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RIBA under fire over secret Ipswich bridges review

Foster orwell crossings crop
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Competition organisers and campaigners have criticised the RIBA for refusing to publish the findings of an internal review of its own competitions office following the collapse of the Ipswich Upper Orwell Crossings project

The institute has been accused of a ‘whitewash’ after it was revealed that a ‘thorough report’ had been prepared on the Upper Orwell Crossings but that none of its findings would be made public.

It emerged that the RIBA was withholding the report shortly after Suffolk County Council revealed it had spent £8.1 million on the project, which was scrapped following the institute’s much-criticised competition.

The council’s Labour group leader Sarah Adams said: ‘The public have a right to know what their money is being spent on, and it should be thorough and transparent.

‘A professional body like RIBA should be open and honest and detail the lessons to be learned so as not to be repeated and make sure others do not make the same mistakes.’

Last week the council revealed it had spent a total of £8.1 million on the scheme – including £77,900 on the RIBA competition, £4 million paid to engineer WSP and £179,100 paid to contest winners Foster + Partners.

The final bill came three months after the council’s cabinet voted to abandon the main element of the multi-bridge scheme for which expected costs had ballooned by 40 per cent to £139 million.

The RIBA-launched contest was beset by serious questions – covered in a lengthy AJ investigation published in April 2018 – such as why the practice was allowed a late-in-the-day fee reduction, which should not have been permitted under the rules.

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 both Michael and Patty Hopkins – married business partners at Hopkins Architects – were on the jury and submitted extremely high and near-identical marks for Fosters’ winning entry.

It later emerged in October that the cost of the bridge scheme had soared by up to 40 per cent

Malcolm Reading of independent competition-organiser Malcolm Reading Consultants said: ‘The competition scuppered the new bridges project, the studios who entered lost valuable time and resources, and a great deal of public money has been wasted.’

Urging the RIBA to publish its findings, Reading said: ‘Not to do so looks Soviet and reflects badly on the profession on many levels, from how the professional body relates to its members, to public standards in design procurement, to undermining competition process as a way of raising the design quality in cities and encouraging emerging talent.

‘Reputationally, RIBA should be working to recover trust; that’s not done by writing secret reports.’

Architect and procurement reform campaigner Russell Curtis commented: ‘It seems that an extraordinary quantity of public money has been frittered away, and the RIBA may have been partly responsible.

‘An urgent investigation is necessary but, as a membership organisation, this should be carried out in an open and transparent manner with the results made available – at the very least – to members, and preferably to the public. Anything less looks like a cover-up.’

Fellow procurement reform campaigner Walter Menteth described the report as ‘further whitewashing’ which could fail ‘to allay public trust or concern in this matter’.

He said: ‘In the light of the serious deficiencies in this RIBA managed and certified competition, the consequential waste of enormous public funds and reputational damage to the profession, a statement that the VP of RIBA Practice will simply review the findings of an internal enquiry is shamefully inadequate.’

Menteth argued that the RIBA’s elected council of trustees should instead be invited ‘to consider the necessary reforms, come clean and face the public’. 

Independent competitions organiser Kay Hughes of KHAA said: ‘It is encouraging that the RIBA is undertaking a thorough report on the process, I hope that will include feedback from all the various players including the contestants to improve the process.’

In a statement, the institute said: ‘All RIBA competitions are reviewed on conclusion to identify opportunities to improve our processes and the service we offer to clients.

‘We can confirm that a thorough report on this competition has recently been submitted to the RIBA vice president of practice and profession to review as to whether recommendations should be made for any changes to RIBA Competitions processes. There are no current plans to publish the report externally.’

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