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RIBA councillor demands 'culture change' at Portland Place

A letter from RIBA councillor Ben Derbyshire to his 59 fellow councillors, uncovered by the AJ, calls for the institute to focus on its members

In the email, Derbyshire says the RIBA needs to ‘offer [architects] better value for their subscription’, give ‘more clarity in the ethics of professionalism’ and become more of a mouthpiece for the industry.

Derbyshire is managing partner at HTA Design and was elected to council last year. He has vowed to drive through a ‘major shift in the [institute’s] strategic emphasis’, calling on his fellow councillors to unite ‘to give the institute the leadership and direction that it needs’ (see AJ 24.07.14).

He says: ‘I believe we must to restore an appropriate balance between the RIBA’s role as a promoter of architecture on the one hand and as an association of architects on the other.’

As part of this ‘clear cultural change’ Derbyshire sets out a 10-point action plan which he hopes will go some way to repairing the ‘growing disconnect between the membership and their aspirations and the RIBA’.

When contacted Derbyshire refused to comment on the contents of the email.

The RIBA said it would not be responding to Derbyshire’s comment.

Letter in full

Dear Fellow Councillor,

Architects Leading

You may be aware of my view that Council should take the opportunity of its newly confirmed Trustee status and the task of setting the next five year strategy for the Institute, ‘Leading Architecture 2’, to signal a clear cultural change at the RIBA. This is particularly timely in view of the conclusion of Stephen Hodder’s recently published and inspired research, ‘Client & Architect’, which reveals that our clients want and need us to take the lead once again.

I believe we must move to restore an appropriate balance between the RIBA’s role as a promoter of architecture on the one hand and as an association of architects on the other. I am writing in an attempt to clarify how much support exists for this proposition among fellow councillors and so I would be grateful to hear from you about this.

In both the member consultation undertaken as prelude to drafting the strategy and also in the discussions I have had with members of Council, as well as others who do not currently participate in RIBA affairs, a clear theme has emerged. Architects feel the RIBA needs to offer them better value for their subscription, more clarity and definition in the ethics of professionalism, more support and more of a voice in the various challenges that lie ahead. In the words of one, we need to do more to repair the ‘growing disconnect between the membership and their aspirations and the RIBA’.

There is nothing in our Royal Charter to prevent members taking the lead - in the Institute, in society and in seeking to attract new blood as part of the Institute’s approach to marketing. To put it another way, rather than ‘Leading Architecture’ , ‘Architects Leading’ should be our rallying call. It is about allowing members rather than the executive to lead and become the voice of the Institute.

Neither is it necessary for this culture change to signal a bout of organisational introspection - quite the reverse, in fact. If the resources of the Institute were to be channelled to support architects to debate, promote and communicate through the good offices of the RIBA we would surely benefit from a multiplier effect applied to our outward facing communications, manifest in a variety of ways:

  • A renewed focus on value for money for members and a drive to increase numbers.
  • A shift of priority to supporting practices in their local markets - letting a thousand flowers bloom.
  • An outreach strategy that promotes diverse and innovative practice as much if not more than the stars.
  • A new status for members working groups - the engine room of the Institute.
  • A focus on members’ contribution to research and innovation.
  • A plan for the development team built on cross cutting collaborative research amongst practitioners.
  • Debate and discourse in the Institute amongst leading and new practitioners about new forms of practice.
  • A register of practitioners to speak for the Institute on different topics and themes.
  • A promotion about architects leading, not just in the development team, but in public life and commerce.
  • A priority to collaboratively develop and standardise a code of conduct/ethics across the built environment

And so on…

And it does not mean we ignore our cultural role. Indeed I see an increased role for the British Architectural Trust and its chair, Sir John Tusa, to promote a much more open source, high-profile programme of debate, discourse and academic research as well as exhibitions in the Institute.

Can we, as Council members, come together with sufficient clarity and purpose to give the Institute the leadership and direction that it needs? I believe so.

Council should respect the chairmanship of the President with the quid pro quo that the President works with the authority now vested in Council as Trustees. Council should endorse a consensus about clearly articulated overarching strategy. If that were to be along the lines I suggest above the overarching theme would be a new focus on ways in which we can improve and communicate quality and value for our membership - the lifeblood of the organisation.

I’d be grateful to hear your views.


Benjamin Derbyshire
Managing Partner
HTA Design

Readers' comments (6)

  • chris Dyson

    ARCHITECTS LEADING is a very poignant statement -
    I often think there is so much more we can achieve if we worked cohesively as a profession at many levels.

    One major cultural shift would be supporting and championing the Art of good design and the necessary recompense that pay for it - no one else will do it for us!

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  • Chris Roche

    It has been clear for several years in my view that the governance of RIBA needs a radical overhaul with democracy the first tenet of a new Council. The institute needs to represent all members equally irrespective of gender, race, age, location or status. RIBA should not stand for the Royal Institute of British Architecture as has been rejected by Council on a number of occasions but needs to focus on Architects. Individual members, and in particular RIBA Branches need to be fully engaged and adequately resourced to ensure active participation in the cultural, business, and political life of their local areas. RIBA is too London centric, and too concerned with promoting "award-winning architecture" at the expense of more critical issues such as shelter and a crisis in the shortage of affordable homes. I was shocked to discover Branches were given less financial support per member from their fees than the cost of a postage stamp to cover an annual mail-out. We need Change, and we need it Now - if Architects are to effect Leadership in Industry and Society.

    Chris Roche Founder 11.04
    Former RIBA Councillor.

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  • Chris: just to note that under the Local Initiative Funding scheme branches are encouraged to apply for funds for activities. This can also include contact with members for mail shots; though in our region, the Region puts out a monthly email update with all the branches activities listed, so you can see what others are doing too.
    This means that active branches can get far more funding that they ever did before. Under the old blanket funding scheme, some branches got the funding and did nothing with it - just built up reserves. There have been some ambitious branches in our area which done interesting events funded by the RIBA. But 'use it or lose it'! There are regular meetings with all the Regional Chairs - they are aware of this initiative which has been running for a few years..

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  • Councillors are in fact not all 'male and pale'! I would note that there seems to be far more women councillors as a percentage of the whole that there are women architects in the profession at large. Jane also has given very strong leadership over this issue for some time now.
    As a regional councillor myself, I strongly support activity and representation in the Regions - which is why I do not support a reduction in the numbers of Council as Ben has mooted in the past as this would directly impact on Regional representation.
    At present all Regions have a minimum of two councillors to ensure cover at meetings. But it is also weighted on numbers - which is why London has so many more Councillors. What is difficult for branches near London (I'm in Herts) is that many architects register their work address with the RIBA - so they appear on RIBA London's branch lists - not the branch where they live. Some branches close to London but not in London really do suffer. So it gives a more London-focussed bias in numbers. So - if you feel strongly about this...it's in your hands to make some change in the bias towards London.

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  • Let's not forget the cadre of RIBA Accredited Client Advisors which are the best kept secret in Portland Place. The proportion of buildings designed by architects is desperately low (under 10% being generally stated) and the lamentable quality of our built environment tends to reinforce this figure. We seem to have zero influence among parliamentarians so perhaps Mr Derbyshire's manifesto can help to move us into the sunlight of recognition and even compulsion to use us by clients. Let's focus on clients please.

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  • An architect as London Mayor should be a goal.

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