Willie Miller's Blog
This is Willie Miller's Blog.
My last entry on this blog was on 31 October 2009 - not a great record but I've made my apologies to Urban Realm and will try to do better. I don't want to be known as that guy that goes on about procurement but I thought I would bring the subject to a close with a couple of tales then move on to other subjects.
The notice above was recently issued to practices who had expressed an interest in North Ayrshire Council's Town Centre Research study. There are some obvious points to draw from this and many questions to ask. Clearly the lack of work in this sector has focused the attention of an enormous number of firms on this potential but modest job although it is hard to understand what sort of 'unprecendented' number actually applied for it. This information is not being made available meantime. North Ayrshire Council obviously couldn't cope with the rush of interest so they abandoned their anticipated process and randomly selected applicants, evaluated their suitablility and invited five to proceed to the next stage. In other words, this is closer to lottery territory than procurement - or is it?. Isn't this similar to inviting a list of five firms to tender then selecting the most suitable tenderer? And isn't that the way things used to happen with many local authority contracts? The difference is that the Council embarked on an apparently 'fair' and 'transparent', 'best value' approach to procuring the job but gave up on it halfway through.
I know a lot of people who read this have spent much of their time trying to change the way that the public sector acquires external skills and advice. The subject was raised at a cross party group meeting at the Scottish Parliament in May so there is a sense that the process needs to change. Of course the current procurement situation suits some companies as it focuses attention on their massive turnover rather than on their meagre skillsets or their ability to undercut the fee budget by 50% because to them it is just a bit of cashflow. It cuts out the small fry who might just produce something worthwhile and keeps local council box-tickers in work.
But it is at its most damaging when it separates clients from practices and prevents the growth of constructive relationships around change in architecture and urbanism. Many people in Councils realise the damage this causes and go to great lengths to avoid having to go down a procurement route - well good for them. Quite unlike the misguided English authority who recently advertised a tender where one of the requirements was a turnover of £1m purely in urban design work for the past three years. Now I wonder which firms will be able to satisfy that condition?
Anyway I will move on to other subjects now but thoroughly recommend that you read 'A short post about risk' by Charles Holland of FAT Architects. Try googling 'fantastic journal' - I'm apparently not allowed to make links from here to other blogs.
Last week I was trying to complete a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) for an interesting study down south. The contract value of the job was £30,000 and the PQQ was 37 pages in length. Even so, it excluded any reference to skills, abilities or appropriateness for the job. The Professional Indemnity Insurance (PII) requirement for the work was £2million per incident. We carry £1million at the moment so I spoke to my insurance company. They couldn’t sell me £2M PII for this job because they didn’t think I was a risk - moreover my insurers couldn’t understand why the client thought they might be at risk in commissioning a study of this nature. Madness. I tried to speak to the client but the procurement rules prohibit direct contact - so the PQQ went in the bin.
This is just one minor example of circumstances that affect small practices throughout the UK every week. In Scotland, it is certainly the case that Framework Agreements and other aspects of procurement regulations make it increasingly difficult for small practices to get public sector work. At the other end of the scale, a few large practices soak up more and more small jobs enabling them to grind out more and more very ordinary work. Most larger companies in our field generally do not innovate - why should they - but instead repackage the intellectual property of others and present it as their own work, appearing to be cutting edge while living resolutely behind the curve. Now maybe that is exactly what many clients want - an easy life without challenge or conspicuous thought - but it certainly isn’t what is needed to spark new approaches to the future of cities, towns and rural areas.
Small firms are usually recognised as the key engine for innovation in any advanced economy, not only in design but also in process. The UK and perhaps the EU has been slow to realise this and both have done little to change the current situation at government level. At individual Council level some commissioning departments work hard to keep certain kinds of studies and commissions away from the procurement people but it is difficult to operate sensibly in an environment where the predominant culture is one of box-ticking and risk-aversion.
Of course it is easy to grumble about the procurement industry - for that is what it is now - with its career structures, standardised PQQs, training course and tender list providers. Like the regeneration industry, it has spawned its very own parasitic army. However the point of it all must be to produce something of excellence and value, in our case for architecture, urbanism, spatial strategy, for communities in cities, towns and rural areas and significantly for local economies where small firms can make a significant and beneficial impact.
I would like to see a wider debate taking place on procurement so if you have had any experiences worth sharing or if you are aware of better ways in which public agencies can commission new work please get in touch (email@example.com) or leave a comment.
Last week saw news of the cancellation of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link (GARL) and the various stories continued into the Sunday papers about the whys and wherefores of the decision. It provides a good follow-on to my previous comments about European approaches to transport led infrastructure being a central part of urbanism and indeed of regional planning.
The reaction to this cancellation is relatively subdued as we might expect from a country that puts little value on these things. Even the Commonwealth Games Federation said that the rail link was ‘not critical to the successful delivery of the Games'. Presumably the masses of participants and spectators will travel to Glasgow from the airport by bus, taxi or hire car or perhaps the subtext is that the Games will be serviced more conveniently from Edinburgh Airport - currently a much more attractive gateway to Scotland. Unsurprisingly, most upset of all seem to be Glasgow City Council and the construction industry. Looking at the horrible visualisations of the proposal and the ghastly rolling stock parked up in the glass roofed station at the airport, it was easy to get the sense that this was a dinosaur proposal with something less than wide appeal, quickly going nowhere.
Of course a rail link to the airport is not just about the Commonwealth Games - or shouldn't be. Glasgow and Edinburgh are the largest airports in the UK without rail links to their respective cities although Edinburgh may have a tram link in the next few years. I'm sure that there is a worthwhile case for this rail link but not a word has been heard about it in defense of the cut. Is it really possible that Glasgow Airport will fulfil its projected growth figures and handle over 20 million passengers by 2020 without any substantive transport infrastructure other than a few buses?
Perhaps the real issue is that the GARL proposal is the wrong one for Glasgow. An airport is surely a core part of a regional transport hub - not just a branch line terminus to be cut out of budgets at the first round of savings. A link from the airport to Central Station is okay but is never going to have the appeal and utility that a more flexible light rail system would have - one that could service a wider area, connect to the range of suburban rail services on the south and north bank of the Clyde and the Subway system.
Hopefully this will be seen as a opportunity to rethink future public transport infrastructure in the metropolitan area and see how the needs of residential and business communities as well as visitors can best be served - and how the airport's role as an important driver of the Scottish economy can be accommodated in a contemporary urban environment. Transport as an integral part of city building and placemaking rather than just the process of moving folk around.
Having just returned from four days in Bordeaux with the Academy of Urbanism and also having visited Leipzig, Dresden, Dessau and Marseilles in the last few months, being back in Glasgow is somewhat depressing. Yes it's nice to be home but really the quality and scale of investment in the urban fabric of these European cities by the public sector is breathtaking. We are constantly told that we can't do this or that in Scottish cities while other European cities are prospering through public sector investment.
In the case of Bordeaux, over one billion Euros have been spent on a tram system that has completely transformed the development of the city, structuring placemaking initiatives within the urban fabric and determining the direction and form of extensions to the urban area. This is for a city of 250,000 population serving a metropolitan area of 1.5 million people - that puts Bordeaux somewhere between Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
The point is that this is not just a public transport initiative or a measure aimed at reducing car usage - it is actually a key strategic component of the city's development into the 21st century linking employment areas, public realm initiatives, placemaking, education and housing and wrapping them into a comprehensive development framework for the city. No PFI, no PPP, no deals with the private sector - just straightforward public investment in city infrastructure. Can you imagine trying to do this in Scotland?
The scale of cultural comparison is enormous - it is as though we were inexorably linked to a collection of useless constructs including:
- a ridiculous over-respect for the value of private sector investment
- a desire to embrace absurd standards in health and safety
- a morbid fear of contemporary design
- a complete arse-over-tit attitude to the provision of infrastructure.
There's more of course but this will do for now.
Those involved in strategic planning issues around urbanism and how we live in the 21st century have much to think about, much to do and much to learn from European cities. Perhaps we should offer up a prayer for them which starts - "please save us from ourselves".