14 July 2013

Sunderland's River Wear Crossing: A Post-Mortem

Okay, while the dust slowly settles on this week's announcement that Sunderland's hubristic River Wear Crossing scheme has been cancelled (in its current form, at least), I guess it's time to reflect.

This was a project conceived a few short years after the glitz and the glamour of millennial bridge fever, which saw Sunderland council looking with particular envy at their long-time rivals in Newcastle / Gateshead. The city of Glasgow were another local authority infected by the fever, although in September 2005, when Sunderland announced that their bridge design competition had a winner, it had not yet become apparent quite what a fiasco Glasgow's scheme would become.

The parallels with Glasgow's project are highly pertinent, with both competitions won by designs which were immediately and obviously structurally "challenging"; which were pursued with vigour by their promoters regardless of criticism; which received only two willing tenders, both well above the available budget; and which were binned without a hint of apology for the millions wasted in project development, to be replaced by simpler design-and-build projects where risk was eliminated by letting contractors take the lead.

That's what is to happen now to the New Wear Crossing - a new design-and-build tender stipulating the same alignment, same general principle as the original design (i.e. a cable-stayed bridge), and even the same foundation positions (to avoid having to re-assess any impact on river hydraulics, and land purchase issues, presumably).

Sunderland announced Spence Associates and Techniker as the winners of their RIBA-run contest to design a £43m highway bridge as part of the wider Sunderland Strategic Transport Crossing in 2005, but it would be three years before the winning design would actually be made public.

Quite why it was kept secret has never really been made clear, although I know that the design was subject to independent review from beyond the jury panel and the client's ordinary technical advisers. There was clearly some recognition of the bridge's highly radical departure from the structural engineering norm at the outset (the reviewer concluded that "construction of the bridge is challenging but achievable"). Even when, in November 2008, Sunderland took a positive decision to move ahead with the iconic design, they were still making clear their concern over its feasibility and talking about the possible need to "tone it down".

When the bridge design was finally unveiled, I commented immediately that "The iconic bridge design is simply amazing. Amazingly beautiful. And amazingly daft." Some of what was stated by its designers at the time was hugely misleading e.g. Techniker's patently absurd claim that "the bridge was not a technically difficult or radically new structure", or that a bridge "of similar size and span and of exactly the same construction and arrangement has been constructed a decade ago without any difficulty".

These were not the last statements made which seemed at odds with reality, with Sunderland council on several occasions reporting that the bridge was well-supported by the public, on the basis of a tiny survey which was, in fact, contradicted by a larger survey showing very nearly half of those questioned would have preferred a "tried and tested" design alternative.

In September 2008, I offered this summary of the issues with the design, and I do take some satisfaction from being able to say now that I told you so:
"Amongst all the consideration of cost versus quality that will probably dominate discussions, I think it's important not to forget about risk. Whether it will stand up or not, for a given budget or otherwise, it's undoubtedly a very high-risk proposal. And Sunderland might be wise to look at recent examples from Glasgow and Stratford-upon-Avon for cases where high-risk competition-winning designs were dropped only after first wasting considerable sums of public money."
Following the council's 2008 decision to invest funds in developing the design further, considerable effort was spent first working through the design problems and then preparing a full detailed design, with a number of technically experienced consultants brought alongside Techniker to provide assistance. The cost estimate soon rose well above the original £43m, and it became apparent that central government would only provide Sunderland with enough funding for a conventional bridge alternative, not for an iconic structure.

Nonetheless, the council eventually succeeded in putting together funding to match the cost estimate, and hence to put the highway project (featuring the bridge) out to tender. Indeed, they succeeded in getting the overall project budget down from £133m in 2009 to £118m in 2011.

The £118m estimate was based on a "mean probability" risk allowance, i.e. the council estimated what risks might push their costs up, and allowed for precisely 50% of them, in line with standard government guidance (the P50 risk level). They calculated that if all risks were to materialise in full, the project cost could rise to£130m, and that they would need to make financial provision for this eventuality. Sunderland have now removed the project website, so all their financial reports and other data are no longer shared with the public, although you can still find them, for now at least, via Google's cache.

Signs that the contractors' views of risk differed from the promoter's emerged in February this year, when two of the four firms bidding to build the scheme decided not to return a tender. We are told now that neither of the remaining two tenders returned "were priced within the current funding availability and approved budget for the scheme", and that to pursue them would require "significant additional funding".

What we have not yet been told is precisely what the tender figures are, i.e. to judge whether the original budget estimate or its risk allowance were ever, in fact, realistic. The bidders knew the available budget, and presumably gambled that Sunderland would not wish to lose face and abandon the scheme, finding additional money somehow.

So we are left with a number of unanswered questions:
  • What were the tender prices from the two bidders? By how much did they exceed the budget estimate?
  • How much of the cost over-run relates to the bridge rather than other aspects of the scheme?
  • What was wrong with the budget estimate - what did the bidders price that was not in the estimate?
  • How much money has been spent so far on developing the current scheme?
  • Looking back to the original competition, why was this design ever chosen?
  • Who or what is to blame for the decision to repeatedly press ahead with a project where the risk of failure was ever-present, and never sufficiently mitigated?
By my reckoning, the bridge amounts to some £77.5m of the £118m estimate, once you share out project management costs, land purchase, risk and indexation in proportion to actual construction costs. That's some way beyond the original £43m assumed at competition stage, and we must assume that even that figure has been blown past by the actual tender prices.

The financial reports for the bridge stated a figure of £13.3m for "fees" for the project, including items like consultants, designers, public consultation, licenses, consents, surveys, project management etc. Some of this will, I guess, relate to future fees e.g. for project supervision during the construction phase. But most of those headings relate to activities which should already have been completed, and hence I'd guess perhaps some £10m has been spent on developing the scheme to its current state, and the majority of that completely wasted on a design which will never be built.

Looking back to the start of the whole process, I recall emailing Sunderland in 2008 to ask for a copy of the competition jury's minutes, and never received a reply. I think there is much to be said for transparency, and to the opportunity it offers to receive criticism gracefully, and to benefit from it. Perhaps future design competition organisers could consider that.

It looks to me like Sunderland Council will wish to rapidly move on: to put this fiasco behind them and focus on a new, less challenging, possibly far more context-appropriate replacement project. But if others are to learn from this unhappy experience, I hope that answers to the above questions do emerge.


Jonathan said...

How about making a few FOI requests? The tender figures will probably be covered by commercial confidentiality, but not the jury minutes. £10m is a scandalous amount of public money to waste on a failed scheme.

The Happy Pontist said...

I can't make any FOI requests as The Happy Pontist, as they cannot be made anonymously.