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Steamrolling through hospital plan is a prescription for disaster


We just can't get hospitals right. Following the criticism of the Whitechapel in London and the Edgbaston hospital in Birmingham by CABE, the latest onslaught comes not from CABE but from the planning authority. Terry Farrell and Partners has not only submitted an application that Westminster council does not like. It has also submitted a model that the council believes has 'significant inaccuracies'. Neither, believes the council, has the practice addressed many of the key issues raised in a previous letter.

How can an architect of Farrell's experience and professionalism end up suffering the equivalent of being rapped over the knuckles for not having done its homework properly? The clue is near the start of the letter that Graham King of Westminster wrote to Terry Farrell.

'The timetable you have to follow is one I understand that is set by the requirements of the NHS Private Finance Initiative (PFI) process, which has allowed you only two months to prepare this document.' Of course architects are used to working under pressure, but this is not a matter of throwing together a conceptual submission, of burning the midnight oil to come up with a brilliant idea.

The Health Campus Masterplan has a long and troubled history, which has already been the subject of a detailed report and rethink following a request for an investigation by the National Audit Office. As a result of massive cost overruns, the scheme, which brings together two NHS trusts, has been scaled down in ambition and rethought.

But there is still a huge amount of accommodation to squeeze onto a site that must not lose its public amenity.

This is an extremely complex project, but the impression is that there is a steamroller behind the architect, pushing it to grind out the design work as fast as possible.

The number of elements that need to be considered in a project like this is enormous and the stakes are huge. There have been recent celebrations of the opening of Thomas Heatherwick's snail-like bridge further along Paddington Basin. A badly conceived health development could scupper this good work, and bad hospitals could be costly white elephants. With all the problems already there, is it surprising that designers start to fail when also having to contend with the constraints of PFI?

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