The UK’s biggest practice won a £100 million bridge project after it was allowed to reduce its fee bid. Merlin Fulcher investigates
The announcement that Foster + Partners had won the Upper Orwell Crossings project in March last year raised few eyebrows in the architectural world.
In a sense, the victory marked a long-awaited return by Fosters to Ipswich – the home of the practice’s breakthrough Willis Faber & Dumas Building of 1975. And that was all it seemed there was to it.
But architects who participated in the competition – launched by the RIBA on behalf of Suffolk County Council (SCC) – were quietly very concerned and, in the months that followed, questions began to be asked about how exactly Foster + Partners had won.
Fosters’ winning fee bid of £845,000 was a late-in-the-game reduction
A year on, the AJ can reveal just how irregular the competition was. To start with, Foster + Partners’ winning fee bid of £845,000 – equivalent to just 0.8 per cent of the scheme’s budget – was a late-in-the-game reduction which should not have been allowed under the rules.
It has also come 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 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.
So was it an RIBA competition in any real and meaningful sense? And what does the process say about the state of public procurement at a time when high-profile bridge contests such as the Thames Garden Bridge and Rotherhithe Crossing have ended in controversy?
The competition for the project – then budgeted at £77 million – was launched in August 2016. It sought proposals for two new road crossings at Ipswich Docks and the refurbishment of an existing swing bridge nearby. The scheme – which is currently undergoing further development before a scheduled start on site date of 2020 – aims to ease road congestion in the city and improve journey times for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians and to stimulate regeneration.
Within weeks of it being advertised, the competition was branded ‘totally illogical’ by bridge designer Cezary Bednarski of Studio Bednarski. He was perplexed that bidders would have to submit designs at competition stage without advice from the project’s engineer, WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff, which had already been appointed by the council.
In late September 2016, a shortlist for the design works was announced. It featured Foster + Partners, WilkinsonEyre, Knight Architects, Paris-based Marc Mimram, and Adamson Associates with Ney & Partners and William Matthews Associates (WMA). Each team was given a £10,000 honorarium to prepare a fixed fee tender and concept designs by early December 2016.
Teams lost a point for every per cent higher their bid was above the lowest tender. This meant teams with high fee bids could end up with negative scores
The finalists were also invited to attend one-to-one meetings with the project’s existing design team, despite this being forbidden under the ‘restricted procedure’ procurement route that had been chosen by the council.
By this point, even though the RIBA’s competition office had lent its name to the contest and placed its adviser, Jonathan McDowell of Matter Architecture, on the judging panel, it emerged the RIBA was no longer playing a role in the procurement process. This was all being handled by the client, SCC.
The teams’ financial submissions were marked before the concept judging, with the competition evaluated on 60 per cent for quality and 40 per cent for cost.
Under the authority’s rules, teams lost 10 points for every 10 per cent higher their bid was above the lowest tender. The aggressive financial criteria meant the team with the lowest tender could receive full marks [100 adjusted financial points – ie the full 40 per cent] while the rival submissions could – and did – end up with a negative score for their financial submissions.
Documents shown to the AJ reveal that the lowest fee bid was £537,202, while others ranged from £1.1 million to approximately £2.63 million.
It is understood that, during the cost evaluation stage, the Adamson bid at £1.53 million received a score of -25. The Foster + Partners’ submission, with only a slightly lower tender amount (believed to be £1.4 million), would have been marked similarly in the first instance.
The concept judging stage, however, played out very differently. And, while the scoring may well have been entirely fair, there are reasonable questions to ask about it following the release of documents following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
On the jury were Michael Hopkins and – although she had not been mentioned in the competition’s Memorandum of Information – his wife Patty Hopkins.
While there was nothing improper about having both of them on the jury, some might question whether a potential similarity of approach in the two judges might skew the result.
Indeed, the FOI documents show that both Michael and Patty awarded perfect 10-out-of-10 scores for almost every aspect of the Foster + Partners’ scheme.
A score of 10 out of 10 should only be awarded if a practice has met and exceeded all evaluation criteria, fully resolved all technical aspects, and added significant value through its proposals. Other jurors’ marks were less uniform and ranged from 10 to three.
Foster + Partners’ bridge concept was presented by Fosters’ head of design, Spencer de Grey, who was project architect alongside Michael Hopkins – then in partnership with Norman Foster – on Ipswich’s Grade I-listed Willis Building in 1975.
Michael Hopkins told the AJ such personal links were ‘inevitable’ after a long career, and pointed out that the Willis Building was opened no less than 43 years ago and said that ‘professional impartiality’ had been upheld, adding that Foster’s scheme had exceeded the brief.
The RIBA says that Michael and Patty Hopkins had properly declared knowledge of individuals within bid teams – which ‘does not of itself amount to a conflict of interest’ – but has offered no explanation for both attending.
An SCC spokesman meanwhile said the couple were invited to chair the panel by former Ipswich MP Ben Gummer. Gummer himself was contacted by the AJ but declined to comment.
In the design scoring, Foster + Partners came top, with a 53.25 per cent score. The lowest fee bidder scored about 36 per cent for its design. However, at this stage, this lowest-fee bid still looked favourite to win, based on its impressive score in the costing criteria.
With the subsequent revelations, I’m surprised that none of the unsuccessful teams has challenged the outcome
In January 2017, rather than announcing a winner as planned, the client instead requested a series of financial clarifications from all the bidders, covering small sums such as such as meetings, travel, and visualisation costs.
At about the same time, the fee data of the Adamson Associates team was accidentally shared with both Knight Architects and WilkinsonEyre Architects. A council spokesman said no team had thereby gained an advantage and that ‘all parties were happy to continue’.
A month later, in February 2017, Foster + Partners wrote a letter to SCC, cutting its fee bid almost in half, to £845,000.
According to other documents seen by the AJ, the practice claimed its original tender had included conceptual masterplanning, which was no longer required.
However, conceptual masterplanning had never been requested in the tender document and, if included, should have been extracted from tender returns by the financial panel prior to scoring.
This discounted fee was accepted by the council despite this and despite the apparent breach of competition rules.
Malcolm Reading of well-known competition organiser Malcolm Reading Consultants says: ‘Negotiation of fees post-tender is not permissible under the restricted procedure. Under the restricted procedure the lump sum fee is crystallised in a tender return form at the date of tender return.
‘Apart from minor clarifications, it is a binding tender. Clarifications (if required) should have been made prior to the interviews.’
The local authority insisted it requested price clarifications from all bidders. Foster + Partners has declined to comment, pointing to its February 2017 letter to the council as explaining the rationale for the practice’s fee reduction.
Foster + Partners was announced winner of the competition in March 2017 and images were published showing the chosen concept. Details of how the largest of the two crossings would open to river traffic and land at each side were not revealed at that time.
The competition looks increasingly dubious; the catalogue of errors is almost comical but, as a competitor, it is also serious and frustrating
Three months later a further data breach was made when the fee bids for all teams were accidentally leaked by SCC to the bidders. The leak, caused accidentally when data not intended for disclosure was run past third parties following an FOI request from the public, revealed each team’s fee bid and Fosters’ last-minute reduction.
The errors made in the competition have led Reading to claim that the contest could be open to procedural challenge by the competitors who lost out. He says: ‘Clearly each team put in an exceptional amount of concept work and – with the RIBA running the process – could expect this effort to be matched by scrupulous administration.
‘With the subsequent revelations, I’m surprised that none of the unsuccessful teams has challenged the outcome, as OJEU regulations permit.’
William Matthews, of finalist team WMA, says he felt let down by the RIBA, which should have guaranteed the contest was ‘well-run and above all fair’. He says: ‘The Upper Orwell Competition looks increasingly dubious; the emerging catalogue of errors and other issues is almost comical but, as a competitor, it is also serious and frustrating.’
In terms of the RIBA’s involvement, the Upper Orwell Competition – launched by the institute ‘on behalf’ of SCC – appears to have been little more than a branding exercise.
Indeed, a statement from the RIBA confirms that it did not manage the ‘procurement, financial arrangements, fee data, [nor] tender-related clarifications undertaken as part of the procurement processes for this competition.’
Such an approach is justified, according to the institute, because it provides a bespoke range of services to clients, which vary ‘depending on the individual needs of each organisation and their in-house procurement capability’.
This stance, however, appears to shift the blame for procedural errors to SCC and raises concerns for architects regarding similarly badged competitions in the future.
Competitions consultant Kay Hughes of Khaa says: ‘Architects go to substantial time and expense applying for and entering competitions.
‘If it is an RIBA-badged process that should ensure the process is clear, transparent and adhered to and avoid nugatory work for any of the contestants.’
Fellow bridge architect Chris Medland of One World Design suggests a greater role for RIBA in regulating – but not organising – all contests could prevent similar problems occurring again.
He says: ‘This does not exclude others – private enterprises or public authorities – from organising competitions, but it would ensure that all follow the same rules and give utmost confidence to those designers that are freely giving of their time and expertise, that their entries will be dealt with on a level playing field.’
The Upper Orwell Crossings competition can be seen as another example of how dysfunctional public procurement in the UK is.
Once again – just as on the Garden Bridge and Rotherhithe Crossing – due attention to procedure has been shown to be lacking on a major project involving huge sums of public money and political capital. It has raised concerns over fairness and transparency, which are particularly acute for smaller practices, such as WMA, which struggle to absorb the high costs of failed bids. Competitions are a developmental lifeline for such firms, according to Matthews, who argues that the long odds of winning make faith in a ‘well-run and above all fair’ process crucial to their participation.
‘If that’s lost, the outlook is depressing for practices trying to break through and ultimately bad for creating a vibrant architectural scene,’ he says.
The question now is whether anyone learns the lessons from the multiple failures and questionable aspects of the Upper Orwell Crossings competition.