Questions raised over awarding of RHS Bridgewater and Wisley garden contracts

Landscape designers query transparency of contracts at RHS Bridgewater and Wisley.

Bridgewater: RHS contract for design of garden in Salford was awarded to landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith
Bridgewater: RHS contract for design of garden in Salford was awarded to landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith

Landscape designers are up in arms about a lack of transparency around design contracts at RHS Bridgewater and Wisley. Those questioning the decision to award the high-profile contracts without asking for ideas or costings from a broad range of designers for the flagship gardens plan to ask whether the RHS has got best value for money. They are looking at whether the process adheres to charitable governance principles.

Christopher Bradley-Hole is working on RHS Wisley, while Tom Stuart-Smith is working at Bridgewater. Neither job went out to tender. Designers who did not want to be named said they will raise complaints about the procurement process at the RHS AGM on 27 June.

Garden designer Emma Mazzullo, who said the Society of Garden Designers has discussed the issue, said: "I enjoy being a member of the RHS but I find it disappointing that such an opportunity isn't thrown open to a national competition for everyone to potentially participate in and enjoy and as a charity and a horticulturally based charity supported by many garden designers, famous and not, I find it disappointing they weren't given that opportunity. Even if they were not successful sometimes it's a good learning lesson."

She said of the gardens: "I'm sure it will be wonderful and is something to be embraced. I'm just sad as a national organisation the RHS could not make this more inclusive."

Designer Janine Pattison added: "The procurement process was rather odd. It was clearly not a transparent one, which was surprising. I was not aware that anything was going on until it was all done and dusted. Lots of designers would have been very interested to be given the opportunity to be sounded out for it. They are really premium sites visited by tens of thousands of people a month and any of us would be interested to be involved. It was strange it seemed to go to the preferred choice without anyone else knowing."

The Bridgewater and Wisley gardens are central to the RHS £160m strategic investment programme, which will include fundraising and partner contributions. Some £19m from Salford City Council will include £9m to Peel Holdings to secure the lease at Bridgewater and £5m towards highway infrastructure works including road improvements. This will be phased over three years starting in 2016-17, with other highways funding being sought locally, regionally and nationally. It will also include £5m, some of which may be "in-kind" for "on-site" delivery of the project, which will form part of the £30m cost.

The RHS said of the £160m, £40m is needed from donations, £55m is coming from resources and £65m from expected surplus based on an average £6.5m surplus every year.

The Wisley entrance is due to open in February 2018 and Hilltop provisionally in June 2019. The RHS would not answer questions on how the procurement took place but said: "The masterplan is just the first stage in the development of the gardens and it is likely we will make further landscape designer and other consultant appointments as planning progresses and as the garden starts to take shape. We initially appointed Dan Pearson at Wisley then Christopher Bradley-Hole as their reputations are world-class. At Bridgewater, Tom Stuart-Smith has similar credentials and has also previously researched and worked on the site."

Investment - RHS gardens at Bridgewater and Wisley set to be transformed in society’s £160m programme

The £160m investment programme will see two leading UK gardens transformed by the  RHS. The Bridgewater design is by landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith.

It will feature an entrance garden laid out like a web and planted as a perennial meadow. It will also have a new lake to anchor the visitor building/shop/café in the landscape as well as a water garden of interlocking streams and rocky waterfalls. The reconstruction of the historic walled garden, to include a therapeutic garden, vegetable garden and flower garden, will also be included along with a new learning centre.

Stuart-Smith warned that removing large areas of trees and Rhododendron ponticum would be a "delicate PR matter" because the garden would change from a "mysterious and beautiful situation to become a working garden" and this would be done by "going backwards before going forward".

Meanwhile, the new entrance at Wisley in Surrey is to change from "an arrival space where people meet that may as well be standing outside a service station on the A3" to a 175m avenue of flowering cherries with a "dune landscape" of clipped beech mounds and a swale with bridges.

Designer Christopher Bradley-Hole said the current entrance "gives you nothing" but a £50m plan to build a new entrance/shop and science/education building will transform the garden.

The flowering "coups de theatre" cherry walk will be like Kyoto in Japan, he added, while likening the avenue to the streets of Chelsea. A village square next to the new welcome building/shop designed by Carmody Groake will be like St Emilion in France while a terrace in front of the historic laboratory building will have a college atmosphere.

At the Hilltop end of Wisley, Wilkinson Eyre is designing a new science and learning centre with a restaurant. Bradley-Hole is designing three gardens around it, based on health and well-being, that will also feature a world kitchen and a nature reserve.

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