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Winchester station approach debacle: What went wrong?

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Architect calls for ‘root and branch’ rethink of how city procures projects following collapse of station approach contest

Architects and councillors have pointed to a catalogue of errors behind Winchester City Council’s (WCC) ‘fatally flawed’ station approach competition, which ended with a veto of Hopkins’ frontrunning scheme.

The surprise outcome – which came just months after the Conservative-led council scrapped Allies and Morrison’s long-running Silver Hill development – has led to a call for urgent ‘root and branch’ reform of procurement in the city.

Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Tod, who spoke against the station approach project at last month’s council meeting, said failures to learn from ‘scale problems’ with Silver Hill were fundamentally to blame.

He said the wishes of local residents had been ‘dumped in favour of a chase for maximum development and maximum cash’.

Council documents show both Hopkins and shortlisted rival Design Engine received low marks from the design jury but scored highly on the commercial viability assessment.

Hopkins’ scheme received a lower design jury mark but outscored Design Engine on the commercial analysis – which required large numbers of parking spaces – and therefore won overall.

Tod said: ‘The scheme that “won” actually lost on the design jury vote and only went through because of the overdevelopment and excessive parking levels, which were so disliked by local people and so wrong for the area.’

He continued: ‘The scoring scheme that was put in place was fatally flawed – rewarding massive overdevelopment and excessive parking and failing to make any allowance for congestion and air pollution – even though these were repeatedly highlighted by the public and local councillors as critical challenges in the area.’

Liberal Democrat councillor Lucille Thompson argued against placing more parking spaces close to a congested junction with Andover Road and said a traffic and movement study should have been completed prior to drawing up the brief and was urgently needed now.

She said the brief – which required large-scale development to pay for underground parking – should be scaled down in recognition of new parking facilities set to be delivered by Network Rail nearby later this year.

Thompson said: ‘There needs to be a bit of calm to reflect on what went wrong before we start again’, adding that any future contest would require an honorarium higher than £15,000, ‘otherwise no-one would take part.’

Hopkins and Design Engine emerged as frontrunners for the job in March after rivals Aedas RHWL, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Grimshaw withdrew amid concerns that the competition had been too restrictive, too expensive and the final project fee too low.

Conservative councillor Kim Gottlieb said: ‘Despite the warnings given, the council failed to appreciate that the withdrawal of three out five shortlisted architects was probably unprecedented and clearly pointed to a flaw in the process it was pursuing.

‘The two who steadfastly continued were both fine firms but, I believe, were let down by a vague and changing brief and by an arcane process that lacked the transparency and flexibility needed.

‘Winchester will, one day, learn how to pursue such projects successfully, but first it needs to learn how to become an intelligent client.’

Design Engine director Richard Jobson criticised Winchester City Council for running a ‘highly unusual’ competition which ‘required incredibly detailed information to be provided’.

He said: ‘The contest involved four dialogue sessions over four months with selected representatives from the city and their commercial agents, who were very influential. The work submitted was not far off a full planning application, but both architects were paid only £15,000 for their work.’

Bidding costs for the final two teams are thought to have reached about £100,000 each.

Commenting on the ‘depressing’ U-turn, Jobson said: ‘Clearly it signifies a complete breakdown in the process and, from what I understand, a root and branch rethink of how the city procures projects in the future. It also particularly upsetting as a local practice that, following the collapse of Silver Hill, our city has allowed this situation to happen again.

‘We hope that the lessons learnt will result in the recognition of the positive contribution architects can make to the development of cities and that our intellectual property is better valued.’

The RIBA supplied WCC with a shortlist of potential client advisers but was otherwise uninvolved in the contest.

Commenting on the outcome, a RIBA spokesperson said: ‘All competitions should have transparent entry requirements and be clear about the client’s intentions. We would be happy to share our best practice guidance with any client.’

Focusing on the council-owned Carfax and Cattlemarket plots, the project aimed to deliver a mix of commercial, residential and retail development.

Five teams were shortlisted from 22 entries to the contest in December and were offered £15,000 each to draw up design proposals.

Competitors were given an extra four weeks to prepare their bids in January, but Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Grimshaw both withdrew at this stage, citing increased workloads elsewhere.

Aedas RHWL also walked away from the competition in February, with WCC council leader Stephen Godfrey telling The Hampshire Chronicle the firm ‘felt it was too expensive to continue’.

Hopkins – anonymised as Team B in council documents – has yet to be formally named as the ‘preferred bidder in principle’, despite the decision not to proceed with the project.

WCC’s cabinet agreed to take the development forward and award Team B preferred bidder status at a meeting earlier last month. At a full council meeting last week (20 July), however, councillors decided not to appoint the studio. Instead councillors asked for a report about alternative developments for the plot, which will be discussed at a future cabinet meeting.

A WCC statement in response to the debacle argued that more Grade A office space was needed to accommodate 20,000 new jobs expected to be created in the area over the next 15 years and acknowledged councillors felt the scheme ’would not be right for Winchester’.

WCC leader councillor Stephen Godfrey said: ‘While this delay is unwelcome, we will take the opportunity to strengthen the scheme and bring it back in a better form in the near future.

‘The council is working with Hampshire County Council on transport issues and movement around the city. This work will be reflected in the station approach proposals.’

He continued: ‘There is widespread support for the principle of developing the area, but there remain significant differences about exactly how this ought to be achieved.

‘The whole council wants to make sure that any proposals work for Winchester and help Winchester to work.’

Q+A

City of Winchester Trust chair Michael Carden

How did this happen?

Because of the recent Silver Hill experience when the council’s procurement process was successfully challenged in the courts, advice was taken from solicitors on how to avoid that risk again. The solicitors proposed a competition procedure, which unfortunately precluded the RIBA from taking part. The process has proved problematic for a number of reasons, including the early withdrawal of three of the five shortlisted architects, priority being given to commercial aspects to the exclusion of important urban design requirements of the brief, and ‘fail’ level scoring of both final schemes by the design jury, due in part to the lack of a prior traffic and movement study of the area.

What do you think should happen to the site now?

First there has to be a pause to permit a careful and public review of the options, which appear to be: a) abandonment of the project, b) cancellation of the process so far and a fresh start, or c) some means if it were possible of retrieving the present situation by re-briefing the two contestants, both of whom are capable of designing appropriate solutions. Meanwhile, the missing traffic/movement study and further public consultation should take place.

How can Winchester ensure unsatisfactory procurement processes like this are avoided in the future?

By consulting the RIBA about the possible options before committing to a process. Introducing design advice at cabinet level, and by carrying out a strategic overall look at the city to avoid further piecemeal, unrelated proposals. All of which have been recommended in the past by the trust and others.

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • True to past form, rather than listening to the criticism and seeking to adjust their procedures to obtain a better outcome for all, the Winchester District's ruling group are seeking ways in which to reverse the informed rejection of this development proposal, and steamroller ahead, oblivious of all opposition or argument. Michael Hopkins architects are in a very strong negotiating position to do Winchester citizens and their own professional reputation big favours, if they care to use it, to improve on the inappropriate brief and produce a design which responds sensitively to context.

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