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Lipton sides with unions in blast at PFI design standards

CABE chairman Sir Stuart Lipton has attacked design standards on Private Finance Initiative schemes, allying himself with the public sector union campaign for major reform to the procurement method.

While the commission has spoken out before about PFI, this is the first time Lipton has found common cause with its strongest critics, the trade unions. And with the forthcoming publication of its report on procurement - Design and the Economic Appraisal of New Developments (AJ 1.8.02) - now expected in mid-October, the speech represents a more outspoken attitude from the government agency.

Opposition to PFI is also growing stronger throughout the construction industry. Last week, Amec announced a one-year moratorium on the scheme, saying it was proving almost impossible to make PFI profitable.

Lipton hit out at the effects of PFI at the Unison policy conference entitled 'PFI: Failing our Future?'

He said it 'is largely failing to deliver the quality of public buildings that staff, users, visitors and the wider public deserve'.And he stressed that it is often public sector workers who are made to suffer.

'These workers are asked to meet ever-increasing demands for greater productivity and efficiency. To do so, they must be allowed to deliver services in buildings that are well designed and fit for that purpose, ' Lipton said.

He called on public sector trade unions to focus on the interests of a building's staff, as well as the cost of construction and maintenance. 'All too often, PFI contractors seek to maximise financial return rather than the quality of public service, ' Lipton said. 'It is up to you and your members to challenge government and the private sector and demand the highest quality of working environments. It is only then that we will get the functional, beautiful and sustainable buildings that we all deserve.'

However, Lipton also said that trade unions should not fail to engage with PFI altogether: 'I understand your antipathy to the process, but do not hide behind it.'

RIBA council member and procurement expert Simon Foxell, who also spoke at the conference, agreed that design standards achieved so far on PFI projects are 'pretty dire'. And he called on the government to make serious changes to the way it is carried out. Foxell said the PFI debate could be reaching a crucial stage, with a turning point on public procurement imminent. 'I understand that the government is about to instigate a policy shift on this, ' he added.

Foxell will present a proposed position paper on the PFI scheme for consideration by RIBA Council next week. It hits out at the 'damaging emphasis' on reducing the design stage of PFI projects to a matter of a few weeks. However, it also calls on the RIBA to do more to force reform of the scheme, saying it should campaign for adequate time to be given to the design stages.

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