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George Oldham found guilty of misconduct over ‘ethnics’ email

George Oldham will take his case to the High Court after being found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct

George Oldham is to take his battle with the ARB to the High Court after being found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct over a leaked email in which he referred to Stephen Lawrence Trust candidates as ‘the ethnics’.

The ARB’s Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) gave its verdict at the end of a tense hearing on Friday (12 April) but allowed an adjournment to hear mitigating evidence before imposing any penalties on the 73-year-old.

Potential sanctions facing Oldham – who is a longstanding campaigner for ARB’s abolition – include a reprimand, a £2,500 fine, a two-year suspension or even erasure from the register.

The decision comes a year after the former Barratt chief architect was asked to resign from the ARB board after misdirecting an email which criticised RIBA president Angela Brady for supporting Stephen Lawrence Trust-backed candidates in last year’s ARB elections.

The email, sent to ARB Reform Group candidates and in error to the AJ, said: ‘Brady’s support for the “ethnics” is as inappropriate and irrelevant as is to be expected from her.

‘I had been looking forward to returning to the civilisation of the RIBA Council from the bureaucratic inanities of the ARB. Now I’m profoundly depressed, and am simply feeling “a plague on both your houses”.’

PCC chair Alexandra Marks said it was not alleged that Oldham was racist, but the ‘use of the word “ethnics” was […] capable of adverse interpretation.’

Marks accepted that both Brady and ARB chair Beatrice Fraenkel had drawn a line under the incident after accepting Oldham’s personal explanation. But she said others would have been ‘justifiably angry and shocked’.

In conclusion, the PCC chair argued Oldham was guilty of unacceptable professional conduct because, among other reasons, labelling the candidates ‘the ethnics’ was ‘unfair and showed disrespect to those candidates as individuals and to fellow professionals’ and was contrary to Standard 12 of the Architects Code.

In a statement, Oldham described the hearing as ‘chillingly Kafkaesque’ and claimed: ‘No evidence at all has been offered to prove that any individual was harmed or that the reputation of the profession was in any way compromised.’

Speaking to the AJ, Oldham confirmed he had taken legal advice on making an application to the High Court for judicial review of the decision. He said: ‘I’m talking to my solicitor about judicial review. That would be the next step. It seems to me they haven’t got a leg to stand on.’

He added: ‘It’s certainly an injustice; they are not prepared to listen to hard evidence and it is completely disproportionate and they haven’t adopted the right procedures. On every count it is a travesty.’

Readers' comments (8)

  • Your reporter was not in Glasgow to hear the case against Oldham, or his defence. The only evidence that the Board brought against Oldham was merely that he had used the words 'the ethnics', which Oldham admitted. It did not explain how the use of (what is in fact) objective language could have been in any way pejorative of any individual, nor was there any evidence that anyone had been insulted or demeaned. Questioning from the PCC chair showed however that the PCC was prepared to consider a conviction on the basis of nothing more than a negative inference - the kind of justice that was prevalent in political cases 450 years ago and which has no place in a civilised society.

    Oldham, anticipating what the PCC was up to, denied the implied usage, and said that he had put the words in inverted commas to show he was doing nothing more lampooning the RIBA president. There was no other evidence against Oldham.

    The finding against Oldham, which I also heard, was based entirely upon a case that had been invented by the PCC. It bore no relationship either to the charge or to the evidence. But what was of greater concern was that the golden thread that runs through British justice of 'innocence until proved guilty' was nowhere to be found. The whole process was a disgrace and an embarrassment.

    I well remember George Oldham, with a group of others including Kate Macintosh and Peter Ahrends, leading the RIBA's schools policy against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Arb has no memory of such matters and, it seems, has failed to learn any sensible discernment.

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  • Yasmin Shariff

    Ethnics or Ethics?
    The ARB needs to get its own house in order, starting with the Architects Act where the wording assumes that architects are male (eg see Section 4 (a) he holds such qualifications and has gained such practical experience as may be prescribed; or
    (b) he has a standard of competence which, in the opinion of the Board, is equivalent to that demonstrated by satisfying paragraph (a). )

    If the ARB is genuinely concerned about 'the ethnics' then I would like to see the wording of the Act made gender neutral and action taken on promoting fair access so that women and other discriminated groups are properly represented and remain on the register.

    Procurement and pay are two major issues. It is in the public interest to ensure that architects are fairly treated, especially in relation to public procurement.

    It would be great to see the ARB work with the RIBA to meaningfully tackle this issue instead of paying lip stick service to it.

    Yasmin Shariff RIBA/AA Council Member

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  • John Kellett

    Having just re-read Standard 12 of the ARB code of conduct I would very much like to understand from the ARB how using the phrase ‘the ethnics’ breaks that code. It would appear therefore that merely describing any aspect of a person’s appearance or character or background breaks the code implying that it is now impossible for anybody to be an architect in the UK.
    If a fellow architect describes me as ‘short’ (which I am) or who ‘looks down on me’ (they have to, due to my height), can I have them struck off the register? The implication from the PCC ruling is that I can! How odd.

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  • Kieran Gaffney

    “Conduct which falls short of the standard required of a registered person”
    In my view his conduct did fall short of the standard required. His e-mail was embarrassing.

    Calling someone ethnic is not the same as calling someone short, ethnic has a pejorative association I'm sure this is clear.

    That said I do find the ARB to be rather heavy handed and not sure it needs to chasing around after people like this.

    I fully agree with Jasmin Shariff on the language of the old boys club, ridiculous that these clauses are not gender neutral.

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  • George Oldham has been wasting the time and resources of ARB for years on unnecessary, spurious and irrelevant arguments between ARB and RIBA. Thank you Oldham for this ill-considered approach when the profession sinks lower and lower in the eyes of the general public. Heard the word co-operation when it comes to promoting the role of architects in society - I guess not. Your jibe about "ethnics" clearly has racial overtones and was meant to be divisive or you would not have couched it in those terms.
    Whilst I agree with Yasmin Shariff, one can hardly blame ARB for the wording of an Act drafted by civil servants and passed by politicians. Had Oldham not wasted ARB's time all these years then perhaps ARB and RIBA would have had the time to sit down together and lobby politicians to bring about such changes. Oldham's actions have clearly held back the profession in a time when much needed positive action was needed to promote the relevance of architects in today's society and as such, in my view, erasure from the register would be fully justified.

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  • I disagree totally with George Oldham's attempts to have ARB scrapped. Were he and the other members of the so called "action group" sucessful it is unlikely that its powers would be passed to the RIBA. The claim that ARB was set up as a "minimalist" organisation used by those seeking its abolition is not correct. I was President when the Act was passing through Parliament and the minimalist related to th size of the governing body. The 60 strong Board of Architectural Education was scrapped and the 62 strong ARCUK Council rduced to 15 - with seven lay members. As for ARB owers being reduced the oppoite was the case and the offence of "professional incompetence" added to ARB powers. Those who seek the destruction of ARB are misguided .Self regulation of "protected" professions is not favoured at present forobvious reasons. There would be the great danger of the statutory protection of the title "architect" would be abolished with catastropic consequences for the profession and the RIBA. Who would bother to train as an architect for 5 years when others would be calling themselves architects after short training courses - or with no training at all! Havibg said that the ARB disciplianry process are at times questionable and not properly considered. CertainlyI would support Geoge Oldhm's appeal against what appears to be a flimsey case that should never have been brought against him. Itlooks as though ARB has shot itself in the foot in this case.

    Owen Luder. RIBA President 1995-97when the Architects Act went through Parliament.

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  • I would like to point out that the ARB Reform Group stood only to hold the ARB to it's statutory powers and no more. Although some were all for going further and scrapping the ARB, several of us were not, myself included.

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  • This is a predictable result of the mindset of the ARB.

    They were created to protect the consumer from rogue architects and spend a budget of over £3m per year, however, they have had a very hard time trying to find something to do that wasn't being done adequately already by the RIBA.

    … so George Oldham gets elected to their board. A former vice president of the RIBA and founding member of the ARB Reform Group, his declared purpose was to restrict the ARB to its original functions, in other words to try to stop the ARB increasing their power and influence beyond what Parliament set it up to do. As this was not popular at the ARB; they were not comfortable with George up close as a board member… so similar to many despotic regimes, they found the least little excuse to put the opposition on trial… in this case for misplaced humour.

    It is impossible to put a "professional" spin on this. What George did had nothing to do with being an architect one way or the other, so to try to censure him with reference to "professional conduct" is absurd. No "ethnic" person complained, no-one called up the ARB to complain. Indeed, if anyone was offended, it would be because the email was leaked and published. It was tasteless but not meant to offend. If there is some law against joking about "ethnics" he should come before the law, but the ARB has no business relying on leaked emails to prosecute political opponents.

    Petty would be an understatement.

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