Architects and their status are undermined by the absurd registration board, says Paul Finch
More from: Critics call on Pickles to abolish the ARB
While the global reputation of British architecture is at an all-time high, at home the status of architects has, in many respects, diminished over the past 40 years. The rise and rise of project managers, cost consultants, PFI procurement systems and design-and-build contracts have happened not because the architectural profession has given up its desire to retain control over what is built (and its quality), but because of wider economic forces beyond the control of any one profession.
This makes it all the more bizarre that architects and the RIBA should cling, like wrecked sailors in a sinking dinghy, to that absurd quango, the Architects’ Registration Board. Its very existence rests on the dubious proposition that, uniquely among the built environment professions and the broader construction industry, the public requires ‘protection’ from the activities of architects.
What the public really needs protection from is the host of unscrupulous contractors and tradesmen who fleece us on a daily basis. But have you noticed any suggestion that there should be a Contractor & Building Trades Registration Board, funded by compulsory levies on the constituents of that great industry? Neither have I.
Instead, the ARB fantasy of public protection – it cannot deliver one single penny of compensation to any aggrieved party, who must go to court for financial restitution – chimes with the backwoodsman architect view that without protection of title (the fig-leaf raison d’êtreof the ARB), the world would collapse. Plumbers would claim to be architects. Many architects, of course, earn less per hour than the self-same plumbers.
In a trenchant letter to cabinet minister Eric Pickles, who will be deciding the fate of the ARB in the next few weeks, RIBA councillor George Oldham has correctly pointed out that the board is a waste of time (see full text here). Its activities in respect of protection of title are covered by the Fraud Act, which can be triggered by any member of the public or, indeed, the RIBA making a complaint to the police. The ARB’s kangaroo court activities (my phrase) have been well documented, and to say it is not fit for purpose would be putting it mildly. Any organisation with a computer and half a brain could keep the register. Portland Place springs to mind.
It would not be going too far to say that, by its behaviour over many years and under different leaderships, the ARB has proved itself to be an organisation primarily concerned with its own status. Its self-important utterings and behaviour have done nothing to advance architecture in any respect – typified by its ludicrous claims that Renzo Piano and Daniel Libeskind are not architects. The hierarchy in Weymouth Street has never justified architecture, compared with engineering or surveying, requiring the semi-judicial scrutiny it currently suffers. ARB is a body in search of a role, devoid of any philosophical or pragmatic basis. It needs the RIBA in the same way that a disease needs a host, and more fool the institute for abandoning the policy introduced by Sunand Prasad and others to do quietly everything possible to get the board ditched. With any luck Mr Pickles, who has a penchant for abolishing things, will recognise the half-hearted recommendations to retain the Board for what they are: hopeless non-arguments designed to give a few people a quiet life and a comfortable, well-rewarded billet in central London.
It is time to scrap the ARB, scrap protection of title, and set architects on a new course where their value lies in what they design and deliver. RIBA members will be chartered architects, others can call themselves whatever they like, within the law. Let competitive professionalism commence.