London’s Garden Bridge, Joanna Lumley and a Dodgy Procurement Process

It's not every day that I get quoted in the Architects Journal, (behind a paywall unfortunately, but you can read one free article a day) but last week I was asked for my thoughts on the award of a couple of contracts for the new London “Garden Bridge”, to be built (probably) across the Thames. The "buyer" is Transport for London, (TfL), and the contracts have been awarded to Thomas Heatherwick for the design, then Arup as lead technical design consultants. Here is the Journal reporting on the project:

Politicians are to investigate the ‘sketchy’ process by which government body Transport for London (TfL) appointed Thomas Heatherwick to design the Garden Bridge. The £175 million project – which now has planning permission from both Westminster and Lambeth councils – was originally billed as being 100 per cent private-sector funded, but now has £60 million of public funding from the mayor of London and the Treasury.

The issue is that these two firms were already involved before the formal tendering process started. They were asked to work on the design by Joanna Lumley, actress and “national treasure”, who is already responsible for one initiative that had public support but is turning out to be a disaster in the longer term (the Ghurkhas - save the details for another day, but her “success” never got analysed the way it should, and if you live where I do, you will know about some of the negatives).

Anyway, she and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, have promoted the idea of the bridge, which many feel is self-indulgent, expensive, and in the wrong place. But after the original work had been done, on the assumption it would be privately funded, it became clear public money would be involved. So a public procurement competitive process needed to be held. TfL did that and hey presto - Heatherwick and Arup just happened to win the contracts from TfL! Isn’t that fortunate.

The Heatherwick contract was awarded after a quick tender, and the opportunity was not openly advertised as far as we know. The Journal asked me to look at the tender document which they had obtained and it was “sketchy" (my word quoted in the Journal) and only Heatherwick and two others were invited to bid. No advert on Contracts Finder as far as I know.

Similarly, Arup, who were already involved, won the tender for the lead design work which we believe was a mini-competition from a framework.

The procurement process, particularly for the Heatherwick appointment, does not look good. It might not be "corruption" in the sense of someone gaining financially at the taxpayer's expense, but it looks very dodgy. How do we know this is the best design? And the tender was very opaque in terms of how cost was actually being assessed - plenty of room for choosing the "right" bidder there. TfL has a responsibility to spend public money properly, and this is a high profile, high risk project apart from anything else. Some experts have also suggested the estimated costs look out of line with industry good practice.

I know TfL has some good procurement people, but they've messed up in the past on important contracts. Do they have the authority to make sure things are done properly, or were they simply told here what was wanted in terms of the right result? Was it really a level playing field?

But Lumley likes the bridge, and likes Heatherwick, and it seems that she gets what she wants. And no politician has the guts to oppose her or the bridge.

Voices (2)

  1. Sigi Osagie:

    This is a good, objective overview, Peter. We certainly need a bit more scrutiny of public sector procurement to ensure effectiveness and spend efficiency, especially at this time when budgets are squeezed. It vital that every pound spent returns optimal value-for-money; ‘not always easy to achieve with public sector procurement, I might add.

    Sigi Osagie
    Author, “Procurement Mojo – Strengthening the Function and Raising Its Profile”
    (www.procurementmojo.com)

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