Lord Michael Bichard’s review of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), published this week, sets out a clear path forward for the beleaguered professional body – a way out of the mire it has floundered in for the past 18 months, and the long-term governance blunders that created the mire in the first place. 

Lem Bingley

Lem Bingley

The current RICS management team commissioned Bichard’s review in December last year and have now eagerly embraced its findings. RICS is so very obviously drinking in the last-chance saloon that its current governors cannot reasonably reject the advice they have sought, or even be seen to quibble with it.

Bichard’s recommendations run both deep and broad, starting with the body’s fundamental purpose: serving its members and the public interest. Having established that foundation, Bichard has built a renewed mission statement, and then set out the governance structures he thinks will be needed to enable the mission and safeguard against internal conflicts of interest.

Notable among those suggested structures is a clean division between the role of RICS as a trade body, representing the needs and demands of its members, and its function as a regulator that sets standards, conducts investigations and holds its professional members to account. There is an obvious tension between these two responsibilities and Bichard spells out in some detail how the two functions should be insulated from each other, with an identifiable division in both funding and staffing, all the way up to board level.

As Bichard notes, past events have called into question whether the body’s regulatory efforts have served the public interest or simply the interests of members. “It is, of course, not the only professional body to have wrestled with these problems,” he states. “In professions such as solicitors, auditors and healthcare professionals, the government has intervened to create separate regulatory or oversight bodies. In fact, separate bodies have become the default setting for professional regulation and I would be surprised if government does not consider that option for chartered surveyors.”

The warning to RICS could not be clearer: sort these conflicts of interest out now, or government will do it for you.

Of course, the government effectively beat Bichard to this particular punch. The text of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, tabled on 11 May, included a specific provision on the governance of RICS. If enacted as currently phrased, the clause will give the levelling-up secretary the power to order independent reviews of RICS and its governance in the future, to safeguard the public interest.

The proposed law does not spell out what the secretary of state might do following such a review, beyond the requirement to publish any findings. But ministers don’t tend to grab the power to review things and then leave them well alone. DLUHC incumbent Michael Gove has

made it plain that he disagrees with the approach RICS has taken on the important issue of fire safety surveys, for example, and the bill would provide a path for him to intervene directly.

Against this kind of outcome, Bichard sounds a cautionary note: “For my part, I believe that it would be a mistake to establish a separate body.”

RICS now has a window of opportunity in which to sort itself out, but with a statutory sword hanging over its head. And in Gove we have a secretary of state who seems more than keen to wield every weapon at his disposal.