'Realigning the profession’? Don’t make me laugh
09 June 2021, Paul Finch
Among his myriad responsibilities, including housebuilding, planning, winter-preparedness for pandemics and quite possibly the efficient supply of kitchen sinks, the housing minister Chris Pincher is also responsible for architecture and architects.
This ludicrous state of affairs, whereby architecture is regarded as a sub-set of the housing sector, came about because Ed ‘Lazy’ Vaizey didn’t regard architecture as a cultural activity, so hived it off from his old haunt, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport.
Mr Pincher, whose stay in his current post is unlikely to affect by much the average life expectancy of his ministerial position (nine months), seems determined to make the most of it, judging by the hilarious exaggeration in his first announcement on the subject of architects – or rather their regulation.
A new recognition system to acknowledge architecture qualifications from around the world will be implemented as part of the Professional Qualifications Bill, ‘ensuring the UK remains a leading, global destination to practise architecture’, according to the official press release. This is because, wait for it, we are going to recognize overseas architectural qualifications, and toughen up cpd arrangements to test competence.
According to Mr Pincher, ‘We are delighted to be moving forward with firm proposals that will make a real difference to the lives of architects around the world.’ Really? Moreover, ‘This fundamental realignment of the profession will reassert the United Kingdom’s reputation as a global leader in architecture, ensuring we continue to attract the best architects from around the world to build back better on the homes and infrastructure in this country.’
Quite apart from the ghastly and illiterate ‘build back better’ slogan (a sure sign of a dud strategy), the patronising boastfulness of this assertion would be better suited to an unscrupulous advertising copywriter than a government minister. Overseas architects have been coming to the UK for decades and the offices of major practices here resemble the United Nations in terms of nationalities.
If the minister thinks there is a skills shortage (there always is) because of Brexit, he should say so and provide some data to prove the point. No doubt he would agree with the Investment minister Lord ‘Gerry’ Grimstone (I am not making this up), that: ‘Our new laws will enable world-class architects to continue working in the UK and can make it possible for the Architects Registration Board to open up opportunities for British architects working with our global partners.’
We don’t need new laws to allow world-class or merely competent overseas architects to work here: they already do, in large numbers, and have done for decades. The big US practices who stormed London in the wake of the Big Bang financial shake-up found a warm welcome, even though mutual recognition of qualifications between the UK and the US is non-existent. There is no suggestion that reciprocity will form the basis for our generous invitation to architects everywhere to come and join our architectural party, but perhaps that would be too much to expect.
The Architects Registration Board is excited about the revolutionary nature of the proposals, not least because they give the Board more powers and extend its scope for ‘chargeable services’ whatever that may mean. Perhaps it will start running its own cpd courses and generate a profit – which could hold down the ever-increasing compulsory annual levy it imposes on qualified architects who wish to describe themselves thus.
Ponder this: if the ARB, created in 1997, has overseen professional competence in a way that requires a ‘fundamental realignment’, why would you extend its remit rather than scrap it? The truth is that there will be no such realignment and short of vetting every design before it goes in for planning, and then again before construction starts, there isn’t much the board can do to prevent disasters such as Grenfell, whatever tests it invents to ‘prove’ that an architect is competent. It is practices that create buildings, not individuals.
If Mr Pincher was really interested in realignment, he should be thinking about the balance of power and responsibility in the design, planning, building control and construction sectors to ensure that we can live, work and play in reasonable safety. But that would require a complete change of mindset on the part of the political class which still seems to think that it is architects who need watching, when almost all of the complaints about poor buildings in this country concern incompetence (and sometimes criminal negligence) on the part of the delivery end of the process, not the design. Why isn’t there a Contractor Registration Board?
You have to find some cheer in these sorts of stories, and sure enough there are couple of nuggets in the government announcement. First, there will be an appeal system against findings by the ARB, which has on occasion come close to resembling a kangaroo court. More bureaucracy for a saner world!
Second, the Board is being told it should be ‘increasing public confidence by listing disciplinary orders against an architect on the register’. Perhaps it should generate more confidence by press releasing its findings with more brio. My favourite example in recent years of a quiet ARB ruling was the case of an architect convicted of murder, who argued that he should not be removed from the register because the fact that he was murderer had no bearing on his ability to provide architectural services. True or not, he remained struck off.
Luckily, there are no criminal or professional sanctions for crimes against aesthetics.