Institute’s largest region backs Jane Duncan over £175m project with national council still to vote on president’s stance
The RIBA’s biggest region, RIBA London, has backed a call by president Jane Duncan for the Garden Bridge project to be stopped while a fully independent inquiry is held.
In February, Duncan wrote to mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London (TfL) saying she was ‘extremely concerned’ about the fairness and transparency of the procurement following to the AJ’s long-running investigation and its revelation that Johnson and designer Thomas Heatherwick promoted the Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge plan in San Francisco before the official 2013 TfL contest. At the time, the mayor and TfL resisted Duncan’s call.
However, RIBA London has now passed a motion in support of the president.
The motion states: ‘In the light of the seriousness of allegations relating to the Garden Bridge, RIBA London Region calls for the project to be put on hold while the process is opened up to full and detailed independent scrutiny so that this public procurement may be evidenced as being fair, transparent and in accordance with the law.’
The motion was passed last week and an almost identical version (replacing the words ‘London Region’ with ‘Council’) has been submitted to RIBA and will be debated at its next Council meeting at Portland Place later this month (29 June).
At the last RIBA council meeting, in Edinburgh in March, a motion by the London region calling for suspension of the project while procurement issues are scrutinised was withdrawn after an amendment effectively postponed a decision being made.
Allan Baird, member of RIBA London region, told the AJ: ‘We in London Region represent a very large proportion of UK Architects; we did not expect RIBA to debate such an incontrovertible proposal, still less that their ‘decision’ would put off deciding until some indeterminate future.’
Baird, chair of the West London Architectural Society, remarked: ‘This is a matter of principle and of national interest, irrespective of the project’s impact on London.’
In April, AJ revealed that Transport for London (TfL) had been informed in writing that its chairman, the then London mayor Boris Johnson, wanted it to back Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge proposal eight weeks before it held a design contest the designer ended up winning in 2013 (see AJ 21.04.16).
Johnson also held at least six meetings with Heatherwick and project champion Joanna Lumley before competing designs from rival firms Marks Barfield and Wilkinson Eyre were considered.
While he is supporting the project, new London mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to examine the way it has been managed.
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: ‘Sadiq supports construction of the Garden Bridge but expressed concerns during his election campaign about the way that the procurement process was carried out. He has only been in his role for one month but he is looking in more detail at some of the issues raised about the procurement.
‘The early days of this project clearly fell short of Sadiq’s expectations on transparency. He is determined to run the most open and transparent administration London has ever seen, which is why he has already published the previously undisclosed full business plan for the Garden Bridge alongside a list of its funders.’
2016.03.24 Garden Bridge Timeline v4
Kerr Robertson, Glasgow-based architect
Like many architects I very much welcomed the recent call by Jane Duncan for the Garden Bridge project to be put on hold while the whole procurement process is properly scrutinised. My view has nothing to do with the idea of the bridge in principal or taking sides. I would like to make clear that I love the work of Thomas Heatherwick. I have huge respect for Arup as engineers as well as Transport for London who have delivered many important and successful public projects. I am also a big fan of Joanna Lumley and her campaigning for good causes. While I personally like the idea of a Garden Bridge I understand why others might not. I would therefore consider myself neutral in terms of the debate that has been raging for and against - but with one exception.
The issue I have is simply about procurement and my concern over the significant questions raised in this respect. I am also concerned that because of the hue and cry the implications have been obscured.
There should be no doubt that anyone tendering for work which is funded with public money must be given equal opportunity. Tendering is expensive and all bidders should have no doubt that all legal requirements will be met and each submission will be given fair and equal consideration. No-one wants to be left thinking they had been invited simply to make up the numbers. Accordingly the process needs to be transparent.
This is not just a ’London issue’
Given the nature of local politics and the level of public outcry from campaigners on both sides, procurement will probably not seem that important to many people.
But this is not just a ’London issue’ and its not just architects who are affected. This is also about public confidence in those spending tax-payers money - and that those responsible will not favour one party over an other. The rules and regulations governing public spending are there for good reason - and the risk of allowing these to be ignored are enormous.
No-one should be awarded a contract where they may have had an unfair advantage over others. Where there is reason to believe an award has not been compliant (even in honest error) it is difficult to see how a project can then be allowed to progress without being first properly investigated. Apart from the implications for the unsuccessful bidders, the other concern is that without sanction there would be little or no incentive to prevent other agencies following suit.
Procurement procedures might seem complicated to the uninitiated, but if this was the X-Factor and it was discovered that members of the public had spent money submitting votes which had no bearing on the outcome, there would quite rightly be significant outcry. This would not be allowed to continue and quite likely someone would be held to account.
You cannot expect the same level of public outcry about a relatively specialist area of bureaucracy. This is why ordinary architects and engineers expect their professional institutes to stand up for them. It’s a matter of principal.
I note from the current campaigning for a new RIBA President one of the candidates has written in the press about the importance ’high-level principles’ and having “an ethical code which enabled the public and our clients to trust us and our judgements and entitling us to be heard above others who do not claim to profess such standards”. If we as a profession are not willing to take a stand when matters of principle arise this amounts to no more than empty rhetoric.