Power without responsibility? Do government proposals on procurement mean it is ignoring its responsibilities as a client?
The tragic events in Kosovo have had one surprising effect. In this country, with media which adore chewing over every problem until it becomes incomprehensible and irrelevant pap, it has shown that there are times when governments, as with individuals, are faced with an 'either/or' decision.
nato had the choice of either becoming involved in trying to halt ethnic cleansing, or it could stand aside. To put it harshly, the uk government was faced with a choice of appeasement or aggression.
Making decisions is never easy. Advice and assistance may be sought, but if one is the actual decider, the point comes when the step of deciding has to be taken and, even allowing for later adjustments, can never be reversed. Obviously, the greater the implications of that decision, the harder - and more far-reaching - the results of the process will be.
Deciding to commission a building involves committment to considerable expense. Even the most jaded quantity surveyor would have to admit that buildings do not come cheap. For the government, with a construction budget of about £24 billion - or 40 per cent of the uk construction industry's turnover - making the necessary committments has proved to be something from which they are shying away.
In June this year, the Treasury will publish guidelines for construction procurement which seek to improve quality, performance and value for money. To achieve this, the government wishes to encourage the use of a 'partnering' system of single-point commissioning, roughly equivalent to a turn-key job. The client (mysteriously called a 'sponsor') will appoint a 'prime contractor' who looks after everything from planning, design and construction to cleaning the wcs for several years and, in some cases, even arranging finance.
Architects are reduced to second-tier suppliers (subbies, labour-only), encouraged to be part of a team. Subbies are not part of a team. Their opinion is seldom sought, and rarely welcome. According to a Treasury spokesman, government bodies, such as the National Audit Office, will 'encourage' organisations, such as nhs Trusts, to use the new procurement methods.
This could be very serious for the architectural profession.The role of prime contractor is very onerous and it is unlikely that any achitectural practice could - or would be wise to even consider - taking on such a level of liability.
What is contradictory about this move is that research (by the James R Knowles consultancy) has shown that 90 per cent of private clients are happy with traditional procurement. Trying to argue down its own findings, the Knowles organisation quotes a 'senior manager' in a retail organisation as being less than happy with traditional methods. While trying to put a positive spin on overwhelmingly contradictory research, it has unwittingly identified the core of the whole problem.
Nobody cares what a retail apparatchik thinks. Middle management does not decide policy. Middle management does not have an overview of the results of policy decisions - and, crucially, middle management has neither the power nor the freedom to undertake decisions on its own account. Middle managers are not clients.
What the government is seeking to do is to turn its various satellite organisations (the 'sponsors') into middle management. The levels of justification in financial and performance terms required under the new procurement guidelines are at least as onerous for the 'sponsor' as for the 'prime contractor'. Just as the architect is moved further from the point of commissioning, so the real clients (those with the real freedom and power to act) are themselves moved further away. There is no client/consultant relationship, because, in reality, there is no client. There is nobody to make a clear decision.
No decision - no building. As with the notorious Private Finance Initiative, it is likely that considerable time, trouble and expense will be used up on a mass of projects which never happen. For the government, insisting on such hard procurement routes means that it will inevitably save some of that £24 billion.
For once, the architectural profession should look after itself. If hm Government wants quality buildings, it will have to use procurement methods appropriate to the provision of quality. If it wants fixed-price moderate- quality buildings, it will have to learn to make the up-front decisions necessary for design/build.
The Treasury will publish its guidelines. Various large organisations will try to contort themselves into satisfying the rigorous requirements of becoming prime contractors. A few buildings, possibly somewhat nondescript in character, may result.
If the architectural profession does not wish to become construction 'middle management', it will have to assert itself and state clearly that quality design represents real value for money.
For a client as powerful as the government, there can be no misunderstanding. If public bodies wish to commission buildings, then they should do so in a clear and open manner. If the current 'non-procurement' methods continue, this country will find that it has a serious lack of new facilities: hospitals, schools, police stations, fire stations, etc. The government either has to show that there are sufficient funds for them to undertake necessary building works, or to own up to the realities of the uk as a country which has to clip coupons from crisp packets to buy books for its schools.
As a client, the government should decide what it wants, ensure that the funding is available, and then have one suitably qualified and capable individual in place as the client who can cope with the implications of the changing requirements within the project's life.
The architectural profession should stand up for itself, and make itself heard at all levels. Whether it is with a local nhs trust or a school, at county level, or with the government, construction's traditional 'lead consultants' should take a lead. If the powers-that-be make it impossible for a practice to design a decent new primary school in Wiltshire (or
wherever), they should go and design one in France (where they are proud of their schools) and then come back and let them know what they are missing in Wiltshire.
Richard Haut is a member of the riba vice-president's theme committee and produces the weekly 'competitions' magazine with details of new architectural projects and contests across the uk and Europe translated into English. For details tel 0171 404 7877, fax 0171 242 1910, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org