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CABE voices concern over PFI

With the number of privately funded public buildings set to increase dramatically, CABE commissioners warn that standards for public buildings must improve.

As the Department for Education and Skills gears up for a massive number of school construction projects during the next few years, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has warned that the scale of mistakes made with high-rise buildings during the 1960s is about to be repeated.CABE commissioners are currently drawing up proposals for the reform of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) process - which it considers 'an urgent issue'. Their findings will be presented at a conference next month.

CABE's call comes as the government publishes its White Paper on education, in which it explicitly recognises, for the first time, the link between good design and educational standards. During the next three years 650 schools will be either replaced or substantially remodelled, in addition to major building work at a further 7,000 schools. A considerable number of these will be financed using the PFI.

But CABE has 'serious reservations' about the quality of educational buildings resulting from the PFI process. It claims that PFI has failed to deliver the upwards step-change in design quality the government promised would result. Richard Feilden, the CABE commissioner with responsibility for educational buildings, said that of the 14 or so UK schools now completed through the PFI, only a small number are 'adequate' and that some of the schemes currently on the drawing board will be 'very poor indeed'. Feilden told the AJ that the scale of building work about to be undertaken through the PFI was 'a matter of extreme concern'.

But the Office of Government Commerce - which is currently reviewing its guidelines on the PFI - denied that commercial pressures during the process inevitably lead to a lowering in design standards. A spokesman said contractors have an incentive to pursue best design and building practice, because they are responsible for long-term maintenance as well as for the design of the building. 'PFI is an innovative and sophisticated way of getting projects developed and built to timescale, ' he added. 'There is building work going ahead that would not have been possible without PFI.'

David Crewe, executive director of Rethinking Construction, agreed. He argued that the PFI process incorporates the fundamental principles ofRethinking Construction - the recognition that everyone has a part to play in putting a building together. He said: 'These are new areas, and people are still learning. It's worth sticking at it to find a more integrated approach. It involves changing the culture of the industry, moving away from a sequential process to a more comprehensive one.'

These discussions come as a unique PFI scheme at Haverstock School in north London's Camden, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects (AJ 26.7.01), looks set to go ahead. Under the normal PFI process, the local authority draws up a set of general intentions and standards for the project before putting it out to tender. The shortlisted contractors will include detailed designs as well as financial proposals in their final bids. The designs may even go into the planning stage.

'In the normal run of things, its not possible for the bidders to have a close relationship with the client, ' said Feilden, the architect for the £17 million Haverstock scheme. 'Lots of cosying up goes on, as bidders try to prove they would be good to work with. But they are not actually working closely, with a normal relationship between client and design team.'And once the preferred bidder has been decided, projects are often rushed forward to construction stage with little 'thinking space' to improve the design.

But in the case of Haverstock School, the design was worked up before a decision had been made about the funding route to be taken. Labour councillors at Camden council last week voted to support a PFI bid for the project. Although the use of the scheme will not be a condition for potential bids, it will be presented as an exemplar.

Feilden points out that there are considerable advantages with this mechanism: it reduces the work for bidding contractors; and it is clear what is going to be built and makes it possible for a meaningful dialogue between the client and the design team to drive up innovation and optimise design. Feilden is 'optimistic' that his scheme for Haverstock will be implemented.

CABE is looking at ways of improving conventional PFI practice as well as developing alternative practices. The arrangement at Haverstock will be one of the new models to be put forward.

THE PFI CONCEPT

The Private Finance Initiative is an alternative way of raising money for the construction and maintenance of major public building projects. The local authority enters into a contract with a private sector company - or group of companies - to design, build, finance and operate a school, hospital, court or other facility for a set period (usually 25-30 years). The company, or consortium, then leases the facility back to the government in return for payments made over the life of the project.

Before a project can proceed, local authorities must seek approval from central government in the form of PFI 'credits' which determine how much can be spent.

Although PFI began under a Conservative government, with the first deal being signed in 1987, it took off under New Labour, which has championed its use as a key way of meeting its commitment to improving public services.

Since 1997, 449 PFI contracts have been signed for schools alone, with a further 343 in the pipeline. Six new PFI hospitals have already opened, and a further 100 are expected during the next 10 years, with the majority funded using PFI.

Supporters claim that PFI makes money immediately available to meet today's needs and that it reduces public sector spending. They also claim that PFI transfers risk from the public to the private sector.

Critics point out that since the project must eventually be paid for, it simply becomes a longterm, rather than a short-term, commitment. They claim that since the private company must make a profit, and government has access to cheaper borrowing, these deals will prove to be more expensive.

PFI has also been criticised as exceptionally slow, complex and cumbersome. And because public authorities often commission large numbers of buildings in one package, it tends to favour larger firms over smaller ones.

A recent Institute for Public Policy Research report, Building Better Partnerships, challenged the method, arguing that government has made PFI the only acceptable procurement route - 'the only game in town'.

PFI BUILDING SCHEMES

Terence O'Rourke's St John Colfox School in Bridport, Dorset, is generally considered to be one of the few successes of PFI. Other completed projects include the £87 million Cumberland Infirmary by LlewelynDavies and the £66 million Wythenshaw Hospital in Manchester by WS Atkins. Bennetts Associates' plans for Brighton Central Library have been praised by CABE as an 'exemplary private finance initiative'.

However, the governors of Pimlico School in south London controversially rejected plans by Ellis Williams Architects to demolish and rebuild the school using a PFI arrangement.

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