LAST weekend, in my paper, the Telegraph, I was finally able to tell the full story of the terrible disaster that is the restoration of the Cutty Sark. As you can read:
- the chief engineer, Professor Peter Mason, has resigned, saying the project will damage the ship and should be stopped.
- the project has run massively late and overbudget, with its main funder cutting off payments for most of last year amid deep concerns about its management and financial controls.
- the Cutty Sark Trust has issued a series of misleading statements about progress on the project.
I only regret that I did not nail the story down sooner. I heard in the autumn that there was something badly wrong - and indeed could guess that to be the case from just looking at the ship (which has shown absolutely no signs of visible change for at least the last year) or the hoardings which surround it (where a succession of promised reopening dates has come and gone.)
But guesswork and off-the-record hints aren't enough, nobody would talk on the record, Mason was still in place at the time, other stories intervened. The result is that on Thursday of last week, before I could publish, a deal had been stitched together to throw another £11 million of public money at the fiasco and proclaim it "rescued."
So hastily was this deal done - maybe they knew the press was sniffing round - that it was actually announced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport before the biggest of the funders, Greenwich Council, had even agreed to pay its share. The press release was issued on Thursday morning. The relevant council meeting did not even begin until 2pm the same day. The meeting was only even put on the council calendar the night before, giving no-one the time to consider the proposals or to object.
Don't get me wrong. I love the Cutty Sark, I badly want to see it restored and I would be happy to spend even the colossal sum of £46 million if it achieves that end. But as its hurried and secretive birth suggests, the latest injection of funding is not going to "rescue" the Cutty Sark. It is going to prop up a fundamentally flawed scheme, run by a fundamentally flawed group of people, which could end up destroying the ship altogether.
The scheme's key flaw is its desire to raise the ship eleven feet off the ground, in order to fit a lucrative, glassed-over function space underneath. Steel legs, punched through the hull, would hold it in place. The supposed justification is to better show off the ship's lines, but the Cutty Sark Trust gave a hint of its true motive when, in 2008, it told the Telegraph magazine that "the ultimate aim is to transform [the ship] into a corporate hospitality venue to rival Tate Modern."
The raising, known as the "iconic scheme," means that the lower half of the ship's sides will appear to be swathed in glass. The objection is not just that this will look awful, though it will. Steffan Meyric Hughes, of Classic Boat magazine, says it is "undignified" and makes the Cutty Sark look like a "fairground attraction."
It's not just that it will compromise the integrity of the ship, though it will do that too - a new entrance will be cut into the hull, and a new lift will be installed to comply with disability access regulations (the previous entrance was level.)
No, the main objection is, in Mason's words, that "the lifting support system will do damage to the fabric of the ship. It will have quite an impact on it. They should not lift up the ship. I've turned against that after what I've seen and I'm not happy." Computer simulations were what turned Mason against the plan - simulations that showed the ship would be put at risk.
Researching the issue more, speaking to some experts and reading the words of others, I could not find a single person in the world of classic ship restoration who believes the plan presently being followed by the Cutty Sark Trust is anything other than a ghastly mistake.
Julian Harrap, the architect behind the restoration of Brunel's SS Great Britain, said: "They are actually putting the artifact itself at risk, and that's a fundamental issue." The director of National Historic Ships, Martyn Heighton, said: "This is an extremely delicate object and you don't try out something new on the Cutty Sark."
The Trust itself defends its scheme - but it is no longer trust-worthy. As my Telegraph piece catalogues, the Cutty Sark Trust has over the past two years repeatedly misled the press, saying for instance that the scheme was proceeding smoothly when funding had in fact been cut off and most work stopped, or claiming that the shortfall was only £5 million at a time when they knew it was at least 50% more. We can no longer take their assurances seriously.
Nor can we put much faith in their project-management skills. Even excluding delays caused by the fire in May 2007, the claimed reopening date has also been put back, by my count, at least five times. The original post-fire opening date, announced in June 2008, was March 2010. Then it slipped to summer 2010, then the end of 2010, then spring 2011.
In last week's press release a new reopening date of "in time for the Olympics" (July 2012) was given, itself a further postponement of up to18 months. But in the space of just six days, even that deadline has shifted once more to the right. This week's issue of Greenwich Council's propaganda organ, Greenwich Time, states merely that the Cutty Sark "could be restored in time for the 2012 Games."
You won't read any of the other facts outlined above in Greenwich Time, of course. There's a concerted outbreak of emperor's new clothes at work here, with even the Tory opposition on the council nodding the £7 million through. But for a council which is proposing cuts of £26 million next year, £7m is a huge amount of money - made up of £3 million from general funds, £2 million of section 106 "planning gain" cash which could have been used on something else, and £2 million purloined from the Cutty Sark Gardens landscaping works.
If they actually want to see the Cutty Sark restored before the Olympics, the council, and the other funders, should make their bailout conditional on a complete clear-out of the Cutty Sark Trust, and on the scrapping of the crappy "iconic" scheme, with its absurd attempt to make an historic artifact into a contemporary icon. Doing a straightforward, boring restoration would be cheaper, simpler and less risky.
But yes, you guessed it - Greenwich has actually made its £7 million conditional on exactly the opposite, saying it will not pay unless the "iconic" scheme goes ahead. The serious risk, therefore, is that they are throwing good money after bad. This really could end up another iconic Greenwich embarrassment and a British heritage tragedy.