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RIBA London calls for Garden Bridge to be halted


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March, a motion by the London region calling for suspension of the project while procurement issues are scrutinised was withdrawn after an amendment effectively postponed a decision being made.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

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. 


Readers' comments (8)

  • Its lame, limping along in the hope of a miraculous cure to its many ills whilst friends ridicule it amongst themselves and passers-by keep their distance to avoid being associated with it. Given the extraordinary amounts of money spent on its self promoting paper existence it is unlikely to disappear gently into the wilderness and die peacefully in a bush somewhere - will somebody please do the humane thing and put this poor injured beast out of its misery...

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    The strange thing about this story is that Jane Duncan did NOT call for the garden bridge project to be halted - not in the course of the RIBA Council meeting in Edinburgh, anyway. Jane did discuss her meetings with TfL and a commitment to review and improve their procurement process. I wrote to fellow councillors beforehand suggesting that such a review should include compensation for any parties that lost out unfairly. But we did not get to vote on any of it, because the motion was withdrawn by its proposers.

    Kerr Robertson quotes my concern for clarity in an ethical code which earns the respect of the public. I am also on the record as saying that RIBA should not presume to go beyond its political legitimacy and reach in its pronouncements. We should stick to the knitting, champion architects wherever and however they practice in order to demonstrate the value of, and advance the cause of good architecture in its contribution to a better designed and more sustainable built environment.

    Yes, we should campaign for better, fairer, less costly procurement. If there were problems with this in the case of the garden bridge, it would not be the only case, I'm sure. So what about the others? Unless something completely fundamental and new comes up, I shall not be voting in favour of an attempt by the RIBA to overthrow Sadiq Khan's decision to press on with the project.

    Ben Derbyshire, Chair HTA Design LLP

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  • Kerr Robertson is surely right in highlighting the importance to the health of the profession of ethics and matters of principle - and the behaviour of the previous Mayor of London has well and truly sucked (or should it be suckered?) the architectural profession toward the edge of a cultural black hole of sleazy and underhand 'fixing' of public procurement.

    With regard to Mr Robertson's comments on TfL, the activities of such a massive public organisation must be above reproach - and yet the garden bridge controversy is not their only recent procurement scandal, with the same 'flawed evaluation and scoring during the bidding process' involved in an aborted underground signalling contract that's cost no less than £886 million.
    The final bill will apparently be in the region of £1.4 billion, and think what that might have done if put toward the development of affordable housing for young Londoners.
    London has a new and hopefully much more respectable mayor, but - given their recent behaviour - TfL's current performance in offloading public spare land needs watching like a hawk.

    With regard to admiration for the work of Thomas Heatherwick, it's worth noting the history of the London bus design he created - in response to the mayor's arguably irrational criticism and electoral promise to rid London (at very considerable expense) of the 'bendybuses'.
    There were two winners of the mayor's design competition - Foster + Partners with Aston Martin, and the bus design consultancy Capoco.
    Strangely (?) neither got the job - the competition submissions were abandoned, six manufacturers were invited to bid for a design+build contract, and the winner found themselves collaborating on the design with TfL's choice of Heatherwick.
    Capoco Design's website has some downloads - 'Taking stock' and 'Let there be light' - that are well worth the read, and even give new meaning to the word 'aCRONYm'. The analogy with the history of the garden bridge design procurement is quite uncanny.
    The manufacturer of the wonderbus has now had to redesign it to render it workable and affordable in the real world.

    ps - I hadn't heard the one about Heatherwick's design of stalls for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea - so nice to be the only designer worth the name, apparently.

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  • Procurement is only one of the many issues that objectors to the bridge have raised. When debating the issue I hope the RIBA council will be allowed to raise the many other issues of concern. Visual impact, need, public contributions (which seem to have been funding the project to the tune of over £30m to date), access and impact on crowded embankment spaces, challenges to lease, costs of maintenance, environmental impact. The full list is available via @follyforlondon.

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  • Disappointed that Ben Derbyshire is not considering voting for review of the process. Of course procurement is not always perfect but that is no reason to support the review when such a questionable example as this one. As to Heatherwick's design record I would also remind readers of the B of the bang.

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  • This has all the hallmarks of the kind of sideshow that RIBA London gets itself tangled up in. To most architects it is an expensive and irrelevant extravagance that only Londoners care about.
    The RIBA needs to focus its efforts on the wellbeing of its members - the architect of UK.
    There are far more critical matters that urgently need addressing such a the housing crisis, falling standards in our built environment, the demise of the architect in creating a vision for better cities, streets and buildings.
    This is complete white elephant championed by a sculptor (albeit a very good one) and an comedian actress (who is admittedly 'absolutely fabulous').
    It is a hugely expensive folly - a bridge with trees on it.
    In London.
    Frankly who cares?
    I call upon RIBA to focus on what matters and stop getting drawn into sideshows that won't make a jot of difference to 99% of people in this country.
    Don't get drawn it!!

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  • Response from Kerr Robertson:
    The view I expressed was as an individual architect and not as a member of RIBA Council. My reference was to a call by Jane Duncan that was widely reported in the press.

    I note however that Ben Derbyshire has referred to RIBA Council debate in this regard. It would not be appropriate from me to comment on such proceedings or correspondence between fellow Councillors, but I have to say I do not agree with how this has been represented. Ben also states he would not support this call as in doing so the RIBA would be going "beyond its political legitimacy and reach". Really? The issue here has nothing to do with politics. The question is simply whether or not the necessary legal requirements were met and that no party should have had an unfair advantage over others.

    Ben's suggests that it would be sufficient to compensate the unsuccessful parties should they have been unfairly treated. This however completely misses the point that by the same token the successful party would have had an unfair advantage - and stands to gain significant reward. How is this ethical? Rules are rules and it is only in seeking to turn a blind eye that the question of politics arises.

    I note from Paul Iddon's comment's that he believes this is just an RIBA London issue and "who cares". This only highlights my concern that regional politics and outcry from campaigners on both sides have obscured a significant issue about procurement that continues to vex many practicing architects (and engineers) up and down the country.

    Issues of fairness, equality and transparency in the procurement of public projects have been the subject of major discussion and review for many government agencies, professional institutes, businesses and individuals over the last 7 years. A lot of people care. While there has been some recent progress regarding many aspects of procurement, the Garden Bridge demonstrates why this remains a troubling area for many people. While there may well be other examples, what kind of message does it send out if no-one challenges such matters on a high profile project?
    It would be a great pity that such concerns were overlooked because this was dismissed as simply as “politics" and a London argument over an "expensive folly...with trees”.

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    The overwhelming priority for RIBA Councillors to consider at their meeting this week is the implications on the profession and our Institute of the momentous decision the nation took last Thursday.

    We must concentrate on the implications of Brexit on the delivery of our purpose; Advancing Architecture.

    The procurement irregularities reported in the case of the garden bridge do not originate in Europe, They were home made. Jane Duncan has an agreement with TfL to investigate them. I'm for getting on with that and learning the lessons. This is not a time for quixotic heroism.

    Ben Derbyshire, Chair, HTA Design LLP.

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