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Public private partnerships: the devil or the deep blue sea

17 Apr 2007

PPP enthusiasts argue that the process is delivering schools, and  that design quality has moved up the agenda over the years. The detractors argue that it is logically impossible to push design quality up the agenda in a procurement method where the lawyers and developers are the decision-makers. <br/>
In the light of recent criticism, Peter Wilson looks back over the past ten years of PPP and wonders why the architectural profession has not expressed its concerns about the process more vociferously.

PPP enthusiasts argue that the process is delivering schools, and that design quality has moved up the agenda over the years. The detractors argue that it is logically impossible to push design quality up the agenda in a procurement method where the lawyers and developers are the decision-makers.

In the light of recent criticism, Peter Wilson looks back over the past ten years of PPP and wonders why the architectural profession has not expressed its concerns about the process more vociferously.

After ten years, public private partnerships (PPPs) might arguably – in political terms at least – be regarded as one of the current government’s success stories. Month on month, the number and value of new PPP contracts being rolled out seems, if anything, to be increasing.

In early March alone, new project announcements included a community hospital and health centre in St Andrews worth £25million, an £8m primary healthcare centre in Nairn and a bumper £100m package of eight schools in Dundee. On the face of it, this is great news and evidence of continuing prosperity in the Scottish construction industry. Why then, after more than a decade of experience of this method of procurement – the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) introduced by the previous Conservative government was the forerunner of PPP – are there still carping sounds from some parts of the architectural profession?

The loudest recent public expression of dissatisfaction with the process was unquestionably Malcolm Fraser’s resignation as deputy chair of Architecture + Design Scotland (A+DS), a decision apparently prompted by the quango’s failure to indicate within its annual report when – or even if – it intended to review the design quality of PPP projects.

Whether one of Scotland’s leading architects was simply naive – given the organisation’s quasi–political status and funding sources rooted in the very governmental apparatus that is so evangelical about the benefits of PPP – or had been misled is for history to judge, but it seems curious that nobody within the agency made the deputy chair aware of Audit Scotland’s imminent plans to review the design quality of PPP schools.

It may, of course, be that nobody at A+DS knew of this, but as a publicly advertised tender for an area of work that, to all intents and purposes, overlapped with the organisation’s own very specific remit, ignorance might be construed as a fairly poor defence and a measure of A+DS’s own inherent weakness. Conversely, the decision by Audit Scotland to highlight design issues in its value–for–money survey of PPP schools in Scotland introduces a forensic dimension to the review, taking the bean counters into more subjective territory than perhaps they are used to.

The results won’t be known until at least July, when the consultant’s work on Audit Scotland’s behalf is due to be submitted. However, there is no certainty that any details will be published at that stage. Even if they were, they would not affect the Scottish parliamentary or local elections that take place on 3 May, and while this may well be deliberate (there is, after all, a purdah period before elections that lasts several weeks), the upshot is that any direct democratic judgement on the process has been prevented.

At this point in the discussion, it is important to recognise that only one alternative to PPP is currently on the table – the proposal by the Scottish National Party to replace PPP with a ‘Scottish Futures Trust’, a form of government bond that would be repayable over a period of time.

Whether or not the Treasury in London – in the eventuality of the SNP winning a sufficient majority in the Scottish Parliament to allow it to effect this change – would sanction another institution issuing its own bonds and thereby affecting UK controls on inflation, is anybody’s guess. What is not in doubt is that the proposal is all about ownership of public assets and pays no real attention to the issue of design quality. And it is in the grey area of how design quality is actually defined that the schisms within the architectural profession are to be found.

Over the years, PPPs have become the battleground between the haves and the have–nots, the practices involved in PPP and those who, for one reason or another, are not involved. From the very earliest days of PFI, a number of the larger commercial practices, with their strong links to the major contracting organisations, saw opportunity in the new method of procurement and worked assiduously to involve themselves in the consortia emerging to design, build and operate the projects up for tender.

Others – whether for political reasons, dislike of a process that appeared to place design low on the procurement agenda, or insufficient resources to carry the risk involved in chasing large contracts over an extended timescale – hesitated or declined to participate. Fast forward ten years and the most noticeable feature of PPPs is the small number of contracting organisations winning the bids, and the regularity with which a relatively small number of practice names feature in the design team.

While the process maintains a veneer of openness, the reality is that only certain practices see merit in this particular type of design fray, or have the resources that enable them to carry forward the cost of a failed bid into the next project.

Add to this the Kafkaesque dimension whereby only practices with previous experience of involvement in a PPP project are able to fulfil the selection criteria for new ones, and the picture – for those interested in the health and vitality of the country’s architectural culture – is not particularly bright. Indeed, this would seem to have been the critical issue for Fraser in his decision to resign from A+DS, but his expressed disgust with the design quality of PPP school projects passing in front of the organisation’s review panels appears not to have found much public support from other members of the profession – or from within the quango itself.

At the recent launch of the Scottish Executive’s new statement on architecture policy, A+DS chair Raymond Young went to considerable lengths to highlight the Carlibar Community Campus in East Renfrewshire by JM Architects as a PPP project of real merit. There is no doubt that over the past decade some lessons have been learned, but Fraser’s main point that the country’s best architects are not being considered for the bulk of new public building projects finds some confirmation in the names of the practices actually selected.

This, however, returns us to what is meant by ‘good’ design and ‘good’ architects, since many involved in PPP would argue that their work is as good as that of more widely published ‘design’ architects, with practices such as Keppie holding up projects such as its SNH headquarters in Inverness as award–winning examples of the genre. However, one–off swallows do not a summer make, and there is no doubt that a process that requires multiple buildings of a particular type to be designed and constructed simultaneously – and for relatively low–fee return – is not conducive to either innovation in approach or to lessons being learned and applied from site to site.

Fee revenue is, of course, a major issue when reviewing design quality in any project, but in PPP it would seem that the effort required on the part of architects to achieve a high level of design and construction far outweighs the financial remuneration involved and is only really possible on the one–off project.

A good example is Bennetts Associates Central Library in Brighton – another model held up by Raymond Young – which, despite winning the Prime Minister’s Award for Best Public Building in 2005, cost the practice dear in terms in terms of the time and money it had to invest in its determination to make the best of the procurement route it had entered.

Ultimately, criticism of the design quality evidenced in PPP projects has to be married to the resources available for the design aspects of the project, to the degree to which the architect has any real power to lift design higher on the agenda of the small number of construction and management consortia that now seem to secure most of these contracts, and to the lack of political – and public – interest in or understanding of the impact this particular procurement route has on design quality.

The criticism of politicians is that they are only too happy to follow a financial path intended to remove capital cost from the balance sheet of government expenditure. They are also said to have no regard to long–term price or built environment quality – but, arguably, it is the job of the profession itself to educate them on the latter issue.

In the final analysis, the profession finds itself in a dichotomy it refuses to confront. Studiously apolitical, it now has negligible influence over decision–makers, and with most of the practices engaged in PPP providing some of their larger financial contributions, the professional bodies have proved themselves impotent to respond to the concerns of members not involved or those who feel excluded from this type of project.

It is a sad fact that architects in Scotland lack leadership with the intellectual drive to come up with procurement options combining real financial value with an aspiration to achieve the highest international levels of design quality. It is difficult to think of professional organisations in any other European country that would have so little stomach for a debate so vital to a nation’s culture.

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