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TfL grilled over ‘unfair’ Garden Bridge contest


Greater London Authority (GLA) members have accused Transport for London (TfL) of ‘unfair’ procurement procedures after hearing from expert witnesses including the AJ’s deputy editor

Yesterday (17 September) the authority’s Oversight Committee interrogated TfL’s director of strategy and policy Richard De Cani over the tender process for the controversial £175million project, which saw Heatherwick selected ahead of bridge specialists Wilkinson Eyre and Marks Barfield in 2013.

De Cani was grilled for two hours over whether any of the parties had been disadvantaged in the original competition given that the victorious designer was already working on a Garden Bridge scheme and that both he and mayoral body TfL knew of Mayor Boris Johnson’s support for the idea.

Labour member Navin Shah, a trained architect, said: ‘From where I am sitting I find the whole process flawed. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was corrupt. Some people will do so.’

‘I find the whole process flawed’

The TfL chief was quizzed extensively on how the organisation had marked the three invited practices. Earlier this year a Freedom of Information bid by the Architects’ Journal uncovered that Heatherwick had been given a score of 4/5 for ‘relevant design experience’ while the other two firms received just 3/5 in the category which was worth 25 per cent of the overall evaluation.

Tom Copley, Labour member of the London Assembly, said he was astonished that De Cani could claim the procurement process ‘was fair’.

He said: ‘Heatherwick was party to information that other bidders were not.

‘You were asking three people to design something – when you were really expecting something else – and you essentially tipped off one of them about this ‘extra thing’ that you actually wanted.’

‘Surely somebody must have said that it gave Heatherwick an unfair advantage. That is not fair is it?’

He added: ‘Frankly if I was one of these other two companies who had spent money putting in bids I’d be pretty angry.’

Agreeing with Copley’s argument, Lib Dem mayoral candidate for London Caroline Pidgeon claimed that Wilkinson Eyre and Marks Barfield had not responded as well to the brief because they ‘could not read the magic ink’.

De Cani told the committee the procurement process had begun as a small scale design study for a pedestrian crossing which would help drive people off the Tube and make more journeys on foot. Because TfL had no framework covering this kind of design, it held an initial invited contest. De Cani claimed TfL had not been expecting to be so involved in the crossing two years on.

He said: ‘If we had known how this project was going to develop, we would have done something differently - no doubt about it. But that isn’t saying what we’ve done to date isn’t robust.’

‘There was no favouritism’

Explaining how Heatherwick was marked so highly he said: ‘Thomas Heatherwick scored less well for the bridge element but got higher marks in design and for understanding the brief. There was no favouritism. It was quite specific what we were looking for - someone who could really understand the area.

‘If you look at [the other two bids] in response to our brief… their submissions were lacking. Their appreciation of what we wanted to do just wasn’t there. What they were selling us was their experience in bridges [only].

‘Possibly because Heatherwick had spent time [on his Garden Bridge proposals] off their own, he could produce a much greater level [of understanding].

He added: ‘In hindsight we could have made the specification clearer that we were looking for a bridge with other elements to it – but at that point we weren’t looking specifically looking for a bridge with a garden.’

GLA's oversight committee - TfL and Garden Bridge - 17 September 2015

The other experts called to give evidence at the hearing at City Hall included the AJ’s deputy editor Will Hurst and architect Walter Menteth, the former chairman of the RIBA procurement reform group.

Hurst - whose FOI request revealed the scoring of the three bids - told the committee that such scoring was particularly strange when you considered the exact wording of the brief.

‘It seems to me there is a conflict between the aims of the pedestrian bridge, which was what was set out in the brief, and the aims of a garden bridge,’ he said.

Menteth said: ‘This contract is extremely aberrant. I’ve never come across anything that is similar. For a major piece of infrastructure in a capital city I can think of nothing comparable.

‘This contract is extremely aberrant’

‘In a normal situation you would be looking for best value by going to the widest possible competition, for the broadest range of inventive and creative ideas. And one would do it as transparently and openly as was possible. We don’t see that in this and it raises a lot of questions.

He added: ‘There appeared to be no apparent logic in the assessment evaluations that were consistent with the specification and the briefing given to the bidders.’

Quoting the brief, he said that TfL had sought a broad range of options from the appraising study, looking at a range of different locations. Menteth went on: ‘That is what two of the bidding submissions responded to.

‘In reality the person who did not respond to that [Heatherwick] should have got the lowest mark for giving a singular, spanning solution. A solution that that TfL didn’t ask for.’    

The panel said it would be making further written submissions to TfL before releasing its findings.

Other comments from the panel:

Navin Shah, Labour member and trained architect
Given that [Tfl] was embarking on a visionary, landmark project why did you not seek external advice from professional bodies, for example the RIBA or RTPI.’

Caroline Pidgeon, Lib Dem member
‘It is quite clear from early on that…..you were not just after a footbridge you were after something innovative and creative. But that does not feature at all in your [tender bid] specification.

‘Nowhere in this does it mention a garden. If it had said ‘We want a garden from x to y’ that might have meant it was a level playing field.

‘Why wasn’t the desire from the mayor reflected in the specifications? And it makes no sense to me how a garden responds to the objectives [which were set out].’

Len Duvall, Labour member and chair of Oversight committee
‘This is not your greatest moment in TfL procurement. [TfL’s] audit report almost certainly left TfL open to the other contractors making a claim for the work they did. We are going to follow up with some written questions.

This is not your greatest moment in procurement

‘There are some legitimate issues about an exercise in starting on one process, ending up with x process that does raise certain questions.’

Darren Johnson, Green Party member
‘Assuming Tfl approached this entire process in good faith, did you not find it odd that two of the bidders responded in one fairly generic way and one bidder responded in a completely different way? A site specific option with a specific function as a garden bridge.’

Watch a recording of the GLA Oversight Committee meeting here



Readers' comments (5)

  • Riveting stuff. Worth watching in its entirety. I thought Caroline Pidgeon and Tom Copely were especially good, as of course was this magazine's Will Hurst. The profession and the general public owe him a big debt of gratitude for his perseverance in bringing this scandal to light. I sincerely hope that he is motivated to keep doggedly chipping away at it.

    It matters.

    In fairness to Richard De Cani, I thought he made a valiant attempt to defend the indefensible. He was clearly thrown a hospital pass by the Mayor's office, which is the real culprit here. Leaving aside the politeness of parliamentary procedure, it is now abundantly clear what has happened. Heatherwick and Lumley lobbied the Mayor; he fell in love with the idea of this particular bridge, by this particular designer in this particular location; he instructed TFL to make it happen. Every action that they have since taken has been to twist and bend every process and procedure to achieve the Mayor's desired outcome.

    I am frustrated that nobody made this critical point. De Cani kept returning to the idea that the Heatherwick submission best responded - in the round - to the context of the brief. Of course it did. By the audit's own findings, Heatherwick helped to define TFL's perception of the need and context through his pre-contest lobbying of the Mayor, which in turn triggered the competition. It is a completely circular argument. De Cani acknowledged that TFL didn't do any specific work to define the need for a bridge of any description or in any particular location until AFTER this procurement process had been completed. So they could only interpret responses through the prism of an analysis that was previously GIVEN to them by one of the eventual bidders. In effect, Heatherwick wrote his own brief. How in the name of logic and reason can that be considered a fair and competitive process?

    The whole thing is an absolute farce from top to bottom and side to side. Val Shawcross's obvious exasperation at the revelation that the 'land of community value' defence is rendered moot by the fact that the eventual land transaction will be between one charity and another spoke volumes. The cynical and manipulative way in which this project is bulldozering any obstacle in its path is simply breathtaking. Unprofessional, unethical and immoral. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.

    Keep at it, Will Hurst. Your work is in the tradition of the best investigative journalism. The truth will out if more journalists like you appreciate the true implication of what this project says about what is becoming of London and its government.

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  • Repeats what happend at the V&A in Dundee where a non-compliant bid won over the panel. In that case the panel mysteriously did not keep records of how they awarded the contract as required by law and as defined as a pre-requisite in the European directive covering competitions. The McClelland Report into this abuse totally missed this key point. Curiously, the same thing happened with the Scottish Parliament Building where the panel more or less abandoned the scoring when the favoured contestant looked like losing. The Fraser Inquiry at least queried the process but did not have the power to investigate any criminal acts.

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  • This whole affair is threatening to become text book material for students of the power of patronage, of how a theoretically democratic organisation established in the public interest can find itself being compromised without (perhaps) realising just how pernicious the process has become.
    And that's just TfL - the engagement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this saga has still to be fully understood, but his enthusiasm for 'bunging' the promoters a big fat tax-break at the same time that he's putting the squeeze on tax breaks for the low paid speaks volumes.
    Perhaps some in the spotlight will blame the Manhattan High Line Park (and its precursor in Paris) - and the siren song of a high profile actress - for having seduced them into thinking with their hearts rather than their heads - but I doubt that the French notion of the 'Crime Passionnel' will be adequate defence.

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  • The competition process is exploitative, and cheapens the value of professional design.

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  • Doesn't all of this justify getting rid of this gratuitous project as soon as possible? How much time and money devoted so far in examining a totally flawed procurement process for this potentially monstrous intrusion in the heart of the Thames and London.

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