New RIBA Council member Ben Derbyshire on why he stood - and what he wants to do

Ben Derbyshire

Amid portents of doom from friends and colleagues – some of whom had been there and no wish to go back, and others who couldn’t understand why I would want to go there in the first place – I was recently elected to a national seat on RIBA Council.

I took the plunge because even though the nation needs more and better design in the built environment, the profession of architecture continues to decline in its influence and its fortune. After 40 years in practice I thought maybe I ought to try and do something to help reverse this situation.

The thorough, all day induction I received with the other rookie councillors would not have disappointed the nay sayers.  Among the alarming statistics in the briefing we were told that:

  • Architects’ earnings have fallen behind doctors’ by 40% over the last 20 years.
  • It now costs over £100,000 to become an architect and unless something radical happens this will continue to rise, turning architectural education into a truly rich kids’ pastime.
  • It now takes on average over 10 years to become registered with the RIBA and, unsurprisingly in light of the above, only 14% of those who start out on the journey actually make it.

But although the induction was depressing (exceptional high points being the excellent work being done with clients and the priceless drawings collection), the following day’s Council meeting was full of promise. In previous blogs for this magazine I have set out areas for strategic change that I believe need to be undertaken to correct the slide and I was relieved to find these are all under discussion. In particular, education, competition, procurement, the future of the profession, and innovation were all on the agenda.

To be discussing all these matters is one thing, but to come to the right conclusions and then to implement them is entirely another

I have also previously argued that the nature of change required in these areas, being both radical and strategic, would need corresponding changes to the governance of the RIBA if the organisation is ever to see them through. 

Some decry the focus on governance as inward looking and naval gazing. I do not, because the organisation as it stands will struggle to pull off the necessary Houdini act. So I was also pleased to find that the RIBA is undergoing a governance review right now.

Of course, to be discussing all these matters is one thing, but to come to the right conclusions and then to implement them is entirely another. But without the right structure of governance, the RIBA won’t succeed in implementing any significant changes, so here is what I believe needs to happen:

  • The Regulatory role of ARB should be subsumed into the RIBA and run by a separate committee drawn from and reporting direct to Council, not via the Board.

This is the subject of a separate government review, but it is relevant to this discussion because the current role of ARB limits the capacity of the RIBA Council to steer strategic change in the interests of the profession. The government review is expected before Christmas, and the informal view is that government will retain an independent regulator, but some of the duplicated activities will be taken over by the RIBA - better than nothing, but not enough, in my view.  One of the key points in my campaign for election to Council was that RIBA should set about a long term campaign to wrest back control of both standards and price of service delivery. In the mean time, if ARB is to maintain its existence at all, it should be limited to regulating professional standards.

  • The President should be drawn from and elected by Council.

The current arrangements create the opportunity, even the probability of disruption to the delivery of agreed programmes of strategic change as a consequence of the likelihood of successive Presidents failing to share agendas and priorities.  Indeed, at present, presidents are likely to find themselves at the helm of 3-5 year business plans for the Institute they have had no hand in preparing and may not support.

Interest in and turnout for Council elections may well be increased if membership of Council were to become the breeding ground for successive Presidents.  And such an arrangement would ensure presidents were steeped in an understanding of the issues and equipped with a knowledge of the workings of the Institute by the time they came to office.

  • Transparency of election results.

The results of voting for elected members of Council should be published at least in terms of ranking and preferably in terms of proportion of votes received, notwithstanding the complications with the single transferable voting (STV) system. I went to some trouble to advertise my manifesto for change and it was therefore a matter of some significance to me to know the degree of support.  I did ask about this but was told that STV made it impossible to tell! Those of us who are concerned to see significant change do need the reassurance of knowing the constituency of support for change.

  • The proportion of elected members of council should be increased.

A significant number of Regional Members of Council report they have been selected unopposed.  This is not a healthy situation and therefore the ballot should be extended to cover more seats

  • The work of the Nominations Committee should be made much more transparent.

The workings of the Nominations Committee seem mysterious. In my own case, the committee overlooked me for any appointments despite (second hand) reports that I had polled second highest (to John Assael) in the ballot. And it seems odd that nomination of roles for new members are made before they have even appeared at Council. It would surely be better for Council to hear from and respond to new members before the nominations are made and confirmed.

  • Delegated authority and trust between Council and Board needs reinforcing.

The Board should have a clear majority of Council Members, the role of president as chair of both Council and Board should be clarified and the president should be adequately reimbursed for this more onerous duty, which could not be realistically delivered in less than four days a week.

I joined RIBA Council because I am concerned to contribute to the reversal of what I see as a long term decline in the fortunes of the profession, the role of architects in commerce and society, the influence of design in the quality of environment and on long term sustainability. Unless the organisation of the Institute is amended such that it is capable of maintaining strategic programmes of change for sustained periods we can expect the decline to continue. 

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design