Second opinion Recent squabbles at the Architects Registration Board have led to four high-profile resignations. What’s up?
Who regulates architects? Can they regulate themselves or must another body see to it that they behave themselves? Activities of members of the legal profession are regulated by the Law Society, all of whose 75 governing council members are lawyers. Doctors are responsible to the General Medical Council, 75% of whose members are themselves doctors. The police famously, or infamously, police themselves.

Architects, however, are responsible to the Architects Registration Board, a quango of 15 people set up after the 1997 Architect’s Act. Seven of these are elected by members of the profession, the other eight are government appointees. I am not sure why the activities of architects have to be so carefully scrutinised by lay members, but following the efforts to appoint a new executive director, goings-on at the ARB have recently become contentious, and a rumpus has ensued involving the resignation of four very high-profile architect members. Something must be up as the resignees – RIBA president Marco Goldschmied, former president Dr Frank Duffy,

Sir Colin Stansfield Smith and Amanda Levete (whose media centre at Lord’s won the Stirling Prize last year) – are very highly regarded, both within the profession and the industry.

Interestingly, they are all practising architects, whereas the remaining architects on the board are essentially committee types with no designing left to do.

It is all to do with the sudden about-face in the appointment of a new chief executive, Francis Golding. Golding, 55, is a civil servant who, to all appearances, could not be more appropriate. He understands the extraordinarily complicated business of commissioning good-quality buildings, from the client’s side, and thus seems ideally placed to monitor the commissioning process. He has been head of properties at English Heritage, has been on the International Council of Monuments and Sites, secretary of the Royal Fine Arts Commission, and is currently the chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the organisation that has replaced the RFAC. He is far enough removed from the profession to demonstrate impartiality but has enough experience to understand the intricacies of the architect’s appointment.

How vulnerable, really, are members of the public to an architect’s misdeeds?

Golding had been shortlisted for the £70 000-a-year post, and after being interviewed by the board a number of times, appeared to be a clear favourite. His appointment, just before Christmas, seemed a formality. However, only three hours before his appointment was due to be formally announced, he was informed by the executive recruitment consultancy dealing with the position that his candidacy had been rejected. Just like that. The reason? The board had suddenly decided that his track-record deemed him to be too “architect-friendly”, that is, someone whose experience would suggest that they might be too partisan on the profession’s behalf should it come to a dispute with a member of the public.

Profession-bashing was a popular sport in the Thatcherite 1980s. The need to establish an regulatory body for architects came about when the architectural profession, rightly or wrongly, managed to fight off a proposal to deregulate the title architect (seen as a restrictive practice). Surveyors, interior decorators or indeed anyone might style themselves “architectural consultants” or “architectural designers”, but anyone wishing to use the title “architect“ must pass a course of recognised training and a series of professional examinations and abide by a code policed by the ARB, membership of which is mandatory. Some form of regulation is clearly necessary, but how vulnerable, really, are members of the public to an architect’s misdeeds?

Unlike NHS doctors or lawyers funded by Legal Aid, architects do not have the services they offer a client paid for by someone else, so a level of caveat emptor exists anyway. In most other European countries, local authorities insist that planning applications are prepared by architects – people trained to design buildings, yet in the UK no such protection of function exists. Indeed, fewer than 25% of applications are submitted by architects. It is not as though the money is that good, either. Compare an architect’s fee of 6% of part of the construction cost for years of work seeing that a building gets built, with the agent’s fee of 2% of the total development cost simply for flogging the finished product.