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Alan Jones shouldn’t let a little local difficulty mar his presidency

Paul Finch

I’ve been covering RIBA presidents since 1972 and know that Portland Place can be discreet if it wants to be, writes Paul Finch

RIBA presidents, like the rest of us, are a mixed bunch. My first encounter with one took place in early 1972 when, as a junior reporter, I entered the hallowed halls of 68 Portland Place to attend a press conference called by the president, Alex (later Sir Alex) Gordon. We didn’t know what it would be about, but there had been much controversy over the vexed question of the institute’s membership charges.

A group of sparky young troublemakers – including Sam Webb, George Oldham and Kate Macintosh – had been lobbying for lower rates for salaried architects. RIBA Council was split on the subject: some supported the nascent Salaried Architects Group, while others thought an architect was an architect and that was that. Colonel Seifert, the premier commercial architect of the age but also an RIBA councillor, suggested that the membership fee should be increased, thereby finding out who was really interested in architecture as opposed to trade unions!

The press conference was short and to the point: the president announced that he would be asking all councillors to stand down, then to stand for re-election stating their position on fees to give members a clear choice when they voted. Having seen the machinations of student politics at close hand, this struck me as a strategy full of holes – as proved to be the case when only about half the councillors agreed to resign.

It became almost a cliché that presidents would have affairs with staff –  but we were more interested in the pitfalls of collateral warranties

This surreal introduction to RIBAWorld stood me in good stead to cover the ructions and controversies, mostly of little interest except to journalists and those closely involved, over the next few decades. ‘Scandals’ come and go. As far as personal relationships are concerned, it became almost a cliché that presidents would have affairs with staff, in a couple of cases ending up happily married to said personnel. Nobody paid much attention since we were more interested in the pitfalls of collateral warranties and the nightmare of compulsory competitive tendering.

Certainly no institute officials went rushing off to the Charity Commission, nor did they make public comments,when someone went to bed with the ‘wrong person’, so we will have to wait and see whether what is happening in respect of the current president is a storm in a teacup or something more significant. Let’s hope not.

Portland Place can be discreet if it wants to be. For example, it managed to hide the fact that its director of public affairs, was jailed for allegedly assaulting a police officer during a Thatcher-era miners’ strike. The party line was that the chap was on a sabbatical. We journos fell for it.

Public figures do not necessarily suffer as a result of naughty behaviour. Take Transport for London’s former chief, Peter Hendy. On 22 August 2013, in one of those brutal but quite funny headlines and straplines that were its speciality, The Sun declared on its front page: Exclusive: Love cheat exposed/£660k-a-year Sir and £140-an-hour hooker/BORIS’S BONKING BUS BOSS BEDDED BROKE BRASS. You didn’t need to read much further to get the general idea of what had been going on.

It doesn’t seem to have affected Hendy’s subsequent career and I commend the story to Alan Jones if he needs some light reading to take his mind off his little local difficulty. The season can only get sillier.


Readers' comments (2)

  • No mention of potential misuse of the Institute's money, Mr Finch, which is reportedly the question (rather than the personal relationships connection) that the RIBA seems to have thought necessary to present to the Charities Commission.

    But above all else, is the RIBA now (temporarily?) rudderless just when the ghastly shadow of Grenfell House is looming large - and a quasi-governmental registration board that's been snapping at the Institute's heels for years might even be ready to elbow the RIBA off its pedestal?

    The ARB has already got itself on many an architects' notepaper, as if just calling themselves an architect is meaningless, whereas in fact no architects are entitled to the name unless they pay off the ARB every year for the privilege.

    The best method of continuing assurance of an architect's presumed competence to practice is even more necessary now with the 'dirty washing' being displayed at the Grenfell Enquiry, but personally I would far rather see this being administered by an effective and capable RIBA rather than the ARB - which, to me, has displayed empire building tendencies outside its remit.
    And, while I'm at it, government sharpening of the quality management of architects might be an easy option, compared to cleaning up the big house builders who've been behaving like the mafia, or the estate agents who seem to be astonishingly unregulated?
    Will 'friends in high places' turn reform into a black farce?

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  • Covering up assault may have been normal in the eighties, but is not what we should expect of the RIBA today.

    Transparency is needed to maintain / restore the RIBA's reputation. The President is representing the membership, and any questions of mis-management of funds or inappropriate behaviour should be transparently investigated.

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