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Interview: RCP deputy chief executive on college’s Liverpool ambitions

RCP North’s ‘iconic’ steps into Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter

With its phase one base in full operation and work progressing to design a permanent landmark building in Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter, RCP North has truly arrived. Natasha Young finds out more about the organisation’s ambitions and potential for the city.

Words by Natasha Young 

Any milestone anniversary acts as a catalyst to reflect on past success and look to the future but, for the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), 2018 doesn’t mark just any milestone.

This year the London-headquartered medical organisation turns five centuries old and the celebration deemed fitting for the occasion is already in full swing – a ground-breaking expansion into the North.

“For several years we’ve been trying to increase our regional strength so we’ve got an office in each of our regions,” says Clive Constable, deputy chief executive of the professional membership body for physicians, who treat and diagnose illness and promote health. “But we are 500 years old this year and a project grew from the coming together of a sense of being based in London, a sense of having our members all around the country, and a sense of marking the future in some way.

“What this development allows us to do is build in things we can’t do in London, and to do them in a way that is future-proof as far as possible.”

“The college has, since 1518, moved around but it has always been in London and we’re staying there, however we thought it’d be worth seeing if we could establish a base outside of the capital.”

Wheels to create the second home, branded RCP North, were truly set in motion in July 2016 when Liverpool was unveiled as the organisation’s northern city of choice.

The deal was hailed by Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson as a key moment for “the future prosperity of Liverpool and the Northern Powerhouse” as the development of the city’s Knowledge Quarter also gathered pace.

“We approached three cities and said ‘would you be interested in us establishing a base and, if you were, would you be able to help us do it?’” says Constable. “All three responded very positively but Liverpool made it possible in a way that wouldn’t have been so possible with the other two.”

The college, which operates as a charity, carried out phase one of its northern expansion last October when it officially opened a temporary base within the University of Liverpool’s William Henry Duncan Building.

According to Caroline Burton, head of operations at RCP North, this initial presence in Liverpool has quickly impacted on the RCP’s activity and member engagement.

“We’re holding exams, a number of education events and conferences here and we’re working with the Quality Improvement Hub, which was launched in November and is going to be based here,” she says. “Having the space and people here is something that’s allowing us to expand member engagement and a good relationship has been established with the university.

“It’s early days but we’re putting the groundwork in for when we get the new building.”

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A brand new permanent home for RCP North is in the pipeline and, due for completion in 2020, will position the royal college as the anchor tenant of Knowledge Quarter Liverpool’s £1 billion Paddington Village.

It’s a prospect that, Constable says, didn’t initially factor into the vision for a northern base after the RCP approached Liverpool in “the same way it approached other cities,” however once Liverpool’s wider Knowledge Quarter ambition became apparent it was in keeping with the RCP’s aims.

“Because the basis of the Knowledge Quarter is academic, learning and research, those are the things we do anyway and therefore that very much fits in with our reason for being and our values so we were very happy to be approached on that basis,” adds Constable.

“We’re honoured to be in this position of being a prominent name and that’s reflected in the plans for the building and where it’ll be, and our return for that to the city is to establish ourselves here and develop that over the next several years.”

Events to commemorate 2018’s 500th anniversary are expected to go some way in helping to raise the profile of RCP North, as the college shares its celebration with Liverpool.

Plans are currently underway for a black tie ‘500 for 500’ event at the city’s landmark St George’s Hall and the public will be invited to a series of lectures at Liverpool Medical Institute focusing on aspects of the organisation’s history.

Meanwhile as plans for the permanent base have been taking shape, one particular aim of the RCP has been consistent throughout – that the building must be “iconic”.

The organisation has never outright defined what it means by the term but hopes the site will complement its also iconic, modern ‘brutalist’ Grade I-listed building in London’s Regents Park.

“What this development allows us to do is build in things we can’t do in London, and to do them in a way that is future-proof as far as possible,” says Constable.

It must also really “shout” that the RCP is an organisation focused on health.

Aside from examining how individual doctors assess, diagnose and treat patients, the college has long been involved with wider public health matters including smoking, alcohol abuse and obesity as well as environmental issues and sustainability.

“The way we can make [the RCP North building] iconic is through being as environmentally friendly as possible,” explains Constable.

“The outline prospect was always going to be that the building achieved the BREEAM standard but, subject to ongoing discussions with Liverpool City Council, we’d like to go for the WELL Building standard.

“One issue is we’re only going to take half the building as what Liverpool offered us was terrific but more than we need. We don’t want to become landlords but if we took the whole of the building we’d have to let half of it out, so we’ll take half and other users will be in the other half with the city making sure they fit sympathetically with what we do.

“If we’re saying we want our bit to meet the WELL Building standard then whoever comes in has got to achieve that as well but we think that’ll be a selling point.”

“We’ve got a lot of people based outside London and it’s one thing saying you want to engage with them but if you can demonstrate it then that’s really making a big statement.”

According to Constable, the RCP will continue its “very active process” to design the building this year alongside the city council, contractor Morgan Sindall and AHR Architects.

In the long term, a shared ambition of the RCP and Liverpool is that the northern base’s presence could also eventually attract more royal colleges to branch out of their London hubs and into the city.

“One thing we still hope to do is encourage others to come in with us because, certainly, that was the view of the Knowledge Quarter,” says Constable. “They felt that if they could get us and we could get other royal colleges, that would enhance the Knowledge Quarter and we think that would be a good thing.

“We did some initial publicity and invited people to come in with us. At that stage no one did but a few responded saying ‘that’s interesting, keep us informed’ or ‘we’re interested in your exam space’.

“If another college just wanted to have a presence then it may well be that we could fit them within our space or they can take other space but we’ve not given up on it – we’ve made the first moves and it’ll be a gradual process.

“I’ll be really surprised if none of them do it because they all face the same challenges, they’ve all got this London connotation.

“There are things we do in London which we couldn’t do anywhere else but the North will give us an opportunity to do different things,” adds Constable. “It actually started as a membership engagement exercise because we’ve got a lot of people based outside London and it’s one thing saying you want to engage with them but if you can demonstrate it then that’s really making a big statement.”