“There is no such thing as the BBC,” wrote Times columnist Matthew Parris a fair while back, defending ‘Auntie’ from periodic attack. A reminder to those who periodically assault RICS. There’s no corporeal substance into which a knife can be plunged, just a bodiless spirit.
Attacking the BBC is a national blood sport. Attacking RICS is a local blood sport – a pastime that turned bloody again last month, after the mass resignation of a standards committee whose members felt they were being hounded out by the new management. Maybe.
A new board was announced earlier this week. The bodies that once ran the organisation deserved the attacks, which began in 2019, when four management board members were fired by chief executive Sean Tompkins. Angry members demanded an inquiry.
An excoriating 400-page report by Alison Levitt KC published in 2021 led to the departure of Tompkins and many other bodies. Levitt called for a ‘how do we fix things’ report – a study completed last summer by Lord Michael Bichard. The former civil servant called for 36 “urgent” and “unarguable” reforms. He is tasked with carrying them through. The pain is not over yet.
Today, a new set of officers are steering HMS RICS. On 5 July, Justin Young stepped aboard as chief executive. The one-time Knight Frank chief operating officer has a military background. It will stretch his skillset to stiffen discipline and revive the morale of staff who have suffered terrible uncertainty since 2019.
Current president Ann Gray, an architect and surveyor, is a US West Coast woman blessed with a level of social intelligence I’ve never seen in a president of RICS. The key hire is Martin Samworth. The well-liked and quietly effective former boss of CBRE’s UK business joined last December to chair a new governing board. His task is the toughest; herding cats is easier.
The RICS ship will never sink. Strident voices ordering the vessel to be consigned to the salvage yard can be ignored. The value of the ‘golden letters’ MRICS remains high enough for many employers to pay what is, in effect, a ‘licence to trade’.
Prestige conferred by membership is evidenced by the joy youngsters exhibit on gaining said letters. Those who did so 30 years ago might remember how they first felt, before firing off Blimpish complaints demanding “something must be done”. That said, grumblers make two valid points. There has been a lack of attention to home affairs and the fees make you grimace.
The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) inhabits grand offices near RICS HQ on Parliament Square and has 95,000 members, 25,000 of them overseas. RICS has 138,000 members, 40,000 overseas. The ICE’s 2022 wage bill for 334 staff is £19m. Subscriptions income was £17m. RICS employs 677 staff at a cost of £40m. Subscriptions income in 2022 was £51m. Plenty of ammo for defenders and attackers. RICS can afford 677 staff because subscription income is three times that of the ICE. If RICS had half as many staff it could freeze subscriptions for five years. Full UK ICE membership is £336 compared with £539 at RICS.
Must score higher
How tarnished is the reputation of RICS? Let’s judge, using the four ‘key strategic risks’ as defined by its General Council. ‘Remaining an influential thought leader’: holding it together, but room for improvement – 6/10. ‘Remain trusted by our stakeholders and society’: most stakeholders don’t care as much as you might think, the public very little. But trust has been damaged among active stakeholders – 5/10. ‘Professional qualifications remain in demand’: of course they do – 9/10. ‘Remain sustainable in the 21st century’: a polite way of saying income must always exceed expenditure. Action needed – 7/10.
The last upheaval began in 1999. The ‘Agenda for Change’ promoted international growth and pruned the Rotary Club-like branch structure, which led to a groundswell of indignation. Three presidents and an externally facing chief executive pushed hard to internationalise the institute. That worked very well. At the turn of the century there were 75,000 members, most in the UK, and a few in the ‘old’ Commonwealth. Today, RICS has 138,000 members, 29% overseas, mainly in Asia. The latter tend to subsidise the former, who can access far more services.
UK members were not well served during this expansion, leading to alienation and inattention from the big firms footing subscriptions. Lord Bichard’s 36 reforms, shaped by an independent consultation, are due to be actioned by December. They do not interest 95% of members. Their success will be measured by how hard the 5% are complaining in 2025.
Peter Bill is a journalist and the author of Planet Property and Broken Homes