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Interview following Fraser's resignation from A+DS

17 Apr 2007

Malcolm Fraser’s resignation from Architecture + Design Scotland and his statements about PPP procurement have won him support from many architects and educationalists. 
He accepts that some architects are trying hard to inject some quality into the procurement process, but he believes that PPP is “fundamentally flawed”. Penny Lewis talks to him about his resignation.

Malcolm Fraser’s resignation from Architecture + Design Scotland and his statements about PPP procurement have won him support from many architects and educationalists. He accepts that some architects are trying hard to inject some quality into the procurement process, but he believes that PPP is “fundamentally flawed”. Penny Lewis talks to him about his resignation.

What was the main impetus for your resignation? A+DS was set up with an independent brief. I thought this meant we should tell the Scottish Executive things that we felt it needed to know – even if they were inconvenient. It was important to have that balance of responsibility and independence. However, I felt that A+DS was failing to embrace its responsibilities, instead becoming an ersatz civil service. We already have a civil service – we don’t need another one. Did you plan this for the elections? No, I don’t go in for that sophistry. I found writing the resignation letter very hard, and that alone was behind the timing. It seems to me that it is best to treat this as a non–party issue. What were your expectations of A+DS ? There’s a homily which states that to get a good building you need, first and foremost, a good client and a good architect. I thought A+DS would help this process by directing clients towards thinking architects. I thought A+DS should produce short, targeted policy documents and helpful advice to the Executive on issues such as PPP. At the interview for A+DS, I said we should evaluate if PPP was value for money. The first question put by the minister to A+DS was: “How do we improve the quality of our schools and hospitals?” You can’t reply to that question without first referring to PPP – it’s the elephant in the living room. Most of our industry believes PPP is a very poor way to procure buildings, but we lack hard evidence. I said we need to do some research. I wanted to see how the small bits of work we, and others, were doing around PPP could feed into larger, primary research on whether PPP represented value for money. So what went wrong? I put my case over two years. The first year at A+DS we drowned under a wave of policy documents, legal documents, corporate plans and articles of association. Although I felt I’d won the argument to review PPP and to write our intention to do this into our corporate plan, it didn’t happen. I was part of a three–man board, and the decision not to review PPP was certainly never taken at any meeting I attended. It’s extraordinary how everybody seems to be of the opinion that PPP is not value for money, but nobody talks about it. I don’t believe civil servants think it’s a good thing, but it’s ‘what we are to do’. The degree to which consent just flows from the top is quite startling. At least I’ve been a bit closer to decision making and power. I know a bit more about it now, but there are times when your jaw drops. What’s wrong with PPP? Government likes buildings to be built through PPP rather than capital funds because it reduces the chancellor’s public sector borrowing requirement. It’s as simple as that. This does not make sense though, because governments can borrow money more cheaply than private corporations can. In paying corporations back, not only do we factor in their profits, there are other inefficiencies. There are millions of pounds of wasted fees, and authorities are giving away their responsibilities for maintenance and access. There is a bigger democratic point. I think most people in Britain want a government that looks after education and health. Even under the Conservatives I don’t think the consensus that the state was to provide health and education was so seriously undermined as it’s being now. Your critics suggest you are being too idealistic… The anti–idealistic response is to say that this is an innovative way to raise money for a desperately needed resource. But if we want to bomb Iraq or increase nuclear proliferation it would appear we can find money no problem. It’s obscene that good schools are somehow of a lesser importance than keeping the world fearful and violent. Critics also suggest you’re overly precious about ‘design’ issues. At A+DS, my co–chair Brian Evans and I were very clear that we were not about style or telling people how to design. We wanted to talk about strategic issues. In schools that means good levels of daylight, playgrounds, good connections to the local community – nothing rinky–dinky, just the simple craft of good architecture. Why can’t we get that approach through PPP? The problem with PPP is that you are retro–fitting these issues. A schools board can be taught to be a good client, as their first interest, as ours, is to get the best possible building for the money. If the client, the real procurer of the building, is a PPP consortium, their first interest is to maximise profit for their shareholders. As a company beholden to shareholders and not the community, this is correct. The current PPP process is trying to take that very blunt instrument and change it into something approaching a process in which the interests of the community are primary. What is the likely impact of A+DS’s ‘Enabling’ involvement in the process? While this was not my initiative, I supported Enabling. There was an urgent need to deal with the contracts that had been let, but I also believed Enabling had to be run in parallel with a fundamental review of the PPP process. If not, there was a danger that Enabling was just covering up the problem, masking deeper issues. In addition, in relation to my desire to use A+DS to get more work for Scotland’s good underemployed architects, I noted that if the primary aim of PPP consortia is maximising profit, they are unlikely to push the client in the direction of architects overly scrupled with putting first the need to get the best value for money for the community. A reliance only on Enabling means that instead of actually doing the work, good architects are more likely to be doing exemplar drawings, design reviews and so on. We are being asked to exhaust ourselves doing scraps on the margins, while trying to persuade a bad process to be at best a little less bad – and for buttons. What response have you had to your resignation? I’ve had a very dignified response from my former colleagues and the minister. I recognise that I have made things difficult for them. But in general, I’ve been very relieved by the understanding and support that has poured in. One response was from a teacher, whose colleagues had just wanted a refurbishment of their well–designed 1970s school, but were pushed into getting a shiny new PPP one. In place of three previous halls, the new school has one multi–purpose hall that “doubles” as a corridor. The school looks less tatty, but for a fraction of the cost the old (better designed) school could have been repaired. And this – the demolition of a good school that needed a bit of love, to be replaced by a poor one – happened under the Executive’s so–called Sustainable Schools policy! Do you think architects should avoid PPP? My practice won’t get involved in PPP, but I accept we can’t all flounce off – some have to engage with the process. Dick Cannon, who has designed PPP exemplars, is a heroic figure and an inspiration. What Elder and Cannon has done at St Aloysius in Glasgow, on a modest budget, is just beautiful. It’s a powerful argument for having a private sector, to show government how it should be done. The state ought to take notice. With all this power, all this money, all of these good architects wanting to assist, with all of these processes, with all of this fiddling, with Enabling and sustainable school policies and other documents which could fill huge skips, the state cannot produce a school that is 100th as good as one good client employing Elder and Cannon. It’s astonishing. Do you think your confrontational approach will have more of an impact than a collaborative one? I haven’t sought to be confrontational. My naive and heartfelt excitement at the establishment of A+DS was genuine. I thought Scotland, as a young nation, could avoid being drowned by the torpor of government. I wanted to do it all, to make buildings with my colleagues in the practice, but also to be part of the political process with my new colleagues at A+DS. I don’t think in theory that I was wrong, but in practice it has not turned out that way.

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