Design Quality and the Private Finance Initiative


I am delighted to welcome you to the Royal Fine Art Commission's latest seminar. Most of the Commission's resources are devoted to considering casework and seeking to improve individual development schemes. But a vital part of our rôle is to reflect on wider strategic issues; seminars, and the publications which follow them, allow us to do so critically and in some depth.


Today we have assembled some highly distinguished speakers to discuss a matter of real and topical importance. As many of you will know, the Commission has not shrunk from expressing its reservations about PFI. Because the timetable is tight and discussion important, I will not rehearse them here at length. Suffice to say that from the point of view of design quality, there are inherent dangers in concentrating responsibility for designing, building, financing and operating a building in one service provider. Of course the architect will be an integral member of the provider's team, but he will most probably be a low-ranking one. Therein lies a serious danger: if the relationship between the client and architect is weakened, if the brief is filtered through an intermediary whose interests lie elsewhere, then the prospects for high-quality architecture must surely be reduced.


Now that PFI projects are coming on stream, as they are doing gradually, we at the Commission are seeing some of our fears realised. In recent weeks we have been asked to comment in hospital designs which fall far short of the required standard. The designs for the new Inland Revenue building at Bootle are equally lacking in promise. I fear that the Commission will become increasingly familiar with the problems of carelessly-handled elevations, intensive ancillary development, over-provision of car-parking and token landscaping. These problems are hardly unique to PFI schemes, neither do they inevitably result from PFI, but the mechanics of PFI make their occurrence more likely.


But let us try to be optimistic. We still have the opportunity to shape the architectural legacy of PFI. Valuable lessons can be learnt from the two case studies being presented today- the Central Middlesex Hospital, and the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. PFI comes in many guises, but if the variant is carefully chosen and properly applied, it is perfectly possible for good design to be delivered. For that to happen, we need procurers who demand quality and select their preferred bidder with quality as well as cost in mind - procurers who understand the simple economic truth that design quality equals value for money.


One reason for optimism is that the responsible agencies are well aware of the Commission's concerns and are acting to address them. There is the prospect of design guidance from the Treasury's Private Finance Panel. Mr Horam's NHS Quality Initiative allows us to hope that many of the fine words in Better by Design will be translated into action. And the Department of National Heritage, together with the Private Finance Panel, has set up a steering group to advance the cause of good PFI architecture. All this industry must, of course, generate more light than heat, or else it will be largely futile. It is a huge task to create, by a mixture of education, persuasion and prescription, a body of informed and motivated public clients which can both discern and demand quality. As a starting point, might we not nudge clients in the right direction by giving them access to expert design advice in the initial stages of a project? By that simple expedient, we could do much to lift the standard of PFI architecture.


A further reason for optimism is that Bryan Jefferson is closely involved with current attempts to improve the design quality of PFI schemes, particularly in his capacity as chairman of the DNH/Private Finance Panel steering group. The Jefferson/Delafons Report of 1991 predates PFI but remains an excellent analysis of the challenges faced by those who procure and design Government buildings. This seminar will benefit considerably from his experience and wisdom, and it gives me great pleasure to invite him to take the chair.