The Edge report may have put the cat among the professional pigeons, but it’s essential reading for institutions overdue for a long, hard look at themselves – and maybe even an incentive for them to start working together

Jack Pringle

I confess that I braced myself for the publication of Paul Morrell’s Edge report on the future of the professions. Morrell has been coruscating in his comments on the institutions before and has “nothing to lose” in his faux retirement. But reading it, I couldn’t agree more.

A professional used to be defined as someone who owned a body of specialist knowledge, put their clients’ interests before their own and society’s interests before their clients’. That does not work any more as too many professionals have demonstrated that they put their own interests first and most clients would sue their professional if they put society’s interests before their commercial gain.

So if automatic trust in professionals and their attendant privileges have evaporated, where does that leave professionals? Well, there is still a strong demand. Especially internationally where clients, particularly in emerging economies, want to know that their foreign professionals - architects, engineers, QSs – are properly qualified and members of prestigious institutes. They view qualifications as part of their quality assurance for their projects. Ironically, for architects RIBA membership may not be a qualification to practice in the UK, but it is seen as just that overseas, particularly in Asia.

Even here in the UK if the professions and their institutions did not exist, we would have to invent at least some of them, as we need specialists with a proven body of knowledge. The problem is that there are far too many institutions - hundreds of them. It just makes reform and collaboration that much more difficult. The engineers must be the worst: there is a different institute for every conceivable type of engineer. Surely half of them could merge. That would be a good start.

The foundation of a profession is a distinct, expert and relevant body of knowledge and the expertise to use it to clients’ purposes. The education base is vital and it must be relevant to the practising profession’s needs. This is not always the case. The architectural profession, for example, is in the middle of a radical, long overdue, review of its education base and it is to be hoped that a faster, more professional, more collaborative framework will be the outcome.

If the professions and their institutions did not exist, we would have to invent at least some of them as we need specialists with a proven body of knowledge. The problem is that there are far too many institutions

Architects have got a great “offer”, but they need to lose their commercial naiveity and be taught how to collaborate with the rest of the industry. I know that other professions are urgently reviewing their base too.

Ethics have contemporary relevance and importance too. When I first qualified, the architects’ code of conduct read like golf club rules: don’t undercut others’ fees and don’t steal other architects’ jobs. Now the RIBA’s code of conduct is much more outward looking. Perhaps surprisingly, ethics and codes of conduct are most valued in emerging economies around the world, where there might be a lot of corruption, as clients want to know that their international professionals are above all that. So Morrell’s call for a common code of ethics makes huge sense. Looks like a job for the Construction Industry Council (CIC).

The result of all this expertise and ethical collaboration should be a smarter UK construction industry: better, faster, cheaper, greener. No small ambition or task.

But how’s all this reform, rationalisation and collaboration going to happen in an industry with hundreds of institutions jealously protecting their own patch, some of them stubbornly resistant to change? Morrell rightly highlights the role of the CIC, the umbrella body for dozens of the professional institutions, including all the big beasts like RIBA, RICS, ICE, as well as the Chartered Institute of Building. I need to declare an interest here as a past CIC chair and a current deputy chair. There is a fundamental issue: while all these institutes support the CIC, none of them want to cede too much operational ground to it or collaborate on the really big issues. How about joint task forces on climate change or education, chaired by CIC? It’s a bit like the Tory party and the EU; the institutions want to keep all the important stuff that’s dear to them in house and let the CIC do the boring bits and speak to the government when the government insists on hearing from a single voice.

CIC is funded by the institutes so needs to be careful of stepping on their toes. That’s why it keeps such a low profile and why its work is not widely known. It’s time for some grown up thinking and a new compact between CIC and the institutions - collaboration begins at home!

Morrell is right, it’s time to reboot all the institutions to be more relevant and the job of the CIC is centre stage in hosting the discussion. Let’s bypass any in/out referendum on this one, and get on with the job of being excellent and relevant - together.

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