When the bidders lined up to manage the £250m redevelopment of Broadcasting House, some of them were already muttering about Bovis' hidden advantages. We report on the row that has forced the BBC to defend its reputation for impartiality
When the BBC invited bids for the redevelopment of its Broadcasting House headquarters last January, the cream of the UK's construction managers mobilised their top teams to fight for it. And it looked like being a bitter struggle. At stake was a MacCormac Jamieson Prichard scheme, and whoever won it would win a £250m five-year contract and the job of creating the largest live news centre in the world. It would also gain the kudos that would accompany the refashioning of the jewel in the crown of one of Britain's most prestigious organisations.

But for some, the prospect of working on a landmark project was not as exciting as it might have been. A director at one construction manager confided his concern to Building in February last year: the odds, he said, were stacked against any company that was not Bovis Lend Lease.

This director's pessimism is explained by events that had taken place six months before, six miles due west of the BBC's Portland Place home. In September 2001, the broadcaster entered into a property partnership with Land Securities Trillium, the UK's biggest developer and property services company. Under the PFI-style deal, LST agreed to plough £220m into the corporation's plan to create a studio complex next door to its existing White City development, as well as managing facilities for 65 of the broadcaster's 500 buildings across the UK. In return, LST took over the White City freehold.

The move led to a switch in the project team on the White City scheme, which had already started on site. Heery International, a subsidiary of Balfour Beatty, had been appointed construction manager, but was stood down to make way for Bovis. The contract then changed to a fixed price deal, overseen by LST.

The BBC had taken pains to prepare Heery for the switch, and there were no hard feelings after it had been made. However, this turn of events caused bidders for the Broadcasting House scheme to fear that Bovis would be the automatic favourite to clinch the job, regardless of the quality of their submissions. This fear was reinforced by three considerations.

First, although LST had not signed a contract to take over Broadcasting House (it is expected to be closed in the spring of this year), the company was publicly stating that such a deal was on the cards. An LST statement in September 2001 made this clear: "Future opportunities for the partnership include the redevelopment of Broadcasting House, London, and the new headquarters for BBC Scotland at Pacific Quay, Glasgow." One bidder summed up his worries last February: "There is a danger that the same thing that happened at White City could happen at Broadcasting House."

Second, suspicions about the partiality of Land Securities Trillium for Bovis were fuelled by the fact that John Anderson, special projects director of LST, used to be a Bovis director. He left the firm after 25 years to join Land Securities' property division in October 2000.

It’s fair to say there is a market perception that Land Sec has a strong relationship with Bovis

Chris Evans, project director, BBC

Chris Evans, the BBC's project director for the Broadcasting House scheme, acknowledges that concerns from bidders were voiced early last year. "It's fair to say that there is a market perception that Land Sec has a strong relationship with Bovis because of John Anderson, who was very much a Bovis man," he says. "Therefore it's something that the market people out there might be concerned about. We were concerned and tried to make sure we had a balanced team and objective criteria in place when we went to competition. We were confident that any of the five could have won it."

The third issue playing on bidders' minds was Bovis' role as Broadcasting House's preconstruction project manager, a post that it had held since 2000. Again, the BBC's Evans denies that this was a problem. He stresses that there was a Chinese wall between Bovis' consulting arm, which was handling the preconstruction work, and its construction management division. "We made it very clear to Bovis at a high level that there should be no confusion between the two roles, and I was very pleased with their response on that," he says.

In fact, Evans claims, such was the BBC's sensitivity to claims of preferential treatment that there was a danger of Bovis being discriminated against. "We wanted to stand back from that and have an open conversation with E E people," he adds. "We made it clear to them it was a level playing field. My role was to make sure it was."

'Is this a stitch-up?'

By March of last year, five firms had made it on to the shortlist for Broadcasting House: Mace, Bovis, Heery International, Schal and Amec. When the BBC and LST met the five bidders, some of them took the opportunity of voicing their fears. "Is this a stitch-up?" asked one. The clear answer from the client and its partner was no.

It would be a genuine competition, with no favouritism towards Bovis.

The final decision on the choice of construction manager was due in June; by late spring, the shortlist was down to three: Mace, Schal and Bovis. Mace then dropped out. Project sources said the firm did so because it did not have a big enough balance sheet to take on the job if it switched from a construction management to a fixed-price contract.

But instead of a quick resolution to the two-horse race, the BBC hemmed and hawed over its final choice. To begin with, a decision was expected in June. This was pushed back to July, which then became September. In the early autumn, the BBC suspended the choice for a further two months. Sources said the delay was the result of negotiations between the BBC and LST over whether the developer was to repeat the White City deal at Broadcasting House.

The implication you’re making is that it was always going to be Bovis. With my hand on my heart, that’s just not true

Chris Evans, project director, BBC

During the late summer, Schal's parent company Carillion complicated matters by offering the BBC its own PFI-style funding package for the job, although this was subsequently turned down. A source at the time said: "The Land Securities deal is still plan A, but the BBC is looking at other options."

While the wrangling over the project's development route went on, the BBC continued in its attempt to decide whether Bovis or Schal should get the construction management contract. The corporation brought John McDonough, Carillion's chief executive, and Les Chatfield, Bovis Lend Lease Europe's chief operating officer, to the table for the final meetings. It was clearly a tough call and Evans concedes that the decision was very close.

"There was a point in the final stages that it could have gone either way," he says.

At one point the word in the industry was that Schal was edging ahead. Evans admits that there was a point where he favoured Schal's bid, but that the situation subsequently developed. "It's a process that moves forward," he says. "It is about getting more and more comfortable with the teams". He adds that price was not his main criterion. "Neither of the final two would have been there if price had been a consideration. My job is not to get the lowest price, it's to get the most effective team."

In November, Bovis was appointed.

We can't show you the bids When Building asked the BBC to reveal the Schal and Bovis bids, Evans refused, citing commercial confidence. "They are confidential; they have an element of commercial confidence. If we publish them, it gives a market insight into how people perform. I would not give Schal's price or Bovis'; that would be wrong. The implication I take [from Building asking for the bids] is that it was always going to be Bovis. With my hand on my heart, that's just not true. The important thing is that at the end of the exercise, taking all the information on board, Bovis had the job. It was the right organisation and has proved that since."

In fact, Evans says he is "baffled" by the market's concern over the process.

"Anyone who tells me that Bovis could not have won it – that's the implication – it's obviously complete bollocks," he says. He even goes so far as to describe the process as "an excellent exercise" and is full of praise for the bidders: "We have had some of the most capable people in the construction industry through our buildings."

A Bovis spokesperson said the firm had no comment on the bid.

However, Evans' enthusiasm for the project, which he describes as "awesome", must be set beside the sense of unease in the sector.