The bridge and the troubled waters

Originally posted on Public Finance 8 June 2015

The European public procurement directives will probably be quite low on David Cameron’s to-do list as he shuttles to Brussels to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership. But the increasingly irate debates over the Mayor of London’s proposed Garden Bridge are an object lesson in the problems these can cause when political initiative rubs up against technocratic process.

The directives require all public spending over specific levels to be openly tendered, including through the Official Journal of the EU (the \’OJEU\’ that gives the regulations their name). These are intended to ensure transparency and a level playing field across the bloc, but the complexity and length of time taken (OJEU procurements can take six months or longer) have a number of perverse consequences (and there are persistent mutterings that other countries don’t seem to take them quite as seriously as ‘we’ do).

Complying with the regulations involves delay and paperwork, so ‘going over the OJEU threshold’ is something that all public servants try to avoid. One strategy is to try to break down contracts to keep them under the limit. Another is to rely on opaque ‘call off contracts’ or ‘panel arrangements’ where a small number of (usually large) suppliers are assembled on to a panel, among whom individual commissions are divvied up. This creates a closed shop for the period of the panel, and combines with the complexity of the procurement process and a cautious approach to scoring financial risk, to exclude the local small businesses that many politicians have pledged to support.

The problem becomes acute when it comes to big ideas like the Garden Bridge, rather than more run-of-the-mill projects. The theory is that an elected authority carefully develops strategies and policies, and prepares budgets and tender documentation for the projects identified. Following exhaustive planning, consultation and procurement processes, these are commissioned and delivered.

But anyone who has worked in public administration knows, life isn’t quite like that. The man from the ministry (or the Mayor’s office) no longer has a monopoly on wisdom, and probably never did.  Ideas emerge from civil society, from private initiative, from every angle. Politicians grab good ones, and their teams currently have to twist themselves into knots trying to create the process that will lead to the right answer.

The Garden Bridge row is a case in point. Whatever you think of the proposal, recent revelations in the Observer tell a typical story. Joanna Lumley, designer Thomas Heatherwick and others approached the Mayor of London with an idea, Boris liked it, and that idea is now being pushed forward. Between these two points, there was a process that can perhaps most politely be described as ‘messy’ whereby there was a competition, which the Lumley-Heatherwick proposal won. Cue understandable anger from other, disappointed, architects, and negative coverage that the project does not need right now.

But the alternative would have been just as problematic. Other people have proposed garden bridges in London from time to time, but would the Heatherwick design team have put so much work into developing and promoting their proposal if there was a good chance that someone else would have ended up getting the commission?

Open and transparent procurement is an important defence against corruption, kickbacks and simple waste, but the European regulations set technocratic process against political accountability.  Mayors and other politicians will be approached with bright ideas from time to time. Surely they should have political space to judge how bright these are, and to implement them, subject to safeguards and controls – not least, the electorate’s ability to eject politicians who pursue vanity projects?

Rather than going through cosmetic competitions, perhaps the elected leaders of public authorities should be allowed to sign a statement formally exempting a project from open procurement, and setting out their reasons (a similar process is followed for some Freedom of Information exemptions). These exemptions would be published and would be intently scrutinised, by the press and opposition politicians, so political leaders would be reluctant to sign them unless they felt they had a really strong case – a unique idea, a genuine emergency, an economic justification for keeping a contract locally. This certification process could be accompanied by internal or external review of value for money.

The Garden Bridge has been criticised as a vanity project and rouses strong opinions on all sides, but our cities would be poorer if politicians were unable to grab hold of big ideas and help to make them happen. Reforming EU procurement legislation could save an enormous amount of ducking, weaving and bad faith, and allow politicians to decide and be held accountable for how public money is spent.

Living in a box

I watched the ponderously-titled \’Big Chef Takes On Little Chef\’, wherein Heston Blumenthal seeks to revive Little Chef, with a creeping and dismal sense of familiarity.

The show pivots on an initially contrived, but subsequently all-too-real clash between Blumenthal and Little Chef boss Ian Pegler. The problem is something like this: Blumenthal sees his role as recovering the reputation of a British classic and, for all his culinary curiosity, seems to nurse a genuine interest in and affection for the traditions of British cooking.

Pegler, however, seems to view Blumenthal as a performing food monkey, who will bring \’blue skies thinking\’ to bear on Little Chef\’s tired menus (but doesn\’t need to worry his little head with anything like business models).

I don\’t know much about catering, but my experiences on the fringe of architecture suggest that the clients who demand wacky, iconic designs for buildings with a \’wow factor\’ are those least likely to understand the careful, pains-taking accretion of change that the best architects can orchestrate. The neophiles want the glamour and the buzz, but are too superficial to consider the sweat and the craft that underpins it.

They want \’thinking outside of the box\’ (Ian Pegler came up with this with a mere two minutes of TV programme to go). To which my architect friend Mark has the only sensible response: \”Err, I don\’t really think in a box.\”

Paddling while England sinks

The Government’s consultation on boosting housing supply could hardly have started at a worse time. With residents of west country towns looking down at filthy waters from their first floor windows, this was not the best moment to publish policy documents that emphasise the need to create more homes, even if these are to be on flood plains.

To be fair, the Green Paper on housing does acknowledge the likelihood of increased flooding in the future, and the need to ensure adequate flood defences and to avoid “inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding”. But these cautious statements sit uneasily with the desperate need for new housing reflected in the document. Can we have it both ways, or are we paddling while England sinks?

Seeing your home flood must be vile for the victims. Viler still must be the knowledge that, as the brown water inexorably rises, your next months will be spent squabbling with insurers, throwing out ruined carpets and furniture, chipping off sodden and contaminated plaster, just to make your home habitable again. Maybe the Environment Agency can be blamed for delayed warnings and late arrival of flood defence barriers, but these would only have bought time as rivers swelled to 36 feet above their normal level.

What is to be done? We could continue to build flood defences higher and higher, until the rivers that give many of our towns and cities their beauty are hidden from view by huge levees. Or we could turn the problem around, creating open space that can act as flood storage, and building homes that can quickly recover from flooding. The Dutch, whose country is one big flood plain, have already started to build amphibious houses on hollow concrete bases, which can rise four metres when rivers flood.

But we don’t need to go that far. Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have both published guidance on flood resilience, for new build and existing houses respectively. Gypsum-based plaster can be replaced with more water-resistant materials, ground floor rooms can be used as service space, electrical sockets can be put halfway up walls and non-return valves can be fitted to drains.

Flood resilience measures might not be pretty – plastic kitchen units and concrete floors, anyone? – and leaving the ground floor to services and car parking conflicts with everything that urban designers learn about ‘animated street fronts’. But the ABI calculates that spending an extra £34,000 on making repairs to a three-bedroom house more resilient could save £37,000 on repair costs next time that the waters rise (let alone several times that in anguish).

One in ten UK homes is already at risk from flooding, and we can only expect that proportion – and the frequency and severity of floods – to increase. Instead of demanding ever higher, more intrusive and more expensive defences, like some latter-day Cnuts, we could accept flooding as a fact of life, which careful planning and design can turn from a cataclysm to an inconvenience.