This Thames Valley Police HQ is the first fruit of design-led PFI. Maybe it is; but two years of tortuous value engineering have left their mark, too.
"We won this project because of BDP's design," says Kevin Povey, contract manager of design-and-build contractor Balfour Beatty, as we sit round a boardroom table in Thames Valley Police's new £6.5m headquarters in Abingdon. "This was our first private finance initiative job in this field and we were all keen to make it work, but it was the design that won it for us."

This must be music to the Treasury's ears. It is trying to address criticisms that the PFI does not place enough emphasis on good design. So, has the procurement method produced good-quality architecture in Abingdon? Well, what has been achieved is good, given that the project is effectively design and build, but it has some way to go to catch up with the best public procurement of the past.

The brief was for a new headquarters building, plus a police station to replace the listed Victorian nick in the centre of town, on an Abingdon business park. It took nearly two years of meetings and Treasury vetting to whittle down 30 interested parties to the winning consortium of Building Design Partnership, Balfour Beatty (Southern), provider and consortium leader Babcock and Brown, and facilities manager Rentokil Initial.

BDP designed three storeys of headquarters accommodation on one side of a top-lit atrium and two storeys of police station on the other. A canteen sits in the middle, with the entrance under a radio mast and gallery at the front, and the cells, exercise yard, Black Marias and charging rooms at the back. It was completed last month.

But, despite the adventurous use of space, and apart from the prison areas, everything is slightly low spec: softwood instead of hardwood, minute skirtings, and ironmongery not quite as robust as it ought to be. And the woodgrain laminate furniture provided by the facilities manager is pretty unsympathetic with the rest of the design. Perhaps two years of value assessment wore everybody out. A good deal has been lost in an effort to please everybody.

The outside is orange stretcher brickwork and beige Plannja cladding. Only the front entrance porch is picked out in a colour – police blue. The local authority insisted on a percentage for art and there is a light sculpture by Martin Richardson built into the fenestration over the entrance. It looks like the sort of building you might expect to see in a business park. If it wasn't for the four huge concrete balls in front of the entrance path and the smaller balls in front of the doors – to discourage ram-raiders – you might think the building was the headquarters of an insurance firm. Inside, it is only the cells, charging room and exercise yard that suggest the building has anything to do with crime-fighting.

Those areas have all been well designed and built to a high standard of finish. With their Corian built-in beds and poured blue resin floors, the cells have a sort of loft conversion designer chic, amplified by the stainless steel cantilevered toilet pans and the security cell doors with peepholes and serious hinges. The officers' desk is a big chamfered slab of Corian and the area looks very good. It is not too obvious that blood and vomit can be cleaned off the surfaces very easily. The holding area is air-conditioned as the glass block windows do not open and this section of the building is more or less bomb-proof.

The rest of the interior is in drywall construction painted white, with some clear sealed timber in the communal area to match the inside face of the Velfac external windows. The common hall has a self-finished ribbed roof over it, and big, silver-painted exposed ventilation trunking. There is blue carpet nearly everywhere. There is room for expansion on the top floor of the administration section in "fallow space" – shell accommodation yet to be fitted out. Thames Valley Police's financial project manager, Jo Clayton Black, says this was an attractive part of the package and a good way of dealing with Parkinson's law of space, which is that you need 15% more room than you asked for in the first place.

The PFI is based on the premiss that professional building developers can offer better building solutions than their public-sector clients. Clayton Black confirms that this did happen at Abingdon. "None of us had ever thought it could be made to work as a large open space," she says, and although some of the boys and girls in blue are a bit shell-shocked at being dragged out of their tiny offices, it has improved their working environment.

The building was handed over seven weeks ahead of schedule and with no defects at practical completion. So, the PFI did deliver on time and on budget. But the procurement method seems like very hard work to me. It must be wearing for all parties having the scheme constantly scrutinised by a series of different Treasury officials in case a vital opportunity to save money hasn't been considered. In this case, the fact that Thames Valley Police already owned the site didn't necessarily mean that it was the best location for the new building, and all other avenues had to be fully explored to assess the value-for-money offered.

What particularly bothers me about the PFI is that a planning application has to be submitted on a design that might not even go ahead. With this added initial cost, and the riskiness of the venture, the temptation must be for architects to go for the least controversial option, rather than concentrate on good design. After all, who is going to risk the extra cost of going to planning appeal?

The government has to be seen to be very tight about public buildings, but if good design is as important as it says, this route is not going to encourage it. It means that the traditionally close relationship of the designer and client is sacrificed in favour of a PFI-focused relationship between the architect and the builder. This would never have got us the Jubilee Line Extension stations – just imagine what value for money they will look like in 20 years' time.

The Thames Valley Police headquarters is a new building on a greenfield site with nothing much in the way of context, and all the parties acting on their best behaviour. I am not sure that the proposition can be made to work on a complicated inner-city site – which is where the Treasury should be setting an example.