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RIBA at war with Owusu: institute tries to gag presidential candidate

Elsie owusu credit nana humphrey barclay crop

The RIBA has sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to presidential candidate Elsie Owusu intended to prevent her making ’damaging public statements’ about the institute

The letter to Owusu – one of three contenders vying to become president alongside Phil Allsopp and Alan Jones – came after she publicly criticised the salary of RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance at a husting in Leeds last week. It has also emerged that the institute had recently reported Owusu to the Charity Commission, the charity regulator, over potentially reputation-damaging statements made by Owusu in the media in April.

According to the institute’s latest letter, Owusu’s claim that Vallance was being paid six times the average architect’s salary amounted to ‘a flagrant breach of confidentiality, [was] unsubstantiated and [was] damaging to RIBA’.

It is known that Vallance is paid at least £180,000 a year (see AJ 20.09.16).

In the letter from the RIBA’s honorary secretary Kerr Robertson dated 29 June, the institute cites other instances where it feels Owusu’s ‘serious and repeated’ criticism has affected the RIBA’s ’reputation and standing’.

These include an article in The Times on 17 April, in which she claimed the RIBA was ‘institutionally racist’, and other press leaks which the organisation said it had ‘cause to believe’ Owusu had been involved in.

The letter, which Owusu has posted on Twitter, states that the architect had breached campaign and hustings guidelines and goes on to say: ‘These public statements are very damaging to RIBA’s reputation. This is all the more serious as you are a trustee of RIBA, owing fiduciary duty of care to the organisation whose interests you are expected to preserve and promote.

‘As Honorary Secretary, it is my role to preserve the governance and charitable function of RIBA. Your recent media activity is promoting your personal interests, running for Presidency of the RIBA, over and in breach of the duty of care and fiduciary standards of service you owe the organisation.’

The AJ has also discovered that Owusu had already been reported by the RIBA to the Charity Commission over her media statements about ’institutional racism’.  

A spokesperson for the commission said: ’We can confirm that the RIBA has submitted a serious incident report to the commission relating to concerns of potential reputational damage to the charity. We are currently assessing information provided to establish whether regulatory action will be required.’

Explaining its decision to contact the Charity Commission, an RIBA spokesperson said: ’As a charity, the RIBA is required to report any serious incident to the Charity Commission. As defined by the commission, a serious incident includes significant risks to a charity’s reputation.

’Trustees hold the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the charity makes a report, and does so in a timely manner. RIBA trustees provided a report to the Charity Commission in April 2018, outlining the reputational risks of unsubstantiated and misleading comments published in media coverage. The RIBA responded to the media coverage, correcting inaccuracies.

‘We will not be commenting on this matter further.’

Setting out the reasons why the institute sent its ’cease and desist’ letter to Owusu last week, a spokesperson said: ’This is not ‘gagging’, it is standard charity governance and a requirement of the regulator.

This is not ‘gagging’, it is standard charity governance

’As outlined by the Charity Commission, trustees - RIBA Council members - have a duty to act in the best interests of the charity at all times, working collegiately with other trustees and the chief executive. Should a trustee be seen to act in a manner that is not in the best interests of the organisation, or put their own personal interests above of or in breach of their role as trustee, fellow trustees are required to address this. The presidential candidates were advised at the start of the election that they are required to conduct themselves in accordance with requirements of trustees for the duration of the campaign.

They added: ’The RIBA promotes and welcomes debate among members. Our presidential hustings event this evening will be live-streamed and we encourage members to attend or watch on YouTube.’

Owusu has been approached for comment.

The final hustings will take place tonight (2 July) at 76 Portland Place. London.

Comment by former RIBA president Jack Pringle

While I don’t care for Owusu’s campaigning about Vallance’s salary I do deplore the gagging measures I hear of from the RIBA against Owusu.

Free speech is not always palatable but is to be defended.

More pertinently, current presidential candidates might consider whether the RIBA’s past officers and elected members have questions to answer about their financial stewardship of the Institute. When I left office 10 years ago we had a first-class Conran-designed restaurant for members and their guests – and millions in the bank. Now, it seems, we have a financial crisis so large we have to sell off some of the ‘family silver’; there is a desultory café for members and their guests and a rather smart canteen exclusively for staff.




Readers' comments (18)

  • Jack Pringle is correct in his comment. Over the last decade the RIBA descended into a governance and financial mess for which the various RIBA Board's during that period, incorrectly acting as so called RIBA Charity Trustees were responsible and should be held to account. The overriding reason for change is that while the current President and Chief Executive inherited those problems but members who were responsible for creating that mess are still in office and have a vested interest in preventing the facts being know by the membership. Hence the continued secrecy, lack of transparency and accountability, blanket use of confidentiality agreements. Now the almost unbelievable attempt at gagging and controlling what is said in the Presidential election. The RIBA is a professional Institute with some charitable activities. That is what it was until the misjudged and incorrect constitutional changes made in 2009/10. As members if we are to have our Institute back we need to ensure there is change at the top. Owen Luder CBE PPRIBA

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  • Yasmin Shariff

    Owusu is the only candidate who has the guts to tackle inconvenient truths that have alienated the membership and impoverished the Institute culturally, financially and morally.
    Lets not get diverted by the morally reprehensible gagging letter or colour the issue- this is a race for the presidency not about race.

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  • If what Owusu says is true, the gagging order will not be effective as it will be classed as "fair comment". However she has consistently failed to back up her accusations with evidence. In the last hustings round she lamented that the RIBA was not held in such high regard in UK as it is abroad; a regret with scarcely squares with her, to date, three major public attacks in the national media on the Institute's reputation.

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  • Chris Roche

    I agree with all of the above comments from former colleagues on RIBA Council. 10 years ago whilst serving on Council I had reason to report RIBA to the Charity Commission for electoral irregularities which appeared to involve a racial and sexual bias. The RIBA agreed to investigate conditional upon non-disclosure agreements which would have prevented the truth coming to light - terms which I refused to accept. I resigned from Council, and subsequently from the RIBA as I no longer wished to belong to an institution lacking transparency and accountability, but not before my practice details were published incorrectly for 2 years running with damaging impacts. Last week's hustings seemingly descended into farce when the press were excluded entry, apparently again for reasons of secrecy. The members deserve better governance and leadership.

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  • I agree with Past President Jack Pringle.
    Although welcoming Elsie Owusu's efforts, I find it hard to side with her after her attack on Kate Mackintosh.

    Surely the salary of the RIBA Chief Exec must, within a range, be publicly available information. Or is the RIBA really so secretive.

    The RIBA can spend years writing papers on it's future direction, but finds itself without direction, other than becoming irrelevant.

    I resigned from the RIBA mainly because of the sheer stupidity and arrogance of members at London Region, where Branches had to re-drawn to follow compass lines instead of supporting existing Branches. The exercise took 7 years and must have cost a considerable amount, with outside 'Facilitation' consultants being employed.
    Another reason was the sheer unhelpfullness of staff.

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  • Here we go. What has the issue of a single salary and the usual grains about the institute got to do with the decline in salaries and relevance of the architect - which is about 10 orders of magnitude more important! Don't get distracted from this side show. Architect's competitors and those who want tho see its demise are LAUGHING at this!!

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  • Groans...sorry!

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  • This attempt at a gagging order is outrageous.

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  • Well done, Elsie. You'll get my vote.

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  • Will the RIBA be issuing a gagging threat to the alleged original author of the salary statement ??. Perhaps this 'institution' (like the one 300 meters away; the BBC) needs shaking down and, (some might argue) it's quasi 'politburo' like 'closed-shop' intransigence and secrecy exposed?

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