A brief history of the Foot Tunnels refurbishment
1. The beginning
Conceived as part of the Thames Gateway Programme, and funded by a Community Infrastructure Fund from the Department of Communities and Local Government, the tunnel refurbishment project was supervised by the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), and managed by the Royal Borough of Greenwich (RBG). The refurbishment project began on 1 December 2008, and was due to be completed by 31 March 2011, little more than two years later.
Consultations around these listed heritage structures continued after the start of the refurbishment work, and final planning permission was only granted on 1 November 2009, four months after on-site work had begun in July 2009. Early on in the project, HCA highlighted the project as “high risk”(1), but, in October 2010, the borough council confirmed that “all project activity required to satisfy the relevant funding agreement had or would be discharged by the end of 31 March 2011”(1). A December 2010 progress report to HCA noted that “Work on the tunnels is proceeding well”(2).
2. Things begin to go wrong
Doubts concerning progress in the refurbishment project surfaced during the following few months. In February 2011, it was said that “more extensive works than expected”(2) were required to the Woolwich tunnel, although the same report claimed that both of the tunnel staircases at Greenwich were due to re-open that month(2). They re-opened on time, but were so heavily boarded up as to cause considerable difficulties for pedestrians carrying belongings and managing children, and cyclists carrying bikes up and down the stairs.
The HCA project documentation ends with a flurry of reports on progress in May 2011, well after the original completion date.
Work on both the Greenwich and Woolwich rotunda were claimed to have been finished that month. This may have been true in the case of Greenwich, though hardly at Woolwich. One progress letter boasted that the grant was fully spent by 31 March 2011, but the “works are still continuing … with funding from the Council’s own resources”(2).
A claim that the refurbishment work would be “complete before end September 2011”(2) was wholly accepted by HCA, and a letter from the agency claimed that the works were “forecast to complete by 30 September 2011… with both tunnels being ‘fully operational’”(2). Tunnel painting was cited as “the main reason for delays…”(2).
At the end of the planned project period, and for some time thereafter, both RBG and HCA appeared to delude each other that the job was finished, or at least very nearly so. This seemed to result in the entire project falling into an administrative black hole when HCA was wound up and its functions in London transferred to the Greater London Authority (GLA), together with the executive responsible for day-to-day supervision at HCA, Amena Matin(3). This agency reorganisation took time, and allowed Mayor of London Boris Johnson to claim that it was nothing to do with him, since the project was over, finished, completed.
RBG, however, realised that the project was incomplete, and the council was reminded of this fact by its public and paymasters in a series of questions presented through 2011 and 2012, largely from the local cycling community.
The council’s response was to launch an inquiry, and in April 2012 dispense with the key contractors that had worked on the refurbishment to date. It took a while, but these actions by RBG were finally noticed by GLA, and in October 2012, after a council cabinet decision to task new contractors with completing the refurbishment works, a high-level exploratory meeting was held between GLA and RBG.
3. Enter Willmoth and a cast of many
There is a tendency on the part of many statutory bodies to react to public disquiet by launching an inquiry, independent or otherwise. To that end, RBG appointed John Willmoth of the project management firm Hill International to review the entire saga of the foot tunnel refurbishment.
Willmoth reported first in October 2012, then in December 2012, and more fully in October 2013. In addition, the Council appointed Fenwick Elliot as specialist lawyers to advise on the contractual implications of the affair. Willmoth was charged with ascertaining what had gone wrong, and to seek any possible financial reclamation from the dismissed contractors. It appears that Fenwick Elliot advised against legal action, instead recommending a negotiated settlement.
Willmoth’s detailed report into the foot tunnels was to be presented to a closed cabinet meeting in September 2013. However, following public unease and talk of a potential cover-up, that plan was cancelled, and the report went instead to an open cabinet meeting in October, and to RBG’s overview and scrutiny committee in November. Both of these open meetings were attended by representatives of the newly formed Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels community group. Fogwoft has commented publicly on the Willmoth report(4).
4. Key points from the Willmoth inquiry
• Hyder Consulting, the overall design engineers, over-designed many aspects of the tunnel refurbishment;
• Sweett, the supervisory engineers, commented on this over-design, and the subsequent inability to produce timely tender documents;
• Dean and Dyball was appointed in November 2009, under a two-stage tender process which allows specifics to be added to the contract as designed. This quickly evolved into a cost-plus contract: a widely deprecated arrangement which does not incentivise a contractor to give value for money;
• Apex Lifts and Skylight were specialist contractors for lifts and glazing.
Willmoth comments pointedly on “friction” between Sweett and Hyder, which was manifest early on when RBG replaced Hyder as overall contract supervisor, with Sweett then reporting directly to the council.
The refurbishment works therefore acquired two supervising contractors, one of which was critical of the other’s designs. We also had a main contractor without a proper contract, and an external supervising agency that did not question reports of progress in the project. Willmoth refers to an external environment that compounded these shortcomings, principally:
• the royal re-opening of the Cutty Sark ship in April 2012;
• the Olympic Games during the summer of 2012
• the repaving of Cutty Sark Gardens, disrupted by continued work on the Greenwich tunnel after spring 2011.
Not only did the overdue project clash with these events, we may speculate that their glitzy nature may have prompted the listed project design flaws. These over-designs contrasted with relatively positive feedback from local residents and other tunnel users, both during and after the consultation periods. Most of us were and are, it appears, quite happy with foot tunnels that are entirely functional, and not at all in competition with the adjacent Cutty Sark reconstruction.
Even before March 2012, when Lakehouse was awarded a contract to clear the Greenwich site in time for the imminent royal re-opening of the Cutty Sark ship, it was clear that new brooms were required to finish what had turned into a very messy job. The next problem was that any further refurbishment work would be disrupted by the Olympic Games in the summer of 2012.
Following the games, financial and legal constraints probably delayed a resumption of a scope of works that only slowly dawned on RBG and GLA. The council retained the services of John Willmoth to negotiate any recovery of contract payments, and to provide advice during the completion period (i.e., Phase 4 in Willmoth’s schedule). Lakehouse was hired as general contractor, as were the specialist firms Apex Lifts and Skylight.
Work behind the scenes resumed in October 2013, and more visibly the following month. At the time of writing, in January 2014, all project components so far begun are on schedule, and a few, such as the refurbishment of the Island Gardens rotunda roof, are said to be ahead of schedule.
In January, at the invitation of RBG, representatives of Fogwoft inspected the refurbishment works in both tunnels, and with council executives discussed the future schedule. The main work schedule finishes in April for Greenwich and May for Woolwich, but it will take a further month or so to tidy up the loose ends. At least this time there are no royal or cultural distractions in the way.
6. So what next?
The refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels has already taken longer than the initial construction of either tunnel. It is not quite finished, but already the sorry saga should lead us to demand far greater accountability in the spending of our taxes. The final bill is also not yet settled.
When Willmoth has finally “assisted Council in establishing and attributing liabilities between various contractors”(5), the public must be kept fully informed. Openness and grass-roots campaigning have arguably stimulated the resumption of the refurbishment work, just as administrative chaos and political opacity helped to sabotage the original contracts. Official technical chains of supervision failed, and the tragedy is that it took so long for this failure to be recognised.
1. Letter of 22 February 2013 to Len Duvall by GLA Head of Paid Service
2. Progress documents of the HCA published by GLA, 30 January 2013 on a Freedom of Information request
3. Letter of 30 April to Len Duvall by GLA Executive Director Housing and Land
4. Report on the Tunnels Project, Hill International, 2 October 2013
5. Royal Borough of Greenwich Cabinet Paper, October 2013
Ian Blore and Dr Francis Sedgemore
27th January 2014
A brief history of the Foot Tunnels refurbishment