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Under starter's orders

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Nominations are now closed in the race to succeed Ol' Red Trousers George Ferguson as the next RIBA president and campaigning is about to begin in earnest. Ed Dorrell looks at the widely differing agendas of the six candidates and the issues they believe might fire up the membership

So the race is on. After what seems like an eternity of frenetic manoeuvring, the final line-up is clear. Six candidates will fight it out for the opportunity to take over from George Ferguson and become the next president of the RIBA in 2005. But who are they, and why would they volunteer for a job that requires massive commitment for no remuneration?

There are more candidates this year than in living memory and they come from hugely differing backgrounds. At one end is Simon Foxell, a sole-practitioner working in primary schools; at the other Richard Saxon, the former chairman of Britain's biggest practice, BDP. In between there is an eclectic mob. Ian Salisbury, another sole practitioner and the bÛte noir of the ARB, is standing. So, too, are Brian Godfrey, a veteran who stood in 2000, Jack Pringle, the friend of the educationalists, and business lobbyist Valerie Owen.

Early favourite The out and out favourite is Saxon - if only because he is probably the biggest mover and shaker to have stood since Marco Goldschmeid in the late 1990s. There are many in the institute relieved that there is a candidate that can be taken seriously this year. Let's be honest, the days are gone when the likes of Norman Foster or Richard Rogers would consider devoting two years of their jet-setting lives to the RIBA. They are too busy bending the ears of ministers in Westminster.

Saxon is taking a middle-of-the-road path on policy. He has clearly set out to offend as few people as possible, steering away from controversy. He paints himself as a sensible moderate - a safe pair of hands that would do little damage to the profession.

On the issues that seem to matter in this year's race - the Private Finance Initiative and the Architects' Registration Board - Saxon claims to be critical and serious. And yet there is very little that will anger anyone in his campaign literature. Going on previous elections, rather like in national politics, it is the candidate who secures the middle ground and is the most difficult to budge who is likely to win.

However, Saxon has a number of problems with his candidature, mainly revolving around his relationship with BDP. The vast majority of the institute's membership are sole or small practitioners with no interest whatsoever in the machinations of big London-centric offices. In fact, most of them are downright hostile. They will not easily forget Paul Hyett's famous speech to the 2002 RIBA conference, warning them that the future was bleak for the small practice and informing them that the only way most could continue to exist would be by merging or entering into formal alliances with other small firms.

This is not something most sole practitioners want to hear. Instinctively they are more likely to support one of their brethren, for example Simon Foxell.

Like Saxon, Foxell is manoeuvring to secure the middle ground. The quietly spoken small practitioner from north London has been one of the institute's most loyal servants in the past few years and currently chairs both the Small Practice Committee and the London Region. In 2002, he produced the RIBA's PFI policy document and has also co-written a pamphlet on the future of the profession.

Perhaps Foxell's main problem is that he is so understated. Although clearly bright, he rarely blows his own trumpet and, bizarrely for someone who wants to be president, often seems keen to avoid the limelight.

Mainstream advantage The last of the mainstream candidates is current vice-president for education Jack Pringle, a founding partner of the large London practice Pringle Brandon. He has several advantages: although a large firm, his office is relatively low-profile and is unlikely to alienate the very many small practitioners in the same way as Saxon. He is also charismatic and personable. But Pringle's trump card is that he seems to have banged out a series of policies that will differentiate him from the other big - name contenders. He has committed himself to a conflict with the government on the future of the Private Finance Initiative - which he believes is 'damaging for both architects and architecture' - and the ARB, which he argues is acting well beyond its remit.

Beyond this trio, the three other candidates are hard to characterise. The most unusual is Owen. If elected, she would be unlike any president in the institute's history, and not just because she is a woman.

Although an architect, planner and surveyor, she does not practise in any of these fields, instead choosing to head up the business lobby group London First.

Owen has the backing of London Eye architects David Marks and Julia Barfield and can expect support from some of the capital's more commercial architects. However, the success of her campaign - which will inevitably focus on her business credentials - rests on whether she can garner the votes of the silent majority outside London.

Another defender of the mass membership is Brian Godfrey. Gruff and angry, this West Country practitioner would tap into mainstream concerns, such as rejecting the possibility of subs increases unless they are very necessary. He has stood before; a move that sparked widespread discontent among his fellow councillors, many of whom were desperate to see him fail. Godfrey's decision to throw his name in to the ring is bad news for Foxell. As the only runner on the small practice-ticket, either might stand a chance of succeeding Ferguson. But with two, the vote will inevitably be split.

Finally there is Ian Salisbury. If nothing else his candidacy will answer one old question:

just how much do ordinary architects care about the actions of the ARB? Salisbury, a former councillor, is keen to paint his campaign as a lot more than just about the ARB, but it is very hard to imagine it as anything more than a one-issue ticket. If the voters decide that they really do hate the board as much as Oxfordbased Salisbury believes they do, then he stands a chance, in fact a very good chance.

And the ARB will be badly shaken up.

Only one thing is certain in this election, and that is that nothing is certain. But the AJ is sticking its neck out to predict how we see the final outcome in late June.

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