Opinion: Why RICS Regulation Must Act
As a breed, we surveyors are trained to notice when things go wrong. So there is nothing more difficult for a surveyor, than seeing a fellow professional make an error, deliver a below par service and not follow the standards and rules we follow.
And it’s not’s just because we understand and see the impact it might have on a project, the way something is constructed or the devastating consequences it might have for a family - their home and security. It’s also because once you have this information, you have a professional obligation to do something with it.
We need a sounding board to talk things through, put a situation into context and consider what is fact and our assumptions and bias. And that’s how I came to hear about the behaviour and practices of this particular surveyor and their business. The allegations listed in this disciplinary are just a fraction of the allegations made and I presume, only the ones RICS is able to take forward.
Over the past few years I have been approached by and spoken to many surveyors, graduates and trainees, members of the public and clients with their concerns. They and I have spoken with everyone from Trading Standards and Action Fraud to insolvency solicitors, the police, PropertyMark and RICS. None of them has had any bite, appetite, or enough power to bring this to a stop, let alone prevent the situation happening.
It has been brought to the attention of local, national and trade press as well and a number of politicians - there are even dedicated social media groups and pages about it and other allegations.
It is a well known yet, dirty secret of the surveying profession. Firms they owed money to did not step forward when they could - we even begged one firm which would have resulted in them being made insolvent much sooner. Individual surveyors and businesses refused to get involved for fear of their names being disclosed leaving a few brave students to give evidence. How could we let them down?
On the eve of the disciplinary, this has all been weighing on my mind and although I have shared all of these thoughts with RICS at different levels of the organisation, I can’t help but share my thoughts and wider concerns for what they are worth such is the lack of confidence I have in RICS’s ability to regulate adequately.
Why did no one want to listen?
As RICS members we do not have a whistleblowing policy or protection in the same way an employee of RICS does. There is a Speak Up campaign and complaints can be made anonymously. Crucially though, if a case is taken forward they may need to disclose the persons name and surveyors are told this at the start and can put them off proceeding. Could this be positioned, supported and handled better?
Some of us have pants big enough to deal with difficulties, but not everyone does. It takes courage to call it out - a surveyors livelihood may be under threat if they do. We often live and work in close proximity and that might make things very difficult socially. And what of our vulnerable students and graduates walking into their early roles in all good faith? Not creating psychologically safe spaces as a profession is a risk to all of us and the public.
Many people told me they had concerns and tried to raise them. Even if they felt they couldn’t take it forward, was that information used I wonder? In most surveying businesses, complaints range from expressions of dissatisfaction right the way through to legal claims. Add in audit data and a business has a better picture - data - on what is happening, where the risks are and crucially, the opportunity to close the loop and create a plan to prevent situations happening.
If so many people had concerns, we should be curious why it took so long to be heard because had it been stopped earlier, less people would have been emotionally and financially impacted.
Are we sure about our ‘gold standard’?
Forging documents for professional membership is a serious allegation. But there were other opportunities to acknowledge the problem when a lack of PII and member complaints were raised for instance.
At every stage concerns were raised about this person even as they entered awards, were nominated for panels, used press opportunities, created online courses for trainee surveyors and shockingly achieved fellowship. This in its self demonstrates the depth and breadth of the worrying lack of regulation, due diligence and approach to risk as more and more people were drawn in to approve, verify and advocate for this surveyor. No one talked to each other, so no one raised any queries. We have to ask why that was.
While past criminal convictions for fraud may have been spent, where there is property and money, there is a risk of fraud and cutting corners. Why is valuation not a protected status and not even being discussed or proposed? Should there not be enhanced credit/DBS checks for example? What about a requirement for those walking into peoples homes and safe spaces everyday? Why are surveyors and firms not externally audited for quality and competency, or at the very least a requirement to do so?
We should never be complacent given the work in our sector and its effect on the public and the economy. We promote the ‘gold standard’ as a profession - that should apply to our regulatory body too.
What are the consequences?
Naming and shaming of individuals is not enough - it is not possible to search properly on the RICS website for all hearing and appeals as some are only listed in Modus by quarter. There is a significant lack of transparency and this makes it difficult for consumers and employers to carry out their own due diligence.
Does or could RICS work with others on criminal prosecutions for example? As a membership there are difficult questions for us to answer. While the law must be followed to avoid discrimination no member I have spoken agrees a person with previous convictions for fraud should be a member. Everyone has the right to rehabilitation, yet is it not responsible to take a cautious approach when then risk is so high? What else needs to be put in place to restore confidence?
Regardless of the consequences for this individual, the wider consequences are that the surveying profession has been damaged and members and the public have lost faith and trust in the institution. We can never anticipate every scenario but an organisation can structure itself and the way it works to move more quickly and be relevant when it needs to.
You might feel this case is an exception; it is frankly, quite astonishing. It also demonstrates to me a perfect example of a system which has failed.
RICS has been working hard to turn the ship around - it now has a captain who is building a strong crew and working on changing a culture. But it is only one half of the story to look at the way an organisation is run, it also needs to look at the what the organisation does, how it regulates and urgently make improvements. It simply cannot wait any longer and should start with a full investigation and review into its own handling of this particular case from start to finish.
Because although RICS does not have oversight as a self regulator, it is answerable to its members and the public it serves, and we deserve better.