Westminster Council have finally come back with initial answers to some, though very far from all, of the questions Labour have been asking about the Conservative Council’s failing Marble Arch Mound project. While Council officers have said that a number of key answers will have to wait until the outcome of an internal review their responses so far highlight a number of real concerns.
First of all the Council says that ‘The Council’s leadership weren’t made aware of any concerns prior to opening.’ This begs the question ‘why not?’, particularly given that the Council leader and Deputy leader both visited the mound prior to opening.
The Council have confirmed they are still working on a revised projection of future visitor numbers for when they start to charge visitors again from September but have admitted that they will generate significantly less in sponsorship than they previously projected. Furthermore they admit that only one of the project’s sponsors is actually currently under contract.
The council has also admitted that there is no Mound specific strategy for tackling the pigeons that are pecking away the grass seed, that signage should have been ready and fountains switched on at launch.
Leader of the Opposition Labour Group Cllr Adam Hug said “There is still a lot more that needs to be answered about what went wrong with the Council’s decision making and project management on the Mound. The Council needs to be as open and transparent as possible if it wants to regain trust of residents before it spends £150m on the rest of the Oxford Street District project.”
Westminster Council’s Initial Responses to Labour’s Key Questions (as set out on 2nd August)
- What has made the costs balloon up to £6m?
We are currently working on a full cost breakdown, as a part of the internal review, to understand how costs escalated from £3.3m to £6m and make sure it cannot happen again.
- Why is the finished design lower than originally intended? (it has not been built to the dimensions outlined in the planning permission)
The planning permission states that the height of the viewing platform on the Mound is 22.5m, while the top of the lift is 25.5. It was built to these dimensions.
- At what point it was known that the view from the top of the Mound would not clear the tree line?
Various heights were considered for the Mound throughout the design phase and the sight lines were known for each of these. There was no promise made that the view would clear all trees.
- Who at the Council signed-off the project as ready to open when the café was not open, the exhibition not setup and the site was left scruffy (with bins and loose cables)?
The circumstances around this decision will be covered in the Internal Review, particularly around the sign off process which enabled opening. This was unacceptable.
- When did the Council know the project was going to be unable to deliver the level of greenery promised in the promotional material?
This matter will be covered in the Internal Review, though it is worth noting that the Mound is a living structure, subject to change.
- Can any money be recouped from the contractors?
A line-by-line review of the costs is underway with our contractors to establish whether there is any scope for a reduction in costs. The overall outcome of this process will inform the internal review and be reported in due course, subject to commercial confidentiality.
- Can the council please share revised projections for the number of paying attendees?
The original assumed number of paying visitors was 280,000 from opening in July, for six months. Work is underway to establish a revised projection.
- What are the council’s revised projections for total cost recovery? (particularly in light of the decision to make the mound free in August)
As set out in the May Cabinet Member decision, the business case for the Mound is not based on total cost recovery but that the council would explore ways of mitigating expenditure through various income streams. Work is underway to establish a revised projection as part of the Internal Review.
- If the council will not receive expected visitor numbers will the council be liable for covering the shortfall?
The Cabinet Member Report, approved in May 2021, outlines that the gross cost of this scheme sits within the wider £150m Oxford Street District investment – itself approved by Full Council in March 2019. This wider investment already sits within the Council’s budgeted limits as set out in both the annual Capital Strategy and Budget Setting Reports. The Internal Review will provide a revised outturn and will be formally reported at that point.
- Are the council leadership aware of any concerns about the Mound raised by sponsors, stakeholders and officers prior to opening?
The Council’s leadership weren’t made aware of any concerns prior to opening. However, this is subject to Internal Review.
- Will Westminster Council agree to an independent investigation of its decision making and project management on the Marble Arch Mound project?
No, as confirmed by the chief executive, the Council has instigated a thorough internal review of the project.
- Who are the project’s sponsors?
The Council is in discussion with project sponsors but as this is subject to contract for all but one this can’t yet be confirmed.
- Is the proportion of the scheme expected to be covered by sponsorship the same as in the May Cabinet Decision?
While sponsorship remains subject to contract it is anticipated that the total level of sponsorship will fall significantly short of that reported in the May decision.
- Are all sponsors under contract with the council?
No, one sponsor is in contract with the Council and work is underway to agree contracts with the other sponsors.
- Are all sponsors obligated to provide the previously agreed levels of funding?
No. However, discussions are ongoing with sponsors and indications are that the circumstances surrounding the launch of the mound will have minimal to no impact on the level of sponsorship anticipated at the time of the launch.
- Have any of the sponsors been invoiced?
Yes. One sponsor has been invoiced.
- What discussions have taken place with sponsors since ticket sales were suspended?
We have established contact with all sponsors and discussed and met with all but one. We have updated those we have met and they have indicated that they remain committed to sponsorship. Meetings have been held and we will be incorporating feedback from the sponsors into the Mound project, e.g. information on other attractions in the local area, history of Marble Arch.
It has been agreed that whilst sponsors are committed to funding, the sponsorship agreement will need to be amended to reflect the current offer of the attraction. These discussions have started are progressing as a priority. We will continue to keep sponsors informed on the project as it develops.
- Does the council expect it will have to reimburse any sponsors?
- How long is the permission to close Tyburn Way?
The traffic order for closing Tyburn Way ends at the end of August 2021.
- Why was there no budget for bespoke perimeter security?
During the build, the contractor provided 24 hour security and specialist night time security. Following the handover of the build to the site operators, the site has continued to benefit from perimeter security including CCTV.
- Who approved the use of highways barriers/signage and the location of the bins?
The Programme Director was responsible for approving this.
- Why is there no signage for the site e.g. with maps and descriptors and something about both the project and the arch itself?
This should have been in place for the opening and is being addressed. Signage will be in place within the coming weeks.
- Is there an anti-pigeon strategy?
Regular site surveys take place in known hotspot areas across the City and a range of methods are deployed, both non-lethal and lethal, to treat feral pigeons, gulls and invasive bird species. The Marble Arch area is included in the consistent approach taken in other areas such as Church Street and Victoria.
- Why were the fountains turned off during the opening week?
There was planned maintenance to the fountains in opening week, but we should have taken the opportunity to change this and ensure a full experience of the site.
- Where are the trees and bushes going to go at project completion?
As a part of the decommissioning, the sedum will be returned to the supplier and reset for future re-use elsewhere. Officers are developing a plan for the reuse of the trees and plants in planned highways and grounds maintenance works.
- What discussions have taken place so far with community organisations or schools about where the trees etc. will go?
No discussions have taken place at this time; however this will be progressed over the coming weeks.