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How do you solve a problem like the RIBA?

Portland Place

Senior staff departures and a falling-off in the proportion of architects signing up, is causing consternation at the RIBA. Richard Waite reports

The sequence of events which led to the shock departure of the RIBA’s chief executive, Harry Rich, last month remains hazy.

It is still not known, for instance, whether Rich resigned or was pushed. If he was forced out it would not have been the first time an attempt had been made to get rid of him (AJ 31.03.11). Nor do we know how much the £152,000-a-year employee walked away with - though the exact sum should come out in the charity’s financial reports later this year.

But what is already clear is that his exit, coupled with the recent exodus of senior institute figures Andy Munro (chief operating officer), Gill Webber (executive director, communication and outreach) and Richard Brindley (executive director, membership and profession), has left a void in the leadership of the RIBA.

What is more, it is estimated this churn of top-level staff will cost the institute upwards of £750,000 in severance payments, interim wages and other recruitment fees.

Council member John Assael echoes the concerns of many RIBA members when he says: ‘I’m very worried that the institute doesn’t currently have enough senior staff, leaving it potentially rudderless and, without a chief executive, lacking direction.

’There is no continuity’

’The timing of Rich’s departure is not helpful. He should have been around to handover to his successor and to recruit key members of staff. But now all the top people will be new and there is no continuity.’

He adds: ‘If the RIBA gets the right person it could be wonderful for the institute. But it could have been handled differently.’

Assuming Rich’s role in the short term is interim director of finance and operations, Alan Vallance. The only other notable senior figures with substantial experience in its administration are architects Adrian Dobson, who took over the membership and profession remit from Brindley last July, and Richard Waterhouse, chief executive of RIBA Enterprises.

The hunt to fill the vacant group executive roles permanently may take some time. Meanwhile the institute’s new five-year strategy, which has been decided in principle, has yet to be fleshed out and agreed on by council.

A plan of action will also be needed to handle the outcome of the ARB Periodic Review, which landed on housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis’s desk at the Department for Communities and Local Government this week. The review could have far-reaching implications for the RIBA, ARB, and the professionas a whole.

As one source told the AJ: ‘It is not necessarily what happens now that is the problem; it is what the impact will be three or four years down the line, given [the RIBA’s] strategic vacuum.’

The AJ understands Rich’s position as chief executive was put under the spotlight following the release of budget figures at the RIBA’s December council meeting. Councillors were alarmed to hear about an unprojected ‘£800,000 overspend’. One, Ben Derbyshire, demanded an explanation of the causes and ‘unbudgeted expenditure’ and of what was being done to ‘correct the imbalance’.

This week the RIBA claimed ‘there had been some confusion’ over the figures and insisted prompt action meant the institute was now heading for a ‘healthy’ end-of-year surplus.

There are fears, too, about the future membership. While the number of architects on the ARB register has grown significantly in recent years, the RIBA has not been able to capture these as subs-paying chartered members and membership remains static(see graph below).

But was Rich’s future already in doubt as soon as Jane Duncan took office as RIBA president in September last year? While Stephen Hodder managed to find a way of working with the chief executive – something predecessors Ruth Reed and Angela Brady struggled to do – Duncan, it seems, agitated for change. One member told the AJ: ‘Jane can be very effective and his departure proves it.’

Brindley, who left the RIBA last March ‘as part of a shake-upto renew its focus on members’, admits the upheaval of the group executive is far from ideal. He says: ‘So much change all at once in the senior executive team at the RIBA will be a challenge for the institute.

‘But it is also a great opportunity for the RIBA council and board, under Duncan’s leadership, to establish a new direction and vision for the RIBA to promote and support the profession in its new future. Ultimately, this will be a good thing to do, and I am sure that Duncan will achieve it.’

Whether Duncan can fix the perceived disconnect between the RIBA’s hard-working staff and its members remains to be seen. Former president Jack Pringle comments: ‘There is certainly a changing of the guard. My feeling is that Rich had done his stint and it was time to move on. He probably felt it was time to go – as did others. Certainly every organisation has to reinvent itself every few years.

’At the heart of this is an issue every member organisation has: of tension between its members and the professionals who run it. Using the worst and most crude characterisation, the members tend to feel that the staff are there to do their bidding and, on other hand, the staff wish they could get on and do things without the interference of the members.

He adds: ‘Occasionally the emphasis goes too far one way and sometimes too far the other.

‘I know there has been a feeling the staff have been too controlling of affairs recently. But this tension is ever thus and the same in all member organisations. You need a pretty good mediator or group of mediators to keep everything in the right balance.’

In the past year there has been a growing momentum at the RIBA towards a return to its being a member-run organisation – a trajectory which Ben Derbyshire of HTA has supported vigorously.

RIBA councillor Shahriar Nasser, founding director of Belsize Architects, agrees. He says: ‘The RIBA badly –and urgently – needs a chief executive who really wants to give control of the RIBA back to its members. It has a pool of bright, committed and enthusiastic members who have a great deal of expertise and experience to offer and who should take the lead within the profession. The new chief executive needs to work with that, rather than seeking to bypass or overlook members’ desire to contribute to the life of the institute.’

Duncan would not be drawn on speculation about the circumstances of Rich’sdeparture but, responding to the concerns about the institute’s future direction the RIBA president said: ‘The institute’s Leading Architecture strategy for the next five years has been developed following extensive consultation with the wider membership, guided by Council and Board. It was discussed at Council in December and will be finalised shortly.

‘I am very excited to be working with Alan Vallance and the experienced staff team at the RIBA as we move into this next new and exciting phase.’

Harry Rich declined to comment.




Owen Luder, former RIBA president

’Not everything Harry Rich did during his term as RIBA chief executive was bad. But he and others were in my opinion taking the RIBA in the wrong direction.

’The subscription-paying membership was being increasingly sidelined. Rich reduced RIBA Council to a rubber-stamping group, stripped of most of its powers and of its legitimate role as the RIBA Trustees. It took three institute governance investigation committees before all this came to light.

’I had been a constant critic of his financial policies. For three years Rich was responsible for deficit budgeting that led to deficit outcomes, which were funded out of cash reserves. In one year the cash reserves were diminished by £2.6 million.

’I have no doubt a number of RIBA Council members – and a few others – will welcome Harry’s decision to walk away.The problem now for the RIBA is that, whatever the credentials of his temporary successor, he is an unknown quality with no knowledge of the RIBA. For the moment the RIBA staff has no permanent leadership – and it is going to cost a lot of money to replace them.’

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    Thank you, Richard Waite, for highlighting the danger for the RIBA in its collapsing market share. The proportion of ARB registered architects who elect to join the RIBA has fallen by 8% in four years, and with the figure at just 69% now, that suggests to me we could reach a tipping point when less than half of all ARB registered architects are also Chartered Members of the RIBA in the next five years unless something is done. This is not just about the balance between member focus and outreach work at the Institute. This is an existential threat!

    Young architects are choosing not to join in large numbers and the median age for membership of the RIBA is, I'm told, 57 years and rising. So the challenge is not just about rebuilding the management structure at the Institute, it's about showing how membership of the Institute, and the Profession, meets the ambitions of young trainee and newly qualified architects.

    So this is about the future, not the past. And in an era when the politics of small government are in retreat from intervening to improve the quality and sustainability of the built environment, it's an opportunity for the profession to show its worth. We must re-assert ethical professionalism and a body of researched based knowledge as a basis for our contribution to these outcomes, and demonstrate how this can be of value to society and our clients.

    Jane Duncan has shown us her mettle and we should now support her to help rebuild management at the Institute and to turn the five year strategy she has developed into a deliverable action plan. Shahriar Nasser is right when he says that the new leadership should recognise the legitimacy of Council as Trustees and of Architects as experts to show the way. It is for the executive to follow. Architects Leading at the Institute - rather than the Institute Leading Architecture.

    Ben Derbyshire
    Nationally Elected RIBA Councillor
    Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP.

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  • I resigned from the RIBA many years ago at the beginning of my career, because I couldn't see what it's purpose was. I still can't. It smacks of an 'old boy's club' unfit for the 20th century, let alone for the 21st. It ought to be promoting architecture and the role of the architect to the public, so the man in the street has a better understanding of what an architect actually does. The public perception of an architect's role is still mired in mystery. Until the RIBA can inspire a degree of confidence in it's ability to prioritise public understanding of architecture, design, methodology, practice and responsibility, it doesn't deserve to succeed.

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  • azhar

    I certainly would like to see clarity, and engaging with a profession which is ever changing... and challenging

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  • Ben has some very valid points. To paraphrase Einstein, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them".
    The top-down institutional model of engagement is simply not enough in a digital, devolved age. There has to be new innovations and brave thinking. There also has to be a ruthless focus on realigning the position of the architect in the value chain. This will not be easy - especially as the profession is actually trained NOT to think commercially. There is a perfect storm of factors that is 'hollowing out' the professional and creative classes. But there is much to be optimistic about, if architects are prepared to kill a few unhelpful, but closely held ideas.

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