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The ARB should be abolished

Paul Finch’s letter from London: Why do architects need a regulatory body at all?

Headlines about the Architects Registration Board (ARB), the Reform Group, the RIBA, its president and the forthcoming election only serve to mask the real truth about compulsory regulation of the profession. That truth is that the ARB should be abolished.

To deal with minor points: first, if George Oldham is a racist then I am Rem Koolhaas. Second, I have no idea why the RIBA is promoting its own special slate of candidates for the ARB elections, but it is perfectly entitled to do so. As a long-time contributor to the life of the institute and as people who have long campaigned for a rational registration board, Oldham and others also have a right to express their concerns.

The real question is why the board is needed at all. The conventional argument, trotted out ad nauseam when deregulation was mooted in the early 1990s, is that it protects the public thanks to the Hercule Poirots of Hallam Street. Of course this is all baloney.

Let’s remember that the ARB is in no position to compensate a client who has been really badly served by an architect; they would have to go to court to get damages. But anyway, is it the case that aggrieved construction clients are mainly upset over the service delivered by architects? Certainly not. It is builders, in all their myriad forms, that attract the ire of the general public. Is there an equivalent of the ARB for constructors? No. Is there one for engineers, who actually make buildings stand up? No. Is there one for surveyors, including the valuers who have landed the property sector in one of its highly predictable messes? No.

So why are architects picked on? It is because ideas about professionalism and the professional status of architects are hopelessly mired in the past, specifically 1931 when legislation created the ARB’s predecessor, the unlamented Architects’ Registration Council of the UK. There may have been a case for it when architects ruled the roost, acted quasi-judicially, and operated in the sort of hierarchical social structure that was commonplace in the 1930s. A permanent reminder of that period is the appointment to the ARB of non-architect members by the Privy Council.

These days, the consumerist arrangement looks increasingly irrelevant, with the audit ideology beloved of accountants, lawyers and project managers shot to pieces after 2008. The ARB now finds itself cleaning up where somebody has been prosecuted, like the road-sweeper after Trooping the Colour. Where it takes up a case independently, it is usually architects one has never heard of being disciplined under procedures that look as though they have been invented by Mr Pastry. Complaints can be brought by vindictive people who don’t have a case in civil law, but risk nothing by going to the board.

So the ARB plods on, judge and jury, chief prosecutor and witchfinder general, in a fantasy world where sloppy record-keeping and processes have to be rooted out so the public can sleep safely. As for architectural education, the board merely replicates and irritates to no effect.

The board handles a minute number of mainly tin-pot disciplinary cases each year at extraordinarily disproportionate expense. The government is not interested in doing anything about it because it is architects, not taxpayers, who foot the bill. Edwin Lutyens was right in opposing regulation when it was first proposed; I would love to think the profession might one day get off its knees, collectively refuse to pay the uncapped tithe that the ARB imposes, and watch it end up in the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Keith Dicken

    Well said Paul.

    If we collectively withold the fee they can't prosecute us all for describing ourselves as architects. There are other ways to justify the title and ARB has never defended the role of architect.

    I have been concerned at the number of cases during past years that have involved qualified architects who are entitled to registration who have be fined for describing themselves as architects when they haven't paid their fee.

    The true "Cowboys" remain in their own world.

    The government ministers talk of "tough decisions" well for me this would not be tough at all. Cut this self fulfilling body and save everyone's fees and p.s. can I have my money back from the refurbishment of the premises.

    Keith Dicken (Taunton)

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  • Paul McGrath

    If the ARB was to be abolished, what would replace it? That needs to be explained by Mr Finch as it is not clear whether he favours continuing the legal protection of the tile of "architect" or abandoning it. Or whether he is advocating the RIBA take over the role of competent authority for the purposes of the Directive and hold the 'register' presuming a register is actually necessary.

    If the logic is the ARB is abolished only for the RIBA to step in, I would support the original principle of the ARB and its total independence from the RIBA.

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