A damning report into the failures of the Marble Arch Mound has found that it suffered from a host of management failures and a deliberate attempt to conceal its rising costs from the council members.
Announced in February 2021, the Mound was to be part of a wider £150 million project to revamp the West End and lure people back into the centre of London.
The mound was supposed to cost £2 million to design, build and remove — plus £0.5 million for permanent improvements in the area, but those costs jumped to £5.2 million, and with operating costs included, the total came in at around £6 million.
Opened before it was ready, the paucity of planting on the mound quickly drew widespread criticism and plans to charge for tickets to climb the mound had to be scrapped.
Following the resignation of Westminster Council’s deputy leader, Melvyn Caplan in August, the council commissioned a review into what went so badly wrong. The report that’s now been published said that the failures of managing the Mound project were both “avoidable” and “particularly devastating”.
In its findings, the report found that the Mound suffered from a failure of project management to keep it on target for its opening date and that the costs of the project were mismanaged and misrepresented by the project managers. They particularly note a breakdown in the project management which caused confusion as to who was responsible for what.
The report adds that a number of the council’s normal checks and measures to ensure problems don’t occur were “circumvented to facilitate the timetable and in order to obscure the actual costs for delivering the Mound”.
It seems that problems with the costs were known as early as May 2021, but were hidden by being disbursed into other budgets and not attributed to the Mound, such as shifting contract costs into the Highways budget. The project team also omitted critical elements from the project to try and meet the budget allocated, while raising the expected income from visitors without any good reason to have done so. They also didn’t include the full costs of removing the Mound after its planned closure next January.
The critical elements for the Mound were put back in later, but without the budget authority to spend money on them.
Although it seems that the project team tried to hide the problems from the Executive Director of Growth, Planning and Housing, the council director was also not proactive in keeping an eye on what was going on.
Apart from the efforts by the project managed to conceal the costs and delays, the council was criticised for trying to rush through the project without enough time to seek multiple tenders for the construction of the Mound. This lack of competing bids meant that some of the risks in delivering the project that might have been highlighted by bidders in the tendering process were not uncovered.
In the end though, the Mound opened before it was completed because of insufficient rigour in managing the project, leading to the famous litany of articles in the news about how awful it looked.
In addition to the huge overspend on the Mound, the decision not to charge and offer free tickets means that they’ve lost out on an estimated £1.5 million in revenue, and the poor publicity has cost them £290,000 in lost sponsorship.
Stuart Love, Westminster City Council Chief Executive said that “The report is clear on two points. First, that our processes are robust but, in this case, those processes were circumvented – driven by the desire to open the Mound as soon as possible. This is unacceptable, and we are taking action to address these findings.”
Although the Mound was massively over budget and in the first couple of months after it opened, still incomplete, it has still managed to attract 140,000 visitors since it opened — which means they are actually on target for the expected 280,000 visitors that the Mound was expecting over the full six months it will be open.
So although it’s been a hideously expensive and reputationally damaging way of attracting people to visit this part of London, it has delivered on the key thing it was designed to do – it brought a lot of people to Marble Arch.
I have noted previously, that while not what was planned, it’s still reasonably fun to visit, and the recent addition of the light exhibition inside the Mound, also delivered late, has added to its appeal.