English Heritage has scrapped its latest attempt to create a visitor centre at Stonehenge, saying that none of the bids met its needs. EH major projects director John Barnes said: “We’re closing down the procurement process because it hasn’t delivered everything we wanted. We’re rather hoping the people involved in the bidding will want to stay involved, but it will have to be on a different basis.”
It is understood that the main reason for EH’s decision is that it wants to move from a design, build, finance and operate solution on a rented site to one that gives it a more direct role on a site it owns.
Announcing the changes, EH chairman Sir Neil Cossons said: “By removing our total reliance on private finance, the decision to acquire the land means … we are now able to explore opportunities for English Heritage to have a more hands-on role in the operation of the visitor centre.”
EH plans to overcome this problem by buying the site – beside the Countess Roundabout, three miles from the 5000-year-old monument – with money from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
It also plans to retender the project, probably launching a new design competition and directly employing an architect. The opening date for the centre is to be put back from 2003 to 2006.
Barnes said none of the bidders would be compensated for their work so far but added that they were welcome to reapply when the job is readvertised in the European Union’s Official Journal. News of the about-turn came as a shock to architect Sidell Gibson Partnership, which believed it was close to a deal with EH right up until the announcement was made. “I’m hugely frustrated,” said Sidell Gibson associate Keith Mackenzie-Betty. “We were certain we’d won it.” But he added: “We’re still passionate about the project and we want to be involved.” Sidell Gibson headed a consortium including QS Gleeds, engineer Whitby Bird & Partners and Granada.
A second consortium, headed by Edward Cullinan Architects, also believed it was in the running to win the contract. As recently as a month ago, sources close to the consortium were claiming it was EH’s preferred bidder.
The setback is the latest in a string of abandoned attempts to provide Stonehenge with a world-class visitor centre to replace the current facilities, which were described as a “national disgrace” by a Commons Public Accounts Committee.