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From stitch-up to shut-out – why can’t Transport for London get bridge procurement right?

Will Hurst

Another bridge architect is pointing the finger at Transport for London. How did we get here? asks Will Hurst

Maybe it’s something to do with its status as a major client with a £3 billion capital budget but architects really don’t like criticising Transport for London.

After all, WilkinsonEyre never properly spoke about the Garden Bridge contest despite being one of the injured parties while the other practice in that category, Marks Barfield, only broke its angry silence after MP Margaret Hodge’s damning conclusions on the scheme were published.

So today’s decision by another bridge architect – ReForm Architects’ managing director Nik Randall – to hit out at TfL’s performance in precisely the same area of design procurement is significant.

Could it be that TfL will no longer countenance the spontaneously-produced design idea?

Alongside engineers Elliot Wood and Buro Happold, ReForm drew up the design for a £100 million cycle and pedestrian bridge across the Thames between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf, a publicly spirited risk on which they spent hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Their bascule bridge design went on to win support in principle from many of the key stakeholders involved including, it seems, the local community.

But despite this, TfL has apparently conjured up a system for developing a crossing at Rotherhithe which – in Randall’s view – is excluding his firm’s popular and organically produced idea in favour of a competition based on the deadening hand of TfL’s professional services framework.

A new culture at TfL appears to have moved so far away from the one that led to the Garden Bridge, it may be that a level playing field has again been bypassed, but in the opposite way.

‘With the Garden Bridge, people were saying there was a possibility of a biased process for one design; this feels like there’s a possibility of a biased process against one design,’ Randall says.

While TfL stresses that no final decisions have been made and that it is up to ReForm to partner with one of the multidisciplinary firms on the framework, there is a sense here of a public-sector behemoth ricocheting from the huge risks it took with the Garden Bridge to becoming damagingly risk-adverse with this one.

Could it be that TfL – terrified of being accused of another Heatherwick style stitch-up – will no longer countenance the spontaneously-produced design idea?

That would be a tragic irony indeed.

The real lesson of Margaret Hodge’s report was about the need for honesty and transparency – not that the mayor and his transport body cannot back good ideas.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Good procurement should be about being open, innovative, transparent, and offering a level playing field to allow the best value and most appropriate designs to emerge. But this is ridiculous, unnecessary nonsense, brought about by a lack of imagination and understanding of the real principles of public procurement.

    It is also somewhat professionally shameful, and in my view unethical, that the commissioning of the evaluation exercise off the TfL framework has it appears then delivered a conclusion almost it would appear deliberately to preclude a well-considered engineering and design proposition, by other renown designers. This appears to be a clear way to knock out competition and pave the way for TfL’s appointed incumbents.

    Can TfL be asked to publically explain this?

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  • If TfL can't explain this, the Mayor should be invited to; assuming that Sadiq Khan is as capable as he's cracked up to be, then he should get a grip on any drift toward 'dumbing down' in reaction to the Garden Bridge affair.
    And if Arup has any fingers in the TfL pie, there's surely ample cause to insist that they're removed.

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