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Axed Fosters bridge prompts calls for RIBA competitions review

Sarah adams suffolk web
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The leader of Suffolk County Council’s Labour group has demanded a ‘root and branch review’ of RIBA competitions after the Upper Orwell Crossings project was scrapped amid rising costs

The renewed criticism of the institute comes just weeks after the council’s cabinet voted to abandon the main element of Foster + Partners’  £139 million multi-bridge scheme in Ipswich for which costs had ballooned by 40 per cent.

Fosters won the project in an RIBA-run contest beset by serious questions such as why the practice was allowed a late-in-the-day fee reduction, which should not have been permitted under the rules.

At least £8 million has been spent procuring and advancing the project to date and the council’s Labour group leader Sarah Adams (pictured) told the AJ that the ‘RIBA cannot idly stand by and pretend this did not happen’.

She added: ‘They need to ensure that millions of pounds of public money is not wasted in their name. They need to instigate a root and branch review of their processes to ensure that they never preside over a farce such as this again.’

In a lengthy investigation published last April, the AJ revealed details of the highly irregular RIBA competition won by Fosters. The practice triumphed following a last-minute reduction in its fee – to just 0.8 per cent of the original budget for the project – which should not have been allowed under the rules of the contest.

It also came to light that the RIBA played no role in the procurement process despite lending its name to the competition; that highly sensitive fee data was leaked to participants both during and after the competition; and that Michael and Patty Hopkins – married business partners at Hopkins Architects – were both on the jury and submitted extremely high and near identical marks for the winning team.

Adams said: ‘The allegation that RIBA acted as little more than a distant bystander during the procurement process is incredibly serious. In truth, however, it comes as no surprise - Suffolk County Council has a history of using the names of reputable organisations in the hope that it will paper over poor decision and policy making.’

It emerged in October that the cost of Fosters’ scheme had soared by up to 40 per cent. An independent report into projected costs, carried out for the council by engineer Jacobs, estimated a likely price of between £122 million and £140 million. The estimated cost in the outline business case was just £97 million.

While the Jacobs report did not consider procurement costs, the council said the process of appointing an architect had ‘incurred additional cost’ as had a number of design changes.

Recognising the need for ‘vision and ambition’ in Ipswich, the Labour leader dismissed the Upper Orwell Crossing as a ‘vanity project, a PR stunt’ dreamt up by former Conservative MP Ben Gummer in time for the 2015 General Election.

Drawing a parallel with London’s Garden Bridge fiasco, she said: ‘Perhaps Boris Johnson would have been proud of this boondoggle, but four years and £8 million of public money later, the RIBA will be questioning how they ended up providing the political cover for Ipswich’s answer to the Garden Bridge.’

Adams also suggested the RIBA had exposed itself to reputational damage by allowing Suffolk County Council to exploit its brand. ‘I am sure that organisations will think twice in future about lending their name to a council more concerned about its public image than the delivery of public services,’ she said.

Foster orwell competition

Foster orwell competition

Contest finalist William Matthews of William Matthews Associates said there remained many unanswered questions such as what criteria the RIBA uses to select its competitions, how this decision process is ‘controlled, reviewed and audited’, and what measures are used to ensure contests confirm with ‘requisite standards at all stages’.

He said: ‘I cannot believe the RIBA has no procedures in place, but at the same time I cannot understand how the Upper Orwell competition could be deemed acceptable. My gut feel is that it probably didn’t pass muster but under pressure from an influential MP, the RIBA decided to support it anyway.’

Architect Russell Curtis, a director of procurement reform group Project Compass, said: ‘The RIBA Competition Office should represent a high benchmark for public procurement, yet this unfortunate series of events demonstrates what happens when the focus shifts from setting standards to chasing profit.

‘It’s not good enough for the RIBA to put its name to contests which don’t adhere to basic level of probity, regardless of how little it was involved in the process. Not only is this damaging to the institute’s reputation, but it also makes much-needed reform of procurement for the public good all the more challenging for the rest of us.’

Fellow Project Compass director Walter Menteth, who is also former chair of the RIBA Procurement Reform Group, agreed.

‘Despite repeated calls for reform of RIBA’s procurement service, its competitions office, little has yet changed,’ he said. ‘This is no longer tenable after the Ipswich revelations.

‘RIBA should issue a mea culpa, commit to delivering better professional service expectations for clients and industry, and seriously instigate reforms of its own architectural procurement.’

‘Rather than being so focused on star architects, if future capacity and quality is to be delivered widely, RIBA should address current procurement broadly to ensure architectural procurement opportunities are more accessible to all members while pushing against further market aggregation and dumbing down of standards.

‘There will be further reputational damage, increasing dismay and growing public mistrust of RIBA and the profession, unless action is now taken.’

Suffolk County Council confirmed there would be no internal investigation into the competition because it did not consider there to have been a problem and it would also have no issue working with RIBA on procurement again in the future.

It said in a statement: ‘At every stage we have been ambitious for Ipswich, not just in terms of the scale of the project but also in its functional and aesthetic design and construction. Rising costs are always a risk to any large infrastructure scheme, especially at this level of size and complexity.

‘It was always anticipated that the design might have to change from any initial concepts submitted during the procurement process. This was made clear from the outset.’

An RIBA spokesperson said: ‘The RIBA’s involvement in this project was simply limited to running the design competition – any decision on project progression and further development work are entirely at the discretion of the client.

‘Whilst the Upper Orwell Crossings design competition was not typical, it followed RIBA Competitions best practice, opening up a landmark project opportunity to architecture practices.’

In late January the council’s cabinet approved a report calling for the axing of Crossing A – a grand opening-bridge that would allow vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians to travel over the river from Wherstead Road to Holywells Road while maintaining a navigable channel for boats.

Crossings B and C – much smaller bridges connecting Wet Dock Island to the east and west banks of the River Orwell – could still be built, but would rely on new funding.

The report, written for the cabinet by council assistant environment director Bryn Griffiths, said: ‘The council does not have enough capital resources to fill the funding gap between the current project cost estimate and the Department for Transport funding of £77.5 million.

‘Exploration of additional funding opportunities has not been successful, so the county council does not have enough funds for the existing project to proceed.’

Local Labour MP Sandy Martin said he would work now with the government and the county council to secure the best traffic solution for Ipswich.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • For Suffolk County Council to claim that it did not consider there to have been a problem is astonishing - and the RIBA spokesperson's response seems remarkably bland, in the circumstances. Cronyism rules, OK?.

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