Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham (CAB 31)


  I am writing in support of CABE (Commission for the Built Environment). I understand that there is concern about the necessity and continuing usefulness of the organisation and we wish to make representation in support of their work. The Council are grateful of the help they have given us and are convinced of the need for their continued service of advice and enabling that has raised the issue of building design and its appreciation generally and specifically for PFI and Design and Build projects.

  There can be little doubt that traditionally PFI projects have suffered from poor and ill considered design. The view generally taken of PFI in particular is that it is a commercial transaction and the finished building is just one of the final outcomes. In fact, from experience of procuring two PFI contracts, the commercial issues (ie legal and financial) more than often take the highest profile during the negotiation process. Regardless of promises by Contractors (and the Council) to the contrary, design and technical issues suffer because of commercial decisions taken very late in the day.

  These commercial decisions often reflect the concerns of funders and the contractor to limit risk which in turn limits innovation and puts up costs. At the same time, the Local Authority's affordability problems that are not confronted early enough in the process. It takes approximately two years for a Local Authority to sign a PFI contract from credit approval and Outline Business Case and only approximately three to four months are given to the contractor to design the main output of the Authority's Requirements—a building suitable for the next 60 plus years, not just the 25 years of the contract.

  The building user and the user experience inevitably suffer because the commercial constraints directly affect the design outcome. Unfortunately, the commercial aspects are very short term and the real impact of a lack of design focus is to reduce the potential benefits of to the very people it was intended for—in our case the local community. We believe this was born out by recent reports from the National Audit Office.

  CABE's input, as "Design Enablers" to the PFI project for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham was crucial in turning this process around and focusing the attention of both the Council and the Contractors on the final outcome—the way in which careful and thoughtful design of the buildings can affect and enhance the educational achievements of the students.

  Our instructions from our Members was clear, they wanted their new school to be a flagship for regeneration in the local area and in the Borough as a whole. The difficulty for us was how to achieve this. CABE gave us a process and the help to carry process through. Following the advice of our enabler and with his assistance we:

    —  appointed an Architectural Consultant to help us to develop the brief and an "exemplar scheme" that was one real and tested answer to the brief;

    —  appointed Quantity Surveyors to cost the exemplar scheme and test it against the Councils affordability;

    —  appointed engineers to develop environmental and structural strategies; and

    —  developed a relevant Output Specification tested against a clear and known outcome.

  This allowed us to give the contractors designers a full brief that was achievable and affordable and gave them time to consider our requirements and offer real innovation. The final design, whilst based on the principles developed with the exemplar, was very different from the exemplar. The success of this process was realised when we had agreed the building design and costings for our PFI Contract three months before completing the commercial negotiations. We do not believe we would have got to this point without the early input and continuing assistance of CABE or a body like them.

  The exemplar process has been driven by CABE to raise client expectations and contractors awareness to the needs of producing well designed and functional buildings. The response from contractors to this process was good—one even calling it "grown up" procurement. The CABE initiated exemplar platform has meant that design development meetings with each of the designers have been informed and positive, producing an intelligent client and end user who has been able to be the main focus of our briefing/discussion sessions. The purpose was to produce a benchmark for design, innovation and cost competitiveness and in our case this was certainly achieved.

  This is only one example of the work being carried out by CABE, but I have outlined it in some detail to explain why it was so essential for us, as a Local Authority, to ensure that we procured the right school and community facilities so needed by the people of Barking.

  Our experience with PFI is that affordability and tight timescales generally condemn the design function to a low priority. Having an independent and impartial body, such as CABE, whose job is to remind us of the real focus of design—to produce functional and aesthetically considered buildings suitable for their intended purpose—is a major need and we would strongly recommend they be allowed and funded to carry on with the work of helping public bodies such as ours to achieve these ends.

  I apologise that this letter is outside of your timescale, I was only informed of the need during the last week and was not aware of the deadline. I ask that it be accepted in some form as evidence that the work of CABE has been essential, at least for this Council and will continue to be worthwhile for the future if allowed.

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