Alan Jones returns as RIBA president, looks to put scandal behind him

Coming Clean

Alan Jones returns as RIBA president, looks to put scandal behind him

After stepping away from his post at the end of March amid mounting scandal, RIBA president Alan Jones is now back on the job. (Courtesy RIBA)

Two-and-a-half months after stepping away from his role as president of the Royal Institute of Royal Architects (RIBA) for “four to six weeks” under circumstances so murky that they that seemed—and proved—ripe for salacious, U.K.-style tabloid fodder, Alan Jones has officially returned to the job. He has also issued an apology for his conduct, which, as he wrote in a letter to his fellow RIBA members, “was not of the standard you have a right to expect of me.”

Assuming the role of RIBA president in September 2019, Jones, who is based in Northern Ireland, had only held the prestigious post for seven months before abruptly taking leave in what the Architects’ Journal described as a “shock decision.” Only one day after the news broke and Jones himself, in a letter addressed to the RIBA Council said that a “matter had arisen” which would require him to temporarily relinquish his presidential responsibilities, Building Design reported that his abdication was part of a vague but “serious” incident that involved a complaint to the Charity Commission, a non-ministerial government agency that regulates registered charities in England and Wales.

In the following weeks, as RIBA officially commenced its search for a successor to Jones for the two-year presidential post, rumors of extramarital affairs, misused funds, and potential blackmail began to swirl. By late April, it was established that authorities in Northern Ireland were investigating the aforementioned “serious incident,” and that law firm Browne Jacobson had launched an internal inquiry on behalf of RIBA. Meanwhile, RIBA remained tight-lipped about the matter. When reached for comment in early April, AN was provided with a statement from the organization’s chief executive, Alan Vallance, stating: “We will be working as hard as ever during the President’s time away to ensure minimum disruption to the RIBA business. The RIBA is led by a team of dedicated senior trustees and expert staff, who will continue to support our members and represent their interests at the highest levels.”

In his “I’m back on the job” apology letter, Jones more or less came clean and confirmed some of the allegations that had emerged during his leave. His letter reads in full:

“You will have seen media articles about recent events and that I was stepping back from my post for a period. I am writing to explain what happened and to apologise for my conduct which led to this, which was not of the standard you have a right to expect of me.

Some time ago I came into contact with a person who had become frustrated in her attempts to enter our profession. My intention was to help and support her, however gradually we became friends and later the relationship became close for some months. In March, matters between us came to a head. I disclosed the matter to my wife and to the RIBA which led to a report being made to the Charity Commission.

In December 2019 when I had been asked about this by members of the RIBA staff, I did not give a full and frank account of events. This I plainly should have done. I have now apologised to those concerned for this serious failing and have undertaken to the RIBA Board that nothing like this will happen again.

I am sorry for the distraction my conduct has caused to the RIBA at a time when our focus should be on supporting our members. I offer you all my sincere and unqualified apology.”

RIBA also issued a brief statement accepting Jones’s apology and confirming that he will return to his presidential responsibilities starting today: “As a result, and in line with RIBA’s Code of Conduct for Council members, the matter has been resolved fairly and proportionately and Alan Jones has apologised. Alan Jones will resume RIBA Presidential duties from Monday 15 June 2020.”

Based on the reaction of some online commentators, Jones’s decision to apologize and resume his role in lieu of stepping down isn’t necessarily a popular one.

Jones clearly wants to move on and finish out his term in a productive manner during a period of unprecedented uncertainty, but there have been calls for RIBA to undergo sweeping changes and reevaluate the presidential role moving forward. As Catherine Slessor, a leading Scottish-born architecture critic, wrote in an op-ed for the Architects’ Journal:

A fish rots from the head down’ goes the old Mafia saying. For the past two years, the RIBA has been reframing its governance structure, replacing its unwieldy council with a new, slimline body of trustees. Yet its presidency remains basically the same: a two-year term, largely ceremonial, with no real teeth or powers, attracting a dismal succession of provincial non-entities who fancy a break from practice, elected by a tiny fraction of the membership. In what was his second attempt to become president, Jones prevailed by getting just over half the votes cast in a turnout of 19 per cent. Not exactly a resounding mandate.

Jones’s election in August 2018 was mired with what the Guardian referred to as “allegations of institutional racism and of attempts to stifle criticism.” As of this writing, several key figures have announced their intention to become Jones’s successor in the role as 79th president of RIBA including Jude Barber, Simon Allford, and Sumita Singha.