PFI: PFI is a True Curate's Egg

A famous 19th century Punch cartoon lampooned the deferential attitude of those who put up with the unsatisfactory. The bishop, providing lunch for a new curate, sees that the kitchen has served him a bad egg. The curate, surveying the smelly cupful, says: “I assure you my lord, parts of it are quite excellent.”

The verdict on PFI at a recent RIBA conference matched that of the curate. The good bits are that PFI promotes a focus on the customer’s need, and on a lifetime basis, thus supporting sustainability. It also favours long-term, integrated teams of designers and other suppliers, learning from experience. The bad bits are that the competitive process keeps designers, customers and users too distant, leading to weak brief-making. The process tends to rush design and interrupt team continuity, reducing the chances of good ideas, well worked out. The competitive process is also inherently wasteful of design effort, much of which is inevitably never used.

Two government policies are currently unresolved: the logic of outsourcing and risk transfer contradicts the requirement for good design in public buildings. While PFI can stimulate innovation, it also entrenches the limited aspirations of many customers, so dumbing down design thinking.

Two routes to resolution were discussed. John Cole, of Northern Ireland’s health service, favours setting the design brief before embarking on a PFI process which would then concentrate on the development and delivery of the concept. The other approach, favoured by my RIBA Practice Committee, seeks to select the provider team on a quality and suitability basis before substantial design is done. The selected team then gets full contact with the users of the proposed building whose time is not wasted by competing teams. The concept of target costing is used to set competitors a feasible value marker to be hit or improved upon. The framework agreement idea and that of PFI-batching already address this thought by using the first project to introduce the team to the agreement, then carrying out several more projects on a negotiated basis.

One hard-to-reconcile factor is that the pressures and costs of the PFI process exclude most small and medium-sized practices who used to bring quality design to schools and smaller health buildings. Only cutting the timescale and cost of the process will open it up to smaller projects.

Another bane is the tendency of judgements of quality in PFI to be based on the measurable – functionality, lifetime costing, value for money – and not on the Cabe agenda of inspiration and design integrity. The design quality indicators produced by the Construction Industry Council should help, but we need to develop a dialogue between politicians and the public about the exchange of honour involved in public building: politicians should seek honour in return by honouring their public with fine buildings. That way one hand washes the other.

Richard MacCormac said at the conference that we are now in “the economy of the imagination”, the creative industries being the fastest growing part of the economy. PFI must embrace creativity or be a cultural failure.

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