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RIBA president blasts price-over-quality weighting of Crystal Palace Subway tender

Crystal Palace Subway
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RIBA president Alan Jones has criticised Bromley Council for prioritising cost over quality in its search for an architect to restore Charles Barry’s Grade II*-listed Crystal Palace Subway in south London

Jones suggested the council should drop its current 60 per cent price to 40 per cent quality selection criteria and adopt a more quality-focused weighting.

He said the proliferation of tenders weighted in favour of the cheapest possible design team was having a negative impact on the built environment.

He said: ‘Cost should not be dominant over quality in the appointment of any design team, and competitions which evaluate bids on this basis are responsible for driving down standards within the built environment.

’Clients must balance quantitative fees and cost with qualitative criteria, using a qualified design assessor. An appropriate balance would be 70 per cent quality to 30 per cent cost.’

Jones said he has written to the council directly and is hoping to ‘engage with them shortly’ over the issue. The RIBA president’s criticism came as the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission unveiled its final report last week (30 January), calling for procurement reform and an end to the public sector ‘subsidising ugliness’.

In a statement, Bromley Council said the terms of the single-stage tender – which required a conservation architect and had been drawn up with support from Historic England – had been ‘misunderstood’ and there was no risk of a team without the necessary experience delivering the scheme.

Peter Morgan, executive councillor for renewal, recreation and housing said: ‘The brief and specification for the Crystal Palace Subway tender have been developed with Historic England and The Friends of the Subway. The brief and invitation to tender have very specific requirements for the consultants required and their experience, including to have a conservation-accredited architect.

‘Tender returns that do not meet the essential quality requirements will fail, irrespective of pricing. The council generally considers all bids on a basis of 60 per cent price and 40 per cent quality criteria, as both elements are clearly important.’

Morgan continued: ’There is a misunderstanding here, as part of the procurement processes, quality requirements must be clearly outlined and listed in the tender documents. Therefore, a successful tenderer must have met the quality criteria in the first place as part of the initial tender evaluation. The council is also not bound to make any award of contract. Therefore, there is not a risk of a team who do not have the appropriate experience delivering this important restoration project.’

However, Russell Curtis, director of procurement reform group Project Compass, however said Bromley Council was ‘conflating past performance with proposed approach’ and its single-stage tender meant it was ‘perfectly possible for a practice to “buy” the job simply by providing an inferior service.’

Curtis said: ‘Architects’ hourly rates don’t really vary that much, certainly not in London, so, by selecting largely on the basis of cost, they are simply asking which practice is prepared to spend the fewest hours on the project. Is that what this important structure deserves?’

By selecting largely on the basis of cost, they are simply asking which practice is prepared to spend the fewest hours on the project

The architect suggested an alternative two-stage tender process would have allowed the council to draw up a shortlist of suitable firms to bid on an equal basis, with the first stage being chosen on quality alone. He also questioned whether the council’s approach was compliant with the 2012 Social Value Act, which requires economic, social and environmental well-being to be considered in procurement.

He said: ‘Balancing cost and quality in this way allows larger firms to bid for work at less than cost simply to keep staff busy, thereby excluding smaller ones who would provide a better level of service but need to make a profit to survive.’

The multidisciplinary team selected for the estimated £275,000 contract will design and deliver a revamp of the disused tunnel, running underneath the busy A212 road, which once connected the Joseph Paxton-designed 1851 Crystal Palace to the High Level Station, the terminus of a line built to serve visitors to the venue.

The £2.5 million project, planned to complete in 2022, is the first stage of a wider plan to transform the subterranean structure, which is on the Heritage at Risk register, into a cultural venue to boost local tourism.

In its brief, the council says it wants to appoint ‘a conservation architect-led multidisciplinary team with experience in managing the restoration of listed historic structures’. The team will ‘repair, restore and conserve’ the subway so that, in the future, it can be transformed into a commercially viable cultural events venue.

‘The overall aim of this project is limited to restoring the building, in line with recommendations made by Donald Insall in 2014, and removing the structure from the Heritage at Risk Register,’ the brief states. ‘The delivery of this project will enable the council to re-open the subway to the public. The Subway then has the potential in the future to become a new cultural destination supporting tourism in South London.’

The Crystal Palace was originally built in Hyde Park before being relocated to suburban Sydenham in 1854. It was destroyed by fire in 1936, resulting in a big reduction in rail traffic. The train station was closed and later redeveloped for housing, leaving the subway intact beneath the roadway. The current initiative follows a lengthy campaign for its restoration by the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway (FCPS).

In a statement, the campaign group said: ’FCPS will continue to work with local supporters to ensure the best outcome for Crystal Palace Subway despite the challenging social and economic times, alongside Historic England we will work with Bromley Council to ensure that the right team and the right bid are brought on board.

’The Friends of Crystal Palace Subway are involved in every part of the tender and restoration process and we will continue to hold the council to account if necessary. Part of the process for us is to look to experts to advise us and we would welcome any RIBA member to join our committee in an advisory capacity.’

The winning team will deliver the project from RIBA Stage 0 through to completion. The deadline for applications is 28 February.

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