RIBA’s Ben Derbyshire: ‘My advice to Alan Jones? Be sure to make friends’

Outgoing RIBA president Ben Derbyshire talks to the AJ about the institute’s turbulent 2018 election campaign, his upcoming book and the highs and lows of his two-year tenure

Your slogan was ‘change is necessary’. What changes have you secured at the RIBA?

Change is necessary if the profession is to be seen as more relevant and hence more valued by society and our clients. That RIBA is in good financial health at the end of my presidency, and on the march to deliver so much more, is a source of huge satisfaction. Our trustees (RIBA Council) recently approved a new constitution which will make us more effective and better able to meet the challenges we face.

We are committed to act on the climate emergency, and a set of five principles with the institutes of Britain and Ireland focused on strengthening architecture’s engagement with the communities we serve: acting in the public interest; raising standards to better manage risk; improving the diversity of the workforce; researching to build a body of knowledge; and placing the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of practice.

What’s one thing you would alter about the institute and how it runs?

There is no single thing. Change has to be holistic if we are to succeed. More is on the way that will radically improve our governance processes, enabling flexibility and capacity to focus even more on the issues that matter to our profession. One thing I campaigned on – for ‘architects to retake their institute’ – will come to life shortly after I have left with the regular Wednesday night ‘Architects Underground’. It opens on September 11 and will turn 66 Portland Place into a weekly destination of inspiration, with music, talks and film. I can’t wait!

Looking back at how the RIBA reacted to the turbulent election campaign last year, would you do anything differently?

We have already instigated changes to the election processes, clarifying requirements on conduct amongst other things. I am excited that RIBA student members will be able to vote for the next president to follow Alan Jones. The changes now begun will make voting a more compelling commitment for members. We hope to see membership increased and rejuvenated and election turnouts improved – but I do recognise that voting in RIBA Council members isn’t for everyone!

'Change is necessary if the profession is to be seen as more relevant'

The RIBA’s declaration of a climate emergency followed similar actions by the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the ArchitectsDeclare initiative. Is the RIBA too reactive with regards to crises such as this?

Far from it. In fact, a group of us proposed an RIBA Commission on Ethics and Sustainable Development in the spring of 2017. This began work as I took office and reported in December 2018 with a series of climate actions which were already being implemented long before our council’s Climate Emergency declaration. I have been clear that our actions must continue to be more than just warm words and we are currently finalising the details of a plan stretching five years ahead to meet the 2030 Climate Challenge and deliver net zero carbon by 2050 in harmony with our co-professionals and other stakeholders.

What can you say about permitted development rights including the role of architects in working on some of these schemes?
If RIBA members accept such commissions at all, it should only be on the basis that the resulting schemes comply with relevant planning policy and building regulations. I support Levitt Bernstein’s petition to have this debated in Parliament. We campaign and lobby tirelessly for the repeal of permitted development rights.

In your interview with the AJ in September 2017, you said tackling the marginalisation of architects was a major priority for your leadership. How would you judge your record on this?
Perceptions will not change overnight but we made a start. We now have online CPD which we can monitor, some aspects of which will become compulsory in due course. Our newly introduced Codes of Conduct and Practice are the first significant tightening of ethical professionalism in 15 years. Education reform, effectively postponed during Brexit negotiations, will be vigorously pursued by [my successor] Alan Jones. Meanwhile, I believe we have been a strong voice on vital issues such as fire safety, housing standards, Brexit as well as the climate emergency.

You also talked about pursuing a joint initiative with the Chartered Institute of Building (CIoB) to improve the quality of schemes built under Design & Build and trying to launch a major housing expo in the capital. What happened with these plans?
The quality tracker is in the pilot phase at the moment and a suite of guidance on post-occupancy evaluation to be published in October should see the profession equipped with the wherewithal to deliver on the ‘golden thread’ of quality necessary for us to predict, monitor and feed-back on the crucial outcomes required of our contribution – particularly in terms of safety and sustainability. I made a commitment that all practices should be able to offer their clients a ‘soft landings’ service as part of the plan of work. That will soon become possible, and in due course it needs to become compulsory if we are to effectively tackle the climate emergency.

How can architects, and the RIBA, prepare for a no-deal Brexit?
The RIBA has consistently raised with government how detrimental no deal would be to the industry and the profession. I encourage all practices to have a prudent and effective business plan, and to monitor adequately sensitive lead indicators (such as an up-to-date assessment of the expected value of prospects in the pipeline) and be ready to move quickly to adjust their business model if necessary. Where appropriate, do look into diversifying into new markets, including overseas. There is guidance online at Architecture.com and RIBA’s Guerilla tactics is a great ideas exchange.

What are your career plans now?
I’m looking forward to returning full time to HTA Design. Having helped to set the Climate Challenge for RIBA chartered practices, I anticipate playing my part as chair of an AJ top 30 practice to meet the stretching targets involved. I’ll also be writing a book about, homes for the future, and I have a number of other irons in the fire with announcements due shortly.

What’s your advice to your successor, Alan Jones?
I’d share my late father’s advice to me on being told of my ambition to run as president: be sure to make friends.’


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