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Learning from Newham: uncovering the cracks in PFI

PFI bids, we are told a d nauseam, are judged according to 'best value' as opposed to lowest possible cost. Yet the post-project evaluation report on the Newham Centre for Mental Health says 'the view of the Trust finance director is that the contract as signed provides poor value to the Trust' but tha t 'it is generally accepted as true that the completed building represents very good value for the price paid'.

Clearly, value was not the determining factor in awarding the contract, but was added between exchange of contracts and the building's completion.

Improvements have been implemented during the construction process, not least the provision of administrative offices, which were inexplicably overlooked in the brief. But to deliver the building on budget, ad hoc improvements had to be paid for elsewhere. The cost-cutting measures employed included a raft of common practices that are often harmless, but which, on a project such as this, can have catastrophic results - the seemingly innocuous decision to replace the bespoke windows designed by the architect with a standard product has, in this instance, led to an increased risk of escape and suicide attempts. Changes to the building programme had a disruptive impact on administrative procedures, including the planned procedure for familiarising staff with their new environment; another apparently minor detail that becomes rather more incendiary when, to quote directly from the post-project report, 'it was suggested during the interview process that the two suicides which have occurred since the facility opened may have arisen in part due to staff being unfamiliar with the requirements of the new ward layouts'.

The report helpfully identifies ways of rectifying many of the building's inherent problems, effectively recommending a comprehensive improvement programme to a building that has been operational for just 18 months. A costly and embarrassing prospect, but rather less troubling than the list of problems that, being deemed irrevocable, have been left to languish under the category of 'lessons to be learned'. The main lesson, surely, is that PFI requires a client who can recognise, insist on, and pay for, true value right from the very start.

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