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Government gets 'wake-up call' over PFI design issues

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The RIBA has welcomed the pressure put on the government at this week's Labour Party conference over the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), believing it could result in improved design standards on the scheme. PFI experts believe the wrangling could represent a turning point in the government's attitude, forcing it to focus on the scheme's problems.

Despite losing a high-profile vote on a review of the scheme, John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair made it clear that the government has no intention of abandoning it. In his speech, Blair said 'now is the time to increase the pace, not mark time or slow down'.

But Simon Foxell, RIBA councillor and author of the institute's proposed PFI policy document, said the outcome is a good result for architects who, he said, 'are not opposed to the principles of the scheme, just many of the practicalities'.

Foxell believes the government will now feel under pressure to ensure projects produced are of the highest standard. 'The likelihood is that the government will ensure that the scheme runs as smoothly as possible. The best thing to come out of the conference is that the government will be determined to see the initiative work well, ' he said.

'I expect them to review it internally in an effort to answer some of the criticism, including the problems highlighted by Sir Stuart Lipton.'

Last week CABE chair Lipton called on the government to review the processes behind the PFI scheme with reference to perceived design problems (AJ 26.9.02).

CABE said it is pleased the government will not abandon the scheme altogether. 'What we want, and what we expect the government to accept, is a best practice model that will show how the construction industry can achieve good design while still using the PFI process, ' a spokesperson said.

Director of Aedas AHR Brian Johnson, who has just won the contract to design 122 PFI schools in Stoke, agreed that the recent barrage of criticism has made the government sit up and take notice.

'The government is now aware of architects' complaints, ' he said. 'Following the recent debate, I think they understand that there needs to be more communication between the end-user and the architect if high design standards on projects are to be achieved. What the unions do not understand is that the PFI schemes are not going to go away, ' Johnson added.

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