Will Hurst examines TfL’s admission on the £175 million project’s procurement failings and considers its wider implications
The public procurement process that selected Thomas Heatherwick and Arup to design London’s £175 million Garden Bridge was neither ‘open’ nor ‘objective’. Transport for London (TfL) publicly admitted last week.
The AJ first reported claims that the process was ‘sketchy’ almost 11 months ago, but it has taken until now for the client – which controls a £3.8 billion capital budget – to acknowledge just how flawed it was.
Quizzed last Thursday (22 October) by the London Assembly’s oversight committee, which has been investigating the procurement, TfL’s director of internal audit Clive Walker was visibly uncomfortable as chairman Len Duvall pressed him on the fairness and transparency of the 2013 procurement (see timeline).
Walker, who oversaw a largely discredited internal audit into the matter earlier this year, twice declined to answer Duvall on whether it was true that the process was neither open nor objective, before answering ‘yes’ at the third time of asking.
The failings may have far-reaching consequences for TfL’s annual spend
His reluctance to answer was understandable given that just the day before, TfL chairman and mayor Boris Johnson – who has pledged at least £30 million of London taxpayers’ money for the highly controversial project – had told the London Assembly that critics were ‘misinformed’ and that the procurement of the Garden Bridge had been ‘robust’.
So what exactly do we now know about the chain of events that led to the crucial 2013 appointment of Heatherwick Studio as concept designer for the bridge, ahead of Wilkinson Eyre and Marks Barfield?
And, perhaps more importantly for architects in general,what could the revelations about its seriously flawed backing by London government mean for future public-sector procurement in the capital?
At some point between May 2012, when the Garden Bridge’s champion Joanna Lumley first lobbied the mayor, and February 2013, when the initial invitation to tender (ITT) was made, Johnson was persuaded to throw his weight behind the idea of a ‘living bridge’ across the Thames (see timeline).
Within this time period, Heatherwick rose to global prominence when his Olympic cauldron was unveiled at the London 2012 opening ceremony on July 27. TfL appointed Heatherwick Studio in March 2013 after it received the highest scores in categories including ‘understanding the brief’ and ‘relevant design experience’ – despite the fact that the practice had designed just one bridge, while Wilkinson Eyre had designed more than 25.
The suspicion is that the appointments of Heatherwick and technical designer Arup were rigged. Certainly the mayor was not open over the process – every piece of information on Johnson and the GLA’s involvement with the Garden Bridge prior to August 2013 has only been made public through forced disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act.
It was not until August 2013 – after Heatherwick and Arup’s appointment – that Johnson announced that the GLA and TfL would ‘help enable’ the scheme.
Indeed, despite the mayor’s statutory duty to report monthly to the London Assembly, none of his early meetings regarding the Garden Bridge – including a highly significant one in early 2013 where TfL agreed to develop the concept – were reported to the assembly save for a number of instances where he stated he had held a ‘regular meeting with TfL’.
It is clearly too late to rerun the Garden Bridge procurement process, but its failings may have far-reaching consequences for the £5.3 billion annual capital spend controlled by the mayor.
TfL takes the lion’s share of this and is an increasingly important client for architects given its growing involvement in developing thousands of private rented sector homes through its new property framework.
Although unsuccessful bidders in the Garden Bridge contests would no doubt think twice about mounting a legal challenge against as powerful client as TfL, the organisation has admitted in internal documents seen by the AJ that legal action could occur, resulting in it suffering ‘significant reputational damage and financial costs’.
At last week’s committee hearing, Walker acknowledged such risks and underlined how TfL was ‘tightening up’ its practices, including bid evaluation.
Critics though are determined that London government goes much further. There is now talk of making an official complaint to the European Commission over the fairness of the procurement, while architect Walter Menteth, a director of the procurement reform group Project Compass, has called on the GLA to embed design contests as the best means of ensuring transparency and fairness.
Invited by the oversight committee last month to give evidence on the bridge’s procurement, Menteth recommended the RIBA’s ‘extremely good’ client advisory service, adding: ‘It is important for democratic accountability that designs should be tested in the public domain.’
For a project set to be funded by at least £60 million of taxpayers’ money, it is now apparent just how little about the Garden Bridge has been tested in the public domain until now.
Response from Caroline Pidgeon, assembly member and leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group
‘The mayor and those behind him are stalling on answering a number of mayoral questions I have put to him over the Garden Bridge. Answers to these questions should be published now if the mayor really believes he can defend his actions over the Garden Bridge.
‘It is increasingly clear that Transport for London are also playing for time in answering a number of key freedom of information requests.
‘We already know that many fundamental errors were made over the procurement of the Garden Bridge. Sadly the attempt to cover them up is just making a bad situation even worse.’