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RIBA competitions blasted following Ipswich revelations


The former chair of the RIBA Procurement Reform Group, Walter Menteth, has launched a scathing attack on the institute’s competition service after the AJ uncovered serious irregularities in its Upper Orwell Crossings contest

The AJ’s recent revelations about the competition, won by Foster + Partners in March last year, have prompted serious questions, including how the practice was allowed a late-in-the-day fee reduction, which should not have been permitted under the rules.

The £100 million scheme, for Suffolk County Council, is for three bridges across the River Orwell close to Ipswich town centre and waterfront. 

It also came to light that the RIBA played no role in the formal procurement process, despite lending its name to the competition; that highly sensitive fee data was leaked to participants both during the competition and afterwards; and that Michael and Patty Hopkins – married business partners – were both allowed to sit on the jury and ended up submitting near identical marks for the winning team.

The institute appears to regard the competitions office as a profit centre foremost

In a letter to the AJ, Menteth, who is director of procurement reform group Project Compass, said that the episode demonstrated that current competition processes were denying emerging practices access to work.

‘The Orwell Crossing competition reporting adds further abject disbelief to a lengthening list of competition debacles,’ Menteth wrote. ‘Where do ethics, professionalism or architectural culture feature in all of this?

‘Competition processes are not only denying emergent practices access to work, heavily taxing the profession and damaging the quality of industry outputs, they have also become so skewed they challenge our national self-belief in fairness and lack of corruptibility.’

The procurement expert also questioned whether the RIBA’s priorities for running competitions were being skewed by it being paid by local authorities and other clients.

He said: ‘The institute appears to regard the competitions office … as a profit centre foremost, conflicting with its role in advancing the profession and its members services,’ he said.

‘This case needs full, honest and proper investigation, review and reporting to ensure that the profession can climb out of this nadir, and focus on establishing better future facilitation.’

Menteth called on the RIBA to publish guidance for every competition procedure, and provide members with support, advice and representation.

‘It should be principled and require that competitions are well-briefed and prepared, and undertaken fairly on a level playing field, transparently, simply and through a process which can be transparent and adequately policed.’

Responding to Menteth’s intervention, an RIBA spokesperson said: ‘The primary purpose of RIBA Competitions is to promote and support the use of best practice competitions that produce high-quality architecture.

‘RIBA Competitions assists clients in the management of design competitions on a cost-recovery basis only. It is not part of the commercial services offered by the RIBA nor a monopoly provider of architectural competitions in the UK. We welcome the fact that clients have alternative providers that they can consider.’

The institute added that it developed and published extensive best-practice guidance for clients and architects following a 2014 review.

‘In the case of the Upper Orwell Crossings competition,’ the statement said, ‘RIBA Competitions had a much more limited role than it would normally.

‘All competitive selection processes with which the RIBA is involved are reviewed on conclusion to seek any best-practice lessons that can be learnt.’

Foster + Partners' Upper Orwell competition-winning scheme

Foster + Partners’ Upper Orwell competition-winning scheme

Foster + Partners’ Upper Orwell competition-winning scheme



Readers' comments (3)

  • My direct experience of the RIBA Competitions Office is that staff are fair-minded, conscientious and efficient. Their role is to promote good architecture via design competition where that is what a client is seeking. They are not a bean-counter procurement group which is what it appears some people would like them to be. They deserve support not brickbats, which can be reserved for people who run phoney competitions skewed against design quality. The idea that the Orwell Bridge designs by Foster & Partners will not be high-quality is nonsense, as is the implicit suggestion that small firms are better than big ones. No doubt if the Hopkins' scoring had been wildly divergent, the reporting of it would have gleefully claimed a lack of consistency.

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  • The RIBA shouldn't be in a situation where it's having to defend its involvement in a very unsatisfactory competition - and one measure to clean up competitions would surely be to remove fee bidding from the process, with a fixed fee based on the client's budgeted construction cost (as in the old days of the professional fee structure), to concentrate the competition on design quality.
    And there needs to be a rigorous process to evaluate the projected construction costs and 'buildability' of designs, to prevent the perceived best design degenerating into a cost over-run nightmare.

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  • Paul Finch is mistaken. Nobody is suggesting that Foster's bridge would be anything other than exceptional - but how do we know that the others' designs might not be just as good? The principle complaint with this process was that the playing field was far from level.

    A more robust process would have removed the fee component entirely (after all, it's a microscopic sum in the scale of the overall project cost) and for the entries to be judged entirely on design quality. And why not an anonymous competition? The two-stage process ensured that all qualifying teams met the minimum levels of competency, so there was no reason why judges couldn't have assessed the shortlisted schemes on their relative merits without knowing who the designer was.

    No-one wants the process to be reduced to myopic "bean-counting", but just for it to be fair. It appears that this was not.

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