RIBA members have every reason to be disenchanted but this list of candidates offers a real choice, writes Ben Flatman
The architecture profession is facing a raft of unprecedented challenges. The environmental crisis requires us to fundamentally rethink the way we design buildings. Grenfell and the recent Bartlett report have exposed inadequacies in our education system. And Brexit, pandemic and war have ushered in a new era of stagflation, contributing to squeezed fees and falling real wages.
Each of these distinct groups has its own take on what matters most to the profession. This is no bad thing, and perhaps in a different context there might be a useful discussion around how the RIBA can better represent all three strands of the membership.
The good news for RIBA sceptics and disengaged members is that there is something for everyone in this slate of candidates. If you can’t find someone in this list who is speaking for you, then you probably never will.
Jo Bacon is arguably the candidate that most closely fits the mould of the traditional RIBA president
Amidst the diverging priorities there are also promising signs of consensus. The environmental crisis is high on all the candidates’ lists, as is a general concern about the cost of living, although perhaps approached from subtly different angles.
Jo Bacon is arguably the candidate that most closely fits the mould of the traditional RIBA president. She is a managing partner at one of the UK’s biggest architecture firms, and is the unashamed continuity candidate. But she is also a woman who has made it to the top in what has long been a male dominated industry and is well known and respected. She offers to bring the experience gained from her successful career in senior management to bear on RIBA’s long list of challenges.
>> Also read:Interview with Jo Bacon
>> Also read:Interview with Sumita Singha
>> Also read:Interview with Muyiwa Oki
Her position is that the RIBA has been through a tough period, but thanks to institutional reorganisation and Simon Allford’s leadership, things are getting back to a sound footing. She highlights low fees and the environment as pressing concerns. And while not wanting to promise miracles, she tells us the RIBA is already addressing many of the issues that matter most, and that we should trust in the existing processes to deliver.
Sumita Singha represents that often overlooked but sizeable constituency – those who run their own small practices. Small practitioners are very often at the coal face in terms of engagement with clients and representing the industry. These are the architects who are doing everything for themselves – winning the work, implementing it, and perhaps also managing a small team of staff.
Sumita Singha represents that often overlooked but sizeable constituency – those who run their own small practices
Reflecting her small practice background, she is keen to highlight the immediate, on-the-ground issues many small practitioners are facing. Professional indemnity insurance (PII) and the cost of living crisis are key concerns. “It’s just going to make practising architecture unbearable,” she says. One of her policies is for the RIBA to help establish a new insurer for architects. These are bread and butter issues that will appeal to many small business owners but may go over the heads of salaried workers.
This takes us to Muyiwa Oki, the self-styled voice of the workers, breakout candidate and clear outlier in the current race. He has emerged from relative obscurity with the backing of a range of activist organisations including Future Architects Front.
Oki is raising issues that have desperately needed clear articulation in the industry for decades. He is talking about problems with the education system, low pay and long hours. His viewpoint is that more of the same is the very opposite of what the RIBA and the profession needs.
But as Bacon implies in her BD interview, is the RIBA the right vehicle for Oki’s campaigning approach, or is he actually a shop steward in search of a trade union? In my view the industry would benefit from unionisation, which by driving up wages would also force bosses to quote realistic fees.
RIBA is not a trade union with a remit to protect the workforce
The truth is that whoever wins the election, two of the three main constituencies among the membership are likely to feel unheard and unrepresented. This perhaps explains why membership satisfaction and engagement is so low within the RIBA. The organisation simply cannot meet everyone’s expectations.
I believe that one of the main reasons so many members remain disillusioned by the RIBA is that it is not the organisation they are looking for or need. As Bacon goes out of her way to explain in her interview with BD, RIBA is not a trade union with a remit to protect the workforce. And neither is it a commercial trade body, there to push the commercial interests of its members.
RIBA’s Royal Charter clearly states that it’s purpose is “the general advancement of Architecture, and for promoting and facilitating the acquirement of the knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected therewith”.
In some ways it is an intractable problem. The RIBA is not the organisation that most RIBA members want it to be. Many of them might be better off joining a trade union, the Federation of Small Business, or Institute of Directors.
What the RIBA and the winning candidate could helpfully do is more clearly articulate to members what they can and cannot expect from the institute. And like any canny politician, they would be wise to pick over their opponents’ manifestos for those ideas that have broad appeal across the membership. I would put education reform and help with PII close to the top of that list.
Ben Flatman is Building Design’s architectural editor
Voting in the RIBA presidential election ends at 5pm on Tuesday 26 July