It’s decision time for John Prescott. The report on what went wrong with the Millennium Village is on his desk. Will he choose to resuscitate the model for 21st-century housing, or leave us with just another estate?
Last week, the report of a top-level inquiry landed on deputy prime minister John Prescott’s desk. It delivers a verdict on claims that the £250m Greenwich Millennium Village project is “drifting towards failure”.

Prescott ordered regeneration agency English Partnerships to commission the report in June, following a public bust-up between the scheme’s developer and its executive architect. The architect, HTA Architects, had accused the developer, a Countryside/Taywood joint venture, of betraying the scheme’s social and environmental objectives in pursuit of profit. The developer denied it; the promised performance improvements and innovations would, it said, be delivered within the lifetime of the project.

The inquiry report, prepared by QS Gardiner & Theobald, compares the current state of the development with the aspirations expressed in the original bid. It is based on verbal and written evidence from all the consultants and contractors working on the scheme, as well as English Partnerships and Stuart Lipton, chair of the Millennium Village competition jury and of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

After considering this evidence, Prescott must decide whether HTA is right to claim that the scheme has failed to live up to its billing as a model for 21st-century housing. His verdict is expected this month.

Having been lambasted for driving 300 yards in a Jaguar to the Bournemouth conference centre to preach the use of integrated public transport systems at last week’s Labour Party conference, the last thing Prescott needs is to confront the failure of the Millennium Village project. The scheme was to be a paradigm for his department’s other key policy of sustainable, mixed-use, brownfield development.

Prescott commissioned the 1997 Egan report, Rethinking Construction, with the original intention of improving the quality of housing in the UK, although it is now seen as a panacea for the whole industry. On launching the Millennium Village competition in the same year, he challenged the development industry to create a showpiece for energy efficiency, new construction methods, ground-breaking tenure arrangements and the use of IT. “It is a chance for developers to showcase their approach to 21st-century living as part of the millennium experience,” he said at the time of the launch.

Building’s attempts to talk to consultants and contractors working on the village have met an eerie wall of silence

So now, with less than three months to go until the millennium, the absence of a Millennium Village on the 13 ha site next to the dome is a profound embarrassment for Prescott – particularly as he also announced in his conference speech plans for another five villages as “flagships for urban renaissance”, building on the lessons learned at Greenwich.

So what went wrong? Building’s attempts to talk to consultants and contractors working on the village, including architects Ralph Erskine, Proctor Matthews and epr, engineer Battle McCarthy and innovations director Richard Hodkinson, have met with an eerie wall of silence, but this is typical of the atmosphere surrounding the project. Almost since its inception, the village has been plagued by delays, recriminations and allegations that social, environmental and process innovations were being watered down. The first public signs of discontent were evident late last year, following the granting of outline planning permission for 298 houses and 1079 flats in October. The first phase of homes was scheduled to start on site soon afterwards, but by December, Countryside/Taywood was still negotiating a development agreement with English Partnerships for the site.

Then, when the first phase of 90 flats was submitted to Greenwich council for detailed planning permission in December, its energy and cost-saving targets had been drastically cut from those promised in the competition-winning bid.

English Partnerships rejected allegations that it was making a mockery of the original competition bid by accepting reduced energy- and cost-saving targets in its legal agreement with Countryside/Taywood. “We accepted that some of the targets were going to be incremental. It was never going to be all-singing, all-dancing from day one,” said a spokesperson for the regeneration agency.

English Partnerships also announced that it had included a “land-for-performance” clause in the development deal with Countryside/Taywood. This obliged the joint venture to provide detailed information on each subphase of the development. “If, at the end of subphases one and two, they were not achieving what they promised, they would not get any more land,” Ralph Luck, project director at English Partnerships, said at the time. The new start date was March 1999. But by then, the developer had still not agreed to all of Greenwich council’s requirements, including a commitment to implement car-use reduction strategies. Meanwhile, English Partnerships had not yet released the first 4 ha of land and did not expect to before this summer. Then, in June, came the bombshell: HTA’s dismissal from the project. The architect responded by writing a letter to Stuart Lipton, also circulated to the press, alleging that the developer had failed to embrace the Egan agenda and to institute the team project and process management structures needed to deliver the scheme.

The developers got a cheap site in a good location and then it was business as usual

Ben Derbyshire, Director, HTA

Ben Derbyshire, a director of HTA, says: “Alan Cherry got this land cheap in exchange for innovation. The developers got a cheap site in a good location and everything from then on was business as usual. There was no upfront investment in innovation.”

The letter made a number of allegations. Not only had the energy- and cost-saving targets for the first two phases been slashed, but there were no provisions for supply-chain management and open-system building (enabling efficient and versatile off-site fabrication). The village, intended to be developed as an organic whole, had been divided up between two new client/contractor bodies: Countryside subsidiary Copthorne Homes and Taywood Capital Developments.

Lead architect Ralph Erskine had been supplanted on the second phase by Proctor Matthews, and his role reduced to producing design guidelines for the village and signing off drawings. In any case, Erskine’s design code had been revised by planning consultant Montagu Evans before it was submitted to Greenwich council. Meanwhile, innovations director Richard Hodkinson, then at Taywood Engineering, was not integrated into the design team.

In its letter, HTA referred to a report on the project management of the Millennium Village by the Tavistock Institute. This is a social sciences think-tank that runs professional practice workshops. The report, which was based on observations made at a two-day innovations workshop attended by most of the village’s project team on 23-25 March 1999, highlighted “high levels of uncertainty about the management processes being used in the project. This would be cause for concern in a moderately innovative project. For a project with innovation ambitions as broad and deep as GMV … if allowed to continue, [it] would be a prime indicator of impending disaster”.

English Partnerships froze negotiations on a lease with Countryside/Taywood when the current inquiry started in July. Since then, information has leaked from the inquiry that suggests that the scheme’s problems were not as fundamental as HTA had feared. However, a source close the inquiry said: “Because of this review, Countryside have realised they will have to meet all the [original] targets.” So, what state is the scheme really in, and will the original vision be realised? The developer has planning permission for two phases of moderately innovative housing, designed by Proctor Matthews and Ralph Erskine with epr. Alan Cherry, the chairman of the joint venture, loudly reaffirmed the developer’s commitment to delivering the energy- and cost-saving targets over the life of the project in a speech at a House Builders’ Federation conference on 15 September. The joint venture says it will bring in other consultants to help it achieve these targets.

You cannot innovate with cosmetic add-ons. You have to have upfront investment at the start of the project

Ben Derbyshire, HTA

Cherry also announced in his speech a partnering arrangement with BT for delivering the intelligent infrastructure, and revealed plans to develop a water-recycling plant serving 50 homes with Thames Water. He promised that the social and private tenure housing will be more integrated in further phases.

However, HTA’s Derbyshire is sceptical about the developer’s commitment to innovation: “They have been going at this for 16 months. If they had wanted to deliver these innovations later in the project, there would have to be an overall strategy, which there was not. You cannot innovate with cosmetic add-ons. You have to have upfront investment at the start of the project.” HTA also points out that original design team specialists are not engaged on the project. These include Cole Thompson, whose ultra-green Integer house was presented to the Millennium Village competition jury as a model of what could be built at Greenwich.

English Partnership’s own role will also come under scrutiny by Prescott, following accusations that it has allowed the original vision to be watered down. But the key consideration for Prescott is what lessons need to be learned from the project. One likely outcome is that a mentoring group headed by Ricky Burdett, director of the cities, architecture and engineering programme at the London School of Economics, will police the project from now on, as he is overseeing the second Millennium Village project at Allerton Bywater in Yorkshire.

As Bernard Hunt, managing director of HTA, warned Prescott in a letter dated 2 August: “The combination of your personal sponsorship, the London riverside location, the scale of the project and the link with the millennium cannot be replicated. There will be no comparable opportunity to jump-start our industry.”

The original vision for the Greenwich Millennium Village – and how the former design team leaders think it has been watered down

What the developer said it would build 30% reduction in costs and a 25% reduction in time through using off-site manufacturing 80% reduction in primary energy consumption through, for example, energy-efficient control systems in homes, using alternative energy sources such as photovoltaic panels and wind-powered water pumps Zero CO2 emissions Parking for 1435 cars concealed in podium garages under garden squares in most areas; no pavement parking A mix of tenures, fully integrated with each other throughout the development 4500 m2 of non-residential space, including speciality retail, cultural workshop, restaurants, offices and community teleservices centre Every home easily adaptable for older people and those with special needs Open-building systems to give home-occupiers maximum adaptability and flexibility. Roof and cladding to consist of a lightweight timber chassis to which glazing and a range of cladding panels may be attached 50% reduction in embodied energy; 80% recyclable building; 50% reduction in on-site waste (rising to 100% in later phases) Prefabrication process to be managed by experts as part of the design programme. Testing of components factored into method proposed Optimum materials for key engineering tasks identified as: floor construction: timber wall panelling: timber high-stress areas: steel Zero defects on handover 30% reduction in water demand through measures including grey-water recycling and low-water demand landscape design HTA’s assessment of the current plans Targets reduced to 5% cut in costs in year two and 30% in year five; time targets cut to a 5% saving in year two and 25% in year five Estimated 42% reduction in primary energy consumption as designed. Wind power and photovoltaics deemed “uneconomic” 35% reduction in CO2 emissions. The use of bio-mass to fuel the combined heat and power plant was abandoned, making zero emissions impossible Parking for 1833 cars. In Proctor Matthews’ phase two design , a garden square envisaged by Erskine becomes a car park partly covered by a deck Social housing units in phase two located in the blocks closest to Bugsby’s Way and excluded from the higher value blocks. No social housing units in phase one blocks designed for Taywood Capital Developments by epr The first phases of development contain no mixed-use developments and no enclosed public space No new standards in lifetime home provision No attempt made to implement open-building system. Cladding will use some prefabricated components, otherwise there will be largely site-based construction of a permanent, non-adaptable nature. Roofs to be built on site 20% reduction in embodied energy in current proposals, but no attempt to select materials on the basis of embodied energy. No attempt to achieve recyclable construction. With concrete frame, concrete stairs and lift shafts, cavity brickwork with cement/lime mortar, rendered cladding and plasterboard internal partitions, it is unlikely these targets will be met Minimal prefabrication in first phases – kitchens and bathrooms only. No prefabrication experts have joined the design team. No component testing or mock-up construction Actual materials adopted for key engineering tasks: floor construction: concrete wall panelling: brick, block, render, timber high-stress areas: concrete No strategy to achieve a systematic reduction in defects No grey-water recycling or landscape water conservation in early phases