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Pimlico School is a confidence buster

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I really want to share Paul Hyett' confidence (aj, 15.7.99) that the definition of objectives (by architects) can extract improved buildings from the private-sector construction industry.

My confidence has, however, been severely knocked by six years of commitment to an attempt to apply this theory to the particular case of Pimlico School. (My role was as an architect in the unpaid 'parent-governor' role - paid architectural advice was not recruited until after the objectives were defined and the brief issued).

There have been three main problems:

1. The private sector, at least in the peculiar form of the Pimlico pfi, determines at the outset what objectives it will accept. The project has to be big, with sufficient 'critical mass' to justify the inordinate expense of the bidding process. It has to contain some identifiable pay back so the authorities can claim a robust market attitude towards the family silver. In our case, none of the initially recommended refurbishment objectives were big enough - only by knocking the school down and rebuilding it together with a wodge of luxury housing could we meet the pfi's criteria for acceptable objectives. We see a clear case of the definition of form being obliged to follow the dictates of the funding.

2. Those objectives which are successfully defined are easily smashed by the juggernaut effect produced by this 'critical mass'.

Jack Straw famously promised his fellow governors that our 'juggernaut had brakes', but these have proved to be inadequate or faulty.

We stated that the children needed to be removed from the 1.8ha site during the £50 million construction period. Ignored.

We stated that there should be no reduction in playground space (we were not allowed to ask for any increase in the

existing meagre facilities). A 23 per cent reduction is proposed.

With the neighbouring residents and the planning office, we participated in the production of a planning brief. Again, ignored.

Moreover, we formulated a business plan allowing for scrutiny of the evaluation of the proposal by governors. This scrutiny was time-squeezed out of the process. The juggernaut may have had brakes but the driver's schedule did not allow for their use.

3. Ultimately, the test for the successful incorporation of public objectives lies in public acceptance of the result but the pfi is too important to the political agenda for this to matter.

Everybody in the communities affected by Pimlico School hates this proposal. Opposition, as expressed in petitions, in objections to the planning application, in strident meetings, in serious correspondence with all interested government departments, has been virtually unanimous.

The school's governing body is split between those who don't like the idea, but see no alternative, and those who don't like it and see only an Alice in Wonderland approach to finance as blocking more reasonable alternatives.

Despite its failure to pass this test, this proposal is advancing relentlessly through all the usual hurdles.

The treasury is determined to back it to the tune of at least £25 million while repeatedly confirming that the building is not bad enough to justify a £10 million refurbishment programme.

The detr refuses one of the best cases for a call-in ever seen (aj 15.7.99, page 4). And the Department for Education and Employment is actively searching for excuses to circumnavigate its regulations on the protection of school playing fields.

Against politics writ so large, Paul, I'm afraid that the definition of objectives, however strongly led by architects, is a feeble guarantee of quality.

Rob Hughes, London SW4

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