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The RIBA needs to resolve its governance issues and move on

Paul Finch
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Sir John Tusa’s resignation is a wake-up call for the institute, says Paul Finch

The extraordinary departure of John Tusa from the RIBA, revealed in the AJ last week, is a reminder that all human institutions have weaknesses as well as strengths.

In brief, Tusa resigned from his role as chairman of the grandly named British Architectural Trust Board (BATB) last December. In an incendiary letter to Council, he let fly at both individuals and the structure of the institute, claiming among other things that it was ruled by fear, and that his role as chair of the Trust Board ‘has not been supported and often been undermined’.

The final straw came at a meeting of the RIBA Board on 15 December 2016. This was not the Trust Board that Tusa chaired, but the board which has devolved powers from RIBA Council, in effect to run the institute. What sounds like a nightmare meeting included a series of exchanges between Tusa and elected councillors; he realised that he had no support from them, nor from staff (who, he said, owed loyalty to Council and the Board rather than to the Trust).

In his letter to Council, Tusa declared ‘I know of no arts organisation which is run by a council of 60; it is a practical and theoretical nonsense.’

He added that the supremacy of Council ‘stalemates succeeding presidents, emasculates the board and paralyses the staff. It is a structure guaranteed to produce deadlock, disputation and failure. In this, it succeeds triumphantly.’

Tusa is a good wordsmith, but I am not entirely convinced by his analysis.

For one thing, his claim that the RIBA is an ‘arts organisation’ is nonsense. It is a professional institute. For another, his statement that the British Architectural Library Trust is an ‘independent trust’ is most certainly open to question. President Jane Duncan, who is steering the institute through choppy waters with admirable calm, says the BATB is a sub-committee of Council. Either Tusa is right, or the president. I am sure it is the president.

Finally, Tusa is obviously irritated, judging by his letter, about being reminded that the institute is a membership organisation. As a former panjandrum at the BBC, he was accustomed to an organisational culture where those paying for it could be ignored with relative impunity. That is not the case with the RIBA, whose members have been supporting cultural activities, including the Library, Drawings Collection and educational and awards programmes for far longer than the BBC has existed – and doing so out of their own pockets.

However, whatever one thinks of the detail of Tusa’s letter, the fact that a significant cultural figure felt unable to continue working for the institute should not be taken lightly. Moreover, his complaint about governance needs to be seen in the context of separate serious complaints from a former honorary secretary and from existing councillors. All think that Council is being bypassed, and that there are fundamental legal questions about the structure of the institute, not to mention the loan to lease premises in Portland Place at, apparently, vast expense.

There is nothing new about controversy at the RIBA

There is nothing new about controversy at the RIBA. When I first visited No 66 as a stripling reporter in 1972, it was to hear an explanation from the president as to why he had invited all councillors to resign and stand for re-election following a row about membership fees. Not exactly a design issue. Then, as now, the more inward-looking the RIBA, the less it matters to anyone else.

Governance matters need resolution, but should not become the core activity of an institute whose Royal Charter states that its purpose is the ‘general advancement of Civil Architecture’. The new RIBA architecture centre in Liverpool, opening in June, is welcome evidence of just that aspiration.

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