I thought it might be interesting to review some of their competitions and see whether taken as a whole, they can be seen as a successful path to bridge procurement or not. Their website only holds results from 2005 onwards, so I've limited myself to those - I'm ignoring earlier RIBA-run bridge competitions including the London Millennium Bridge and Butterfly Bridge in Bedford.
Where I can find the information, I've included some key facts, such as the number of entrants, and the cost of the bridge per square metre of deck (a non-iconic footbridge can be built for as little as £1,000 per square metre, and £4,000 - £6,000 should be sufficient for many landmark bridges).
River Wear Crossing
Invitation only, 35 expressions of interest reduced to 6 shortlisted entrants. Winner announced in September 2005 as Techniker with Spence Associates. Budget £43 million. As of today, the winning entry has never been publicly revealed. However, it appears that proposals to build a bridge are moving ahead, with attempts to secure government funding and the more recent announcement that government funding has been secured, albeit for a "bog-standard" bridge. Cost per square metre of deck would have been about £4,000 based on the original budget.
River Avon Footbridge
Invitation only, with 5 shortlisted entrants. Winner announced in January 2007 as Schlaich Bergermann with Ian Ritchie Architects. Budget £2 million. Cancelled in July 2008 when budget reached £3.3 million, having spent £312,000 to get to planning application stage. Cost per square metre of deck would have been about £17,500.
Leeds-Liverpool Canal Footbridge
Open competition, with 88 entrants. Winner announced in February 2007 as Eckersley O'Callaghan with Softroom. Budget £400k. By May 2008, the budget was then stated as £700k, but planning permission had been secured. An August 2008 start on site was forecast. Cost per square metre of deck is £7,000 (based on planning drawings available at http://www.sefton.gov.uk/Default.aspx?page=5297 - search for "Pennington Road").
New Islington Footbridge
Open competition, with 87 entrants. Winner announced in July 2007 as Michael Hadi Associates with Gollifer Langston. Again, I seem to recall an original budget of about £350k. I've been unable to find any evidence of progress since the winner was declared. Does anyone know otherwise?
Sheffield Parkway Footbridge
Open competition, with "over 100" entrants. Winner announced in January 2008 as Ramboll Whitbybird with Tim Norlund. Budget was quoted as £1.5m in the original brief, but has been stated as £2m elsewhere. For the span of 37m and width of 4m stated in the brief, the £1.5m budget gives a cost per square metre of deck of £10,100, but the proposed design looks to be longer than that, so the real figure is probably much lower! Again, I can find no evidence of further progress, but it's still early days for this one.
River Douglas Footbridge
Open competition with 110 entrants, reduced to shortlist of 7. Winner set to be announced later this year. Budget is stated as £2-3 million in the brief, for a bridge about 85m long and 4m wide. That's about £5,880 - £8,820 per square metre of deck.
So, for the last 4 years, we can report 2 competitions that ended by going nowhere (Wear, Avon); 1 that seems to be going well (Liverpool); and 3 where it's too early yet to say (New Islington, Sheffield, River Douglas). Considering the amount of money spent by various parties (particularly for the open competitions, where the combined cost to the economy of all the entrants' time could easily exceed £0.25m per competition), that might not seem to be very good value.
This isn't necessarily a poke at RIBA and their competition office. For the two obvious failures, the key themes seem to be a lack of proper funding, feasibility study, and commitment from the promoters. But any cost-benefit analysis of these competitions would show a considerable loss to the wider economy in wasted professional time, both by unsuccessful entrants, and at Stratford, by the successful ones. The need for proper preparation by a client before running such a competition seems very clear.