Presidential candidate Elsie Owusu has claimed that RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance earns six times the average architect’s salary
Speaking at an election hustings in Leeds last night (Wednesday), she pointed out that Vallance, who is understood to be earning nearly £200,000 a year, was earning more than the prime minister (£142,500).
‘As much as I love and revere our chief executive, Allan Vallance, he earns six times what an average architect earns in practice,’ she said. ‘Good for him for valuing himself, but where is the fair pay policy?’
But rival candidate Alan Jones came to Vallance’s defence, saying: ‘There has been a review in the RIBA at board level [looking at] what salaries are paid [to CEOs] in other charities. And that has been benchmarked [against other organisations]. So it is not as high as has been suggested.’
Owusu and Jones, alongside US-based Philip Allsopp, set out their manifestos and answered questions from the audience at the event in Leeds Beckett University’s School of Art, Architecture and Design.
The candidates’ most revealing answers came when asked what they would do first on becoming president.
Owusu said: ‘I’d do the Donald Trump thing and sign the executive order about capping [membership] fees.’
She added: ‘My main thing is about changing culture and about transparency at the RIBA. And so I’d also stop meetings taking place in that chamber [at Portland Place] – it is so inaccessible.’
Belfast-based Jones said: ‘I’d ask the staff at the RIBA, if they were unshackled, what would they ideally like to do. At the minute it is like “Oh, it is not in the financial plan for next year” … and so on.
‘It really is a team effort – it is not the president signing an executive order.’
Jones added: ‘I’d invite in the directors of, for example, Zaha Hadid Architects and ask them to confirm they pay all their staff the minimum wage. I want to send out a message [to all the top practices on this subject].’
Allsopp, who is based in Arizona but will relocate to the UK for four years if elected, said he would call an all-staff and all-members meeting, adding: ‘I’d do a worldwide webinar on where I think the future for everything is. I’d also seek input to set up a global SWAT team to breathe oxygen into the profession and take our message to those who control so much of what we do.’
How do we turn the RIBA into being essential rather than being slightly optional?
Asked how membership numbers could be increased, Jones said: ‘It has to be about the services provided. We need to look at the [membership] fees. There is an encouragement [in terms of pricing] to join and so on. This lasts up to about year five, then you are on full fee. After that we see a drop-off in numbers – people leave at that point.
‘Unfortunately we are about two years away from recession. So how do we turn the RIBA into being essential rather than being, one might argue, slightly optional at the minute?’
Owusu, meanwhile, elaborated on why she would temporarily freeze membership costs.‘The fee for chartered practices should be capped,’ she said. ‘The RIBA needs to try to grow [the number of] those middle-ranking practices.
‘[For practices] to find that fee out of their profits, and then to have it increased when their profits aren’t increasing, isn’t right.’
She added: ‘RIBA’s finances are straight for the first time in a long time, so fees should be capped so we could welcome more people in.’
The RIBA is a wonderful ship; we can make it go faster, be more relevant and be more responsive
Allsopp looked at the picture beyond the UK. ‘There is an untapped area internationally which we should be going after,’ he told the audience. ‘In terms of membership growth and relevance we have a huge amount of headroom overseas – [we should] grow this global fellowship that we actually need as a profession.’
Allsopp also spoke about adding value for clients. ‘The profession just has to be confident [about the value we deliver],’ he said. ‘We are adding more value than a lot of management consultants. We are delivering something of tangible value now and it lasts for generations.
‘And we need the RIBA behind us to provide the underpinnings of business to let that really happen.’
Asked about the reputation of the RIBA, both now and what it could become after their two-year presidency, Owusu replied: ‘It depends where in the world you are asking that question. If you are asking abroad, the RIBA’s reputation is [extremely high] – British architects can get proper VIP treatment overseas …
‘But it is not the same at home. I would like some of that respect and admiration here, and I’d work towards that. It is potentially such a superb brand.’
Abroad, the RIBA’s reputation is extremely high – but it is not the same at home. I would like some of that respect and admiration here
Jones concurred: ‘There is a gold standard [associated with] the RIBA when considered internationally. But I agree with Elsie, it starts at home if we want to have a really strong brand.
‘There have been economic doldrums within the RIBA, but that has come to a close, one would like to think. It is about how we would use the money that we now have for maximum impact and bolster what we do.’
Allsopp said: ‘The RIBA needs to accelerate some of the actions that have already begun, in terms of transforming governance and doing more programmatically to help practitioners and to support them.
‘It is a wonderful ship; we can make it go faster, be more relevant and be more responsive to regions and around the world.’
Voting opens on 3 July and will remain open until 5pm on 7 August. Alan Vallance and the RIBA have been contacted for comment.