Five members of the RICS Governing Council (GC) are absorbing a 400-page report by Alison Levitt QC on the circumstances surrounding the sacking of four members of the institution’s management board in November 2019. This steering group will issue directions to the ruling body’s other 21 members.
What actions follow depends on two factors: one, has anything nasty been found in the woodshed? Two, if not, will this newly populated ruling body back the management, or side with members fed up in with the management?
Either way, what was a private tiff has ballooned into a crisis of confidence in the 130,000-member institution. On one side stands a defensive management. On the other a small but powerful group of disaffected members, backed by a group of top agents – a group whose power lies in footing the average fee of £537 a year it costs to attach the still-trusted letters after your name. Not since the contentious ‘Agenda for Change’ roiled RICS 20 years ago have member/management relations seemed so fraught.
The management is led by muscular chief executive Sean Tompkins. He assumed command in 2010 when Rear Admiral Louis Armstrong stood down after a decade in which membership was pushed up from 75,000 to more than 100,000 by the ‘Agenda for Change’ programme. As the late Armstrong reflected in my book Planet Property in 2013: “The institution ceased being a cosy gentlemen’s club based somewhere in Little England and set in the 1960s.”
Will the new ruling body back the management, or side with the members?
It was nice to be asked by Levitt if I knew why the four were sacked, perhaps for having the cheek to query the judgement of Tompkins and then president Chris Brooke, now £70,000-a-year part-time chair of the governing council?
But “not a clue” was my answer.
Same goes for one of the four, former RICS president, Steve Williams. “We still don’t really understand why we were terminated for expressing concern and wanting to help,” he told me. “We’d successfully collaborated with RICS leaders on a number of previous occasions.”
Williams, accountant Amarjit Atkar, lawyer Simon Hardwick and Turner & Townsend partner Bruce McAra wanted details of a 2018 report by accountants BDO that had warned RICS was at risk of “unidentified fraud, misappropriation of funds and misreporting of financial performance”. They discovered only by accident that the report existed, in spring 2019.
The four began asking questions, worried about the ramifications for RICS if the findings were not aired and shared. They were rebuffed. After formally asking in a letter in the November they were fired. They went quietly.
Just over a year later, The Sunday Times published a detailed story suggesting the influential Windsor Group of top agents were fed up with the management and wanted a full inquiry into the whole affair. Tompkins and current president Kath Fontana initially resisted but then gave way. Alison Levitt was eventually appointed.
She has clearly dug deep. The report has three versions: ‘Open’ ‘Closed and ‘Executive Summary’.Last week, in an open letter shared with Property Week, Williams demanded the report be published in full, as “redacting or tempering the report will only exacerbate the damage done”.
He affirms his letter “has received robust support and its receipt has been acknowledged by the Governing Council”, most of whom were not in office in late 2019. “If only the then council had seen our late-2019 letter, we could all have worked to resolve the issues and prevented this escalation,” he adds.
What defines the future of RICS is trust in the initials, not individuals. It will take more than the present troubles to dim that trust. Tompkins and Fontana seem to be preparing a ‘let’s move on’ defence. The pair are overseeing a survey into RICS’ ‘purpose and relevance’. Headhunters are searching for a candidate to follow Brooke as GC chair. But it will likely be what Levitt found that will set the next agenda for change.
Peter Bill is a journalist and the author of Planet Property and Broken Homes