A longstanding deadlock was broken at January's riba Council meeting when David Yorke obtained agreement that the institute should 'establish its own specialist register in building conservation for its architect members'.
We now have to await details of proposed arrangements and their effect. For example, how does an architect gain access to the register? How will it be maintained, and what will be its scope? Will, and how will, English Heritage insist on dealing exclusively with only those architects listed on the approved register? How will the arb view such a register in terms of its own ambitions to deal with conduct and competence? All this will no doubt involve much deliberation on the part of those responsible for setting up this register, but we should in principle view this decision as a triumph of good sense.
Those against should realise that the register is, in part at least, a necessary response to a shift in teaching emphasis within our schools that has taken place over recent decades. Sadly, even the basic knowledge and skills involved in the repair and maintenance of building fabric are no longer routinely held by architects. Such abilities are acquired only by those who choose to develop their own expertise in these fields. There is the rub - let your average architect loose on listed-building conservation and you are increasingly likely to find that he is not up to the job. There is no point arguing about this - English Heritage has already had too many bad experiences to refute the allegation.
The counter argument is of course that specialist registers are the thin end of a dangerous and messy wedge that will culminate in an architectural profession sub-divided into a multitude of narrow specialisms to the great disadvantage of its members. You know, special advertising and registration fees as a pre-qualification for every building type from a health clinic to an ice-cream parlour - an outcome that denies our essential capabilities as designers able to respond to diverse challenges.
But this is to misunderstand the intent: the conservation register will not categorise according to design skill. Instead, it will endorse those architects who have the procedural competence and knowledge above that required for 'standard' entry into the profession, which is necessary for this specialist area of work. Nothing unusual . . . the medics do it! (Cardiologist, paediatrician, orthopaedist, etc.)
English Heritage is happy to allow the riba to establish validation arrangements, and in doing this the institute must of course be careful not to disadvantage its members by demanding standards higher than those of other professions, such as surveyors. The register will be for individuals as opposed to practices and this again raises many issues - especially for the Clients Advisory Service. (In this respect I can see many new opportunities for 'individual' architects who attain registration to work as consultants to larger practices that lack the particular expertise required.)
Provided the new register is set up properly, much benefit should accrue from this proposal in terms of the public interest, the interests of our profession, and the interests of those architects who do indeed carry sufficient levels of specialist skill and knowledge to 'qualify'. Those responsible for this initiative should be congratulated.