It’s not just that the Architects Registration Board is without purpose - it’s also a drag on innovation and change and threatens the very existence of the RIBA

Jack Pringle

British architects straddle the world. Our dames, knights and lords of design are titans of the architectural scene. Our architects’ offices earn hundreds of millions of pounds in export fees around the globe and punch above their weight. Similarly, the RIBA’s reputation abroad is huge. It validates over 30 schools of architecture outside of the UK and its membership, given the magic RIBA affix, is used as a qualification in some parts of the world.

There is, of course, a connection between the reputation of the RIBA and the success of our architects: education. The RIBA has set the pattern of architects’ education since its inception in 1834 and has assiduously monitored and validated its schools’ courses ever since. There is a passionate relationship between practising (RIBA) architects and the schools to this day. I should know, I validated courses for the RIBA for 20 years and was an RIBA vice-president for education. Unfortunately architecture’s quasi-regulator, the Architects Registration Board (ARB) threatens both the RIBA and the quality and relevance of our education base.

The design of buildings is not a regulated profession. Anyone can do a design of a building, lodge planning and building regulations applications, let tenders and oversee construction. It’s amazing, considering that in the US you need a state licence to be a hairdresser or chiropodist, never mind an architect. The function of architecture is not “protected” in the UK but the title is. That is, you can only call yourself an architect, of any sort, if you are on a list held and maintained by the quango ARB. So we have protection of title, not function. That’s a bit odd, but where’s the harm in that, I suspect you are thinking.

In education, ARB is the cuckoo in the nest. Instead of a bi-lateral relationship between the RIBA and the academics that run the schools, ARB has insisted on becoming a third voice in the conversation

Let’s take the direct threat to the RIBA. The ARB was set up by a poorly drafted act of parliament that gives it wide powers over architectural education and practice. Since its reincarnation in 1997 it has relentlessly expanded its activities and cost base. Registration fees used to be £50 and have now risen to £105 a year. In 2012, they rose by 20%. At this rate they will soon reach a critical “tipping point”, probably about £150 a year, when many architects in the poorest of all the major professions will decide they cannot afford to register both with the ARB and the RIBA. After all, they can still call themselves an architect without being a RIBA member. RIBA membership will plummet and the institute will enter a vicious circle of decline.

In education, the ARB is the cuckoo in the nest. Instead of a bi-lateral relationship between the profession, represented by the RIBA, and the academics that run the schools, ARB has insisted on becoming a second validator and a third voice in the conversation. ARB is dominated by a majority of lay people and has little understanding of the issues. At worst the schools can play the ARB off against the RIBA if they do not like the profession’s demands. This is important. There has always been a creative tension between the profession and its schools. The profession needs students to be educated and trained. The schools prize their academic freedom. A third voice muddies the waters. And right now the waters need to be crystal clear. The profession must go through huge change - and so must its education base. We need to integrate with the industry and play our part in a digital economy that produces better faster, greener, cheaper products. The profession is becoming highly specialised, which needs to be recognised. There is a lot to do and the ARB is a drag on innovation and change.

A government quango review is under way and the time is right to ditch the ARB. The solution is simple. For a much smaller fee RIBA can maintain the list of UK architects, RIBA members or not, and be the competent authority for the EU. It will have to have an independent complaints system, but the cases ARB deals with are few, so this is reasonable.

The RIBA is a massively successful UK body that should be supported and UK architects must be allowed to flourish, rather than be dulled by the dead hand of a purposeless quango.

Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will