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Ben Derbyshire: 'I'm not known for being backward in coming forward'

Ben Derbyshire
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In his first interview after being elected the next RIBA president Ben Derbyshire sets out his plans for the institute

How does it feel to be voted in as the next RIBA president?

Rewarding and daunting in equal measure. I’ve been overwhelmed with support and good wishes from so many. It feels a substantial responsibility to meet their hopes and expectations for the future of the institute.

Just 8 per cent of RIBA members voted for you, what will you do to engage those who didn’t vote?

The turnout was yet another symptom of the disaffection of so many architects, who feel that the RIBA contributes little to their fortunes and opportunities in practice. I completely understand how they feel this way, but I have decided that I must take the opportunity to contribute to change that might increase the value they derive from the institute. In my campaign I said that the RIBA is nothing without its members and I really do believe that the best way of ‘Advancing Architecture’ is through supporting, championing and promoting the excellent work of practitioners wherever and however they work. My belief is that architects will derive more value from their membership if they are facilitated by the institute to contribute more to research, debate, discourse and promotion in their local markets.

What will be your first tasks?

I am pleased that Jane Duncan has already set a date to meet me and seems keen for me to contribute as much as I can while president elect to the change agenda she has instigated and enabled. I am impressed by Jane’s determination to begin the changes necessary; she has made brave, bold steps already. I want to help and carry that through to my own presidency.

Is there anything you are planning to tackle straight away?

That will emerge from my discussion with the president and acting chief executive. There is a lot we could begin with but I would not want to pre-empt their contribution. Remember, while the hustings are going on, one is pretty much ‘hors de combat’. I declared my ambition to run three months ago and I need to re-engage to find the right point of entry.

You said you wanted to ‘put architects back at the heart of RIBA’. How do you plan to do this?

Actually, by taking the RIBA to the heart of where architects practice. I never believed that the right approach was a centralised bureaucracy purporting to represent the diversity of practice and markets within which we all work. I am a great believer in devolution and federal structures. I want to work with the lively and successful local societies of architecture out there, from Manchester to Mumbai, so that Portland Place becomes a hub for the exchange and promotion of their ideas, research and innovation and the work of ‘Advancing Architecture’ is carried forward on the impressive edifice of what architects do in their local markets.

How will you reach out to the regions?

The very phrase ‘nations and regions’ somehow implies an inappropriate hierarchy. Architecture is where architecture happens and that is, or should be, everywhere. I have an idea to work up a franchise model for local architecture societies, and I’d like to relate this to reformed governance of the institute so that these societies and their activities feed into council and the work of the RIBA.

What are you planning to do to engage with government?

The voice of the profession should be articulated by its experts. Jane Duncan has begun to re-engage with the institute’s working groups so that they can become the source of ethical professional advice to policy-makers. The recent pithy housing advice from the Housing Group, ‘Housing Matters’, is a case in point. High-quality expert advice is the first step to obtaining an audience in government.

High-quality expert advice is the first step to obtaining an audience in government

Will you speak out on more issues facing the professions? Which ones?

I don’t think I am known for being backward in coming forward. However, I am on record as insisting that RIBA council should not stray beyond its political reach and legitimacy. We must remember that architects come from all political persuasions. But issues that affect us all include passporting and the free movement of labour, improving affordable access to training and qualification for an increasing diversity of young architects, and the inclusion of more in the way of business and entrepreneurial skills in professional education, to name but three of the many challenges we face in the professions.

How are you planning to speak to members?

I am pleased to have been recognised in some of the comments on my election as someone who can and does listen, and relate the messages I receive to my long experience of practice such that I can feed this into the way the organisation runs. So I hope members will speak to me, and I don’t really think it’s for me to preach to them. The channels are open and my Twitter feed and email address are widely available. The only limitation is my capacity.

Are you going to have a cabinet? If so, do you know who will be in it?

Actually, I rather like the idea of a cabinet rather than a board as the executive management of the institute. But that would be a formal arrangement and would take some time to implement – along with the streamlined and smaller council that Anthony Clerici and Albena Atanossova have been postulating. I have friends and supporters on council who I can and will call on for advice and support – but it would be wrong to describe that as a ‘cabinet’.

You’re from a large practice. How will you support practices of all sizes?

When I joined HTA there were five of us. When I first became a partner there were 16, as I remember. Now there are more than 150. But I have not forgotten what life was like before. It’s wrong to typecast individuals as if they only know and understand life according to their current circumstances.

How do you plan to engage with students and educators?

I am a strong supporter of Vinesh Pomal and Albena Atanassova [RIBA ambassadors for young architects] in their moves to enfranchise the student body. They have excellent ideas for empowering students which we will shall be discussing and I hope agreeing at the next council meeting. And their ambition goes well beyond their desire to influence the institute. I admire and support their need to reform education, too. I mentor Albena and see her need to overcome the frustration students feel about not being adequately equipped for life in practice.


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