Welsh win would send wrong message

Building Design, July 2006, Comment

There will be several eyebrows raised this week over the inclusion, for the third year running, of a road on the shortlist for the prime minister’s better public building award.

The project to widen a section of the M25 serving Heathrow is one of 14 schemes competing for the honour, alongside Hopkins’ Evelina Hospital and David Morley’s Regents Park Hub.

But while we might naturally cheer for the architecture, we shouldn’t dismiss the road or indeed any other infrastructure project on the list. The scheme, sponsored jointly by Cabe and the Office of Government Commerce, was never intended to recognise buildings, but projects. Although design is an important criterion, this is primarily an award for successful procurement. By recognising well-managed public projects, completed on time and on budget, it aims to raise the bar for government and local authority clients.

There is, however, a real anomaly on this list: the National Assembly for Wales. Its delivery was a fiasco. Within two years of Richard Rogers Partnership’s 1998 competition win, costs had risen from £17 million to £22.8 million, with work halted for months until the new figure was approved. Then in June 2001, amid further cost hikes, RRP was sacked and the affair degenerated into claim and counter-claim. It took a further two years, a fresh bidding process, and a rigid design-and-build contract, before the project got back on track.

Cabe dismisses this saga as irrelevant. Not because the quality of the design over-rules cost and time considerations — the massively over-budget Scottish Parliament was ruled out last year — but because the second contract, which delivered the completed building, is distinct from earlier history. It is on the basis of this contract, it says, that the project is being judged.

It’s a distinction that will be lost on many. Welsh Assembly member William Graham, for one, is outraged that this troubled project is being hailed as an exemplar. For Graham, a long-time critic of the project’s handling, the saga continues, with major remedial work planned for the summer recess.

The power of the PM’s award lies in the message it gives out. A road-widening project to support the major expansion of an airport has dubious environmental credentials. But if it’s a choice between the M25 and the Welsh Assembly, we should gun for the road.