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The ARB can't be scrapped soon enough

  • 7 Comments

Architects and their status are undermined by the absurd registration board, says Paul Finch

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.

  • 7 Comments

Readers' comments (7)

  • I can't see any valid argument put forward for scrapping Protection of Title.
    Maybe some other things could be done.
    Maybe some of the ARB Board and staff could be sacked.
    But protection of title is the best either architects or clients can get at present.
    RIBA Club members may indeed be Chartered Architects, but that won't stop others calling themselves architects, Fraud Act or not.

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  • Plumbers don't need to claim to be architects as they are entitled to call themselves (heating) engineers, due to a lack of protection of title in the engineering professions.

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  • It could be argued that most professional bodies created in 19C just do not fit our paradigm. I think there is an argument for a decentralised system. The subscription model is becoming somewhat outdated. More local grassroots bodies could probably functional with a more minimal capital presence. Apart from cost advantages, it is possible there will be more engagement from membership. It is largely a self-selected audience in any case....you only have to look at the RIBA elections. Around 18% voted if I remember rightly - the European elections fared better.
    By choosing a different model with more local decision making it would still attract a self-selecting audience, but one with a will to change the status quo.

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  • In my discussions with architects in Manchester, a major issue is the overcentralisation of London in any case. The BBC move to Salford has been extremely beneficial to the area.

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  • At the moment the Secretary of State has indicated that the protection of title issue is safe, but he wants to achieve this through a light-touch regulator. He knows that ARB is incapable of operating on this basis, and I suspect he is sick of fielding complaints about ARB and how it abuses architects. This is why he is offering the regulatory function to RIBA, allowing it to operate in a similar way to the system in Ireland where the RIAI serves as both professional and regulatory body.

    The real problem here is that RIBA Council has reversed its agreement under Sunand's Presidency to press for the abolition of ARB, and done so without any reference to us members. This is wrong in itself.

    There are 34,000 names on the ARB list, and RIBA already manages a parallel list of 28,000. It does all of the things that ARB involves itself in, and did so long before ARB was set up. It makes sense to eliminate the duplication, save the £3.2-million that ARB costs to run, and in doing so allow us to regain control of our profession and our destiny. We also have the opportunity here to re-shape the RIBA and give it a new focus for the future.

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  • Would ARB architects want the RIBA to have such a monopoly? I seriously doubt it would be so simple.

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  • Although I disagree with his conclusion, Paul has put his finger on the nub – do we want a one-stop shop where 66 Portland Place can both regulate and promote architecture? It would be wonderful to know for sure, ideally through an open discussion and poll of members, but it seems that some on RIBA Council, and some who earn money from ARB, are determined to keep us at arm’s length.

    The President Elect believes that such a debate would be too heated, as if we can’t be trusted to demonstrate a bit of professionalism in a matter that affects us all. When a debate was opened on LinkedIn, it was quickly sabotaged by a former official at ARB and by one of the unattached. More worrying, recent correspondence suggests that some members of RIBA Council are themselves confused about whether a final decision on this question has been taken. So why is a debate so impossible to hold, especially when RIBA complains that members need to get more involved in Institute affairs?

    It seems that if we want to have our opinions noted, we need to follow the example shown by George Oldham and Ian Salisbury, and write direct to the Secretary of State - you can e-mail him at eric@ericpickles.com or picklese@parliament.gov.uk. After that, perhaps we could start to debate the function of Council and who they actually represent, because the President Elect seems to have a different notion to me, and my interpretation is that I elected my local representatives to reflect the wishes and views of my region.

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