave concern’ of councillors regarding the institute’s current state of affairs. And the voices are getting louder: the AJ has uncovered three motions that will be tabled at next week’s council meeting, including former RIBA president Owen Luder’s request for an independent review of the institute’s deficit budgeting, as well as Brady’s concerns over council participation and Menteth, again, on procurement.

The institute’s embarrassing, but welcome, U-turn on the RIBA headquarters competition shows that it is capable of getting its ducks in a row. But as with the competition debacle, its hand must be forced. Members should raise their voices, demanding more transparency from this organisation and its secretive inner workings. In the meantime, we at the AJ will continue to report on what we find.

 

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