Andrew Gilligan

Cutty Sark Disaster: The £11 Million Nail In the Coffin

February 10, 2010 by  

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.


25 Responses to “Cutty Sark Disaster: The £11 Million Nail In the Coffin”

  1. Ian Fraser on February 10th, 2010 10:04 am

    Thanks for writing this. It’s so refreshing to see there are still journalists out there who are prepared to cut through the PR flim flam and tell it like it is.

  2. Jamie Hodge on February 10th, 2010 10:24 am

    Andrew, do I read this correctly as the council have allocated £2m from the previously announced £2.4m to renovate the ‘gardens’ (otherwise known as a lot of cracked concrete) that surrounds the Cutty Sark?

    If this is right then does this mean that the gardens renovation/ redesign will no longer go ahead?

    If so this is terrible, the setting as is is just a barren wasteland and I really welcomed the news that it was to be dramatically improved- if it will no longer go ahead this will seriously undermine the huge amount of money to be spent on the CS renovation…

  3. Suzana on February 10th, 2010 10:53 am

    As JH above pointed out – this is the worst news yet!

    I walk past the CS everyday to get to the Clipper on the Pier… its all so depressing – the CS Gardens feels like its part of a an old Council Estate, the Cutty Sark looks completely abandoned with loose covering flapping in the wind and the path to get to the Pier – OMG – somebody help.

    It seems to me that Greenwich Council is once again taking no responsibility for the mess it has allowed to grow in Greenwich with no hope of recovery in site!

    Lets have a public vote – am sure 90% will support your suggestion to get the CS back to its original state and spend the rest beutifying the currenly derilict CS Gardens and Pier.

  4. Richard Young on February 10th, 2010 4:04 pm

    All I want is for this beautiful ship to be restored and either kept in the dry dock where she has been or I think it would be a wonderful idea to have her afloated as a static attraction.Forget this daft idea of suspending the ship….save the money and spend it on a first class restoration.Its a no brainer,in fact it seems there is a lack of brain power in this whole fiasco.Its time this story went ‘national news’.I think the nation needs to know the truth about this as soon as possible.

  5. Nigel Fletcher on February 10th, 2010 4:51 pm

    Andrew, I must take issue with a couple of points. As the opposition spokesman for culture, I don’t think it’s fair to characterise our view as” nodding the £7 million through”. For a start, it was a Cabinet Committee decision, with only the ruling Labour members able to vote, so the movement of my head up, down or side-to-side had no material effect on what the Council decided.

    What I did do was attend the meeting to give our view to the Cabinet members and Senior officers of the Council. I told them (as I had in private when they sprang the news on us) that the request for funding, and the references to management concerns at the Trust were alarming, to say the least. It is a vast sum to ask taxpayers to provide (coming after so much previous lottery money), and I wanted to know why we were in this position.

    It appears the management issues which prompted the HLF’s concern go back to the Spring of last year. Since then, the Council has apparently been working with the Trust to put in place proper controls (which now seem properly tight), and the negotiations to assemble the final funding package started at that time. None of this was made known to the public or to us on the Opposition side, which is why I was so alarmed when it came out last week.

    I’m far from overjoyed that taxpayers are having to cough up to cover past lack of proper financial controls, but the position we arrived at was that funds already pledged (private donors, DCMS and HLF) would also have been at risk if the full project didn’t go ahead, and millions would have been wasted just to put the ship back in one piece. So witholding the cash would have had serious consequences, and could have left us with a very expensive shipwreck in the middle of Cutty Sark Gardens for the forseeable future. On that basis we agreed committing the funds was the right thing to do, albeit in less than ideal circumstances.

    As you will have seen from my quote on and in this week’s News Shopper, I have said as Greenwich residents we now need to see some return for our money – ideally a proportion of funds from future revenue going to small local heritage projects. As a funder the Council now has more leverage, and we should be getting a better deal for the taxpayer. I will be pushing this to be written into the funding agreement.

  6. Tom on February 10th, 2010 5:56 pm

    Nigel: you don’t seem to be addressing the point that at the end of all this (according to experts in the field) we still might end up with an expensive shipwreck except it will be on stilts. The exorbitant funding is only part of this… its the decision to put the ship at risk which is most worrying.

  7. andrew gilligan on February 10th, 2010 6:03 pm

    Nigel, you’re missing the point. The point is that the current scheme is already a shipwreck – quite literally, in the view of its chief engineer – and the rescue money should have been made conditional on fundamental changes to it.

    Because it wasn’t, this really could end in yet further demands for money and in disaster. You did nod it through – you issued a statement supporting the council’s action. Your job is to scrutinise the council’s actions, but you allowed them to bounce you into backing a fundamentally flawed scheme.

  8. Rod on February 10th, 2010 10:40 pm

    The story was well known back in the Autumn, when skilled shipwrights (who were deeply critical of the corners being cut on the project) and other workers were being made redundant, and told several people in the Gypsy Moth what was happening. I was told about this the following day by someone with an important and responsible role in the community who has been known to me for years, and who heard the story direct from the sacked workers. No-one was prepared to go on the record at the time, more’s the pity, so the scandal remained buried until now.

  9. Nigel Fletcher on February 11th, 2010 11:19 am

    Andrew – I totally accept we were “bounced” in the sense this was sprung on us with two days’ notice, when the options were literally to agree the funds or pull the plug on the whole thing. That’s not the right way for Labour to treat the opposition, but we’re sadly used to it in Greenwich.

    The fundamental changes you refer to – ie scrapping the plan to raise the ship and simply returning it to its previous condition- would have led to the HLF and other donors withdrawing their funds. That’s the reality of the position they’re in – it’s all or nothing. You can criticise the fact they’re in that position, and you’re clearly not a fan of the scheme, but that plan is the basis of the funding they’ve secured (and spent) already. So there was little choice – but the funding agreement still has to be written, and as I said I’m pushing for extra assurances to be included.

    You’ve seen my full statement, and you can see it’s hardly a gung-ho endorsement of the situation. You rightly say “Your job is to scrutinise the council’s actions” and if you’d been at the committee I hope you’d agree I did that, having also demanded (and received) briefing on the full sorry story before the meeting. I’m personally angry at being kept in the dark until then, and that this type of “bailout” situation creates such a negative impression of all heritage spending. It should be part of a proud and unashamed strategy to invest in celebrating and protecting our history, rather than an emergency funding splurge. The questions and concerns over the design are things I will certainly take up with the Trust, are I think it’s fair to say they are now aware of how many people are looking over their shoulder.

  10. Tim Barry on February 11th, 2010 1:19 pm

    Well done for bring this to the public attention. I think in the current economic climate it will be sensible to keep the project simple – less risk and therefore more control over cost.

  11. will on February 11th, 2010 1:30 pm

    This whole thing about raising the boat has not been at all well explained. Even now, I can find only a couple of references to it on the Cutty Sark web site – the front page has a small impression picture from beneath the ship

    And the venue hire page (hire from 2011 folks…) talks about the area under the ship

    I’m willing to believe that if you throw enough money at doing this, you could do it in a way that doesn’t damage the ship (and Lord knows money is being thrown). But I am mystified as to why I can’t find pictures of what it is going to look like. Do they have something to hide?

  12. andrew gilligan on February 11th, 2010 2:26 pm

    Nigel, I’m glad to hear that the funding agreement has still to be written because it gives a faint chance of pulling this back. The fact is that there was no need for the decision to be made this quickly – the reasons for urgency given by the council are spurious. The real reason was to avoid scrutiny and to fall in line with the Government’s preferred announcement timetable. You should have opposed the bailout until you were happy that it was actually going to work. I repeat – there is no point in a “solution” that does not work.

    As I understand it, it is not the case that the HLF funding is conditional on the “iconic scheme.” The only funders whose cash is conditional on this are Sammy Ofer (£3.3 million) and Greenwich Council. The Trust is keen not to sacrifice the Ofer funding, but given the vastly increased overall cost of the project that now seems like the tail wagging the dog. It would almost certainly be cheaper and quicker simply to restore the ship and not raise it on legs, so Ofer’s contribution might not even be needed.

  13. Benjamin A. Zabriskie on February 11th, 2010 4:03 pm

    I am a Cutty Sark fan from South Carolina, USA, and an admirer of this majestic ship. I have been studying the Cutty Sark for about three years as I try to build two models of her. Recently I wrote the Cutty Sark Foundation and told them that I would rather see the Cutty Sark rot in dignity that be displayed according to the current destructive plans.

  14. Nigel Fletcher on February 11th, 2010 5:14 pm

    Andrew – the deadline, as explained to me, was set by the HLF, who would have pulled the plug if it hadn’t been confirmed by the end of this month. We would certainly have opposed it if we hadn’t been given firm evidence that financial and management controls had been overhauled, but I have spoken to those involved and am satisfied on that specific point. Why on earth the HLF didn’t insist on the same robust mechanisms in the first place is a major issue which needs to be investigated.

    You and I disagree on the merits of the scheme – I support it, and think it will greatly enhance the presentation of the ship. It would be cheaper not to do it that way, but there is then the question of how the ship’s ongoing costs would be covered into the future without a new visitor offer (or indeed a new Ofer). I am however concerned to hear of the structural questions, and want to pursue those.

    Incidently, I should have said at the outset – well done on a good piece of investigative reporting. It is right for these concerns to be discussed, and I only wish there had been more openness from the start. I always think these issues look much worse if information is withheld unnecesarily.

  15. John Sankey on February 11th, 2010 6:30 pm

    I was fortunate to be able to visit the Cutty Sark, which my grandfather sailed on, in 1955 when restoration was just beginning. My next visit was in 1962 as a post-grad student, and was greeted by those huge holes gashed through that beautiful hull. As far as I was concerned, the soul of the Cutty Sark was broken when it was turned into a cheap exhibition hall. That was straight vandalism. Exhibitions belong in exhibition halls, not inside genuine historical artifacts. I never went back after I saw that.

    I’ve been in touch with the current conservators, and was praying that she would be made whole again. It seemed that conservators at last had infuence. Those holes were to be filled in, the teak decking thrown away in the 1970’s was to be replaced with authentic teak…

    Now I hear that new holes are to be gashed through her to support another exhibition hall. Not only that, but the erroneous colours she was restored to in the 1950’s are to be maintained.

    I had been saving to attend her re-opening. This makes it sound as though I’ll never want to revisit after all.

    It’s a loss that I’ll not even try to put into words – I can’t.

  16. Robert on February 11th, 2010 6:41 pm

    It was HRH the Duke of Edinburgh who championed for the Cutty Sark to be brought to Greenwich back in the 1950.`s I think all could say it has been a huge success for the ship and Greenwich.The current situation must be causing HRH huge distress ,and of course he will be damned if he says anything, and damned if he does not..
    My beloved late father was a Surgeon Commander in the Royal Navy so I grew up with wooden boats.I have owned and sailed small wooden boats all of my life.All who have ever “played” with wooden boats will know that whatever budget one has in mind to replace a plank or even rebuild a boat will usually double and then some.
    All of you ,who have embarked on a house project will know what I`m saying.
    I am not a qualifed anything. I have run several business `s employed people and I hope honoured anything I have taken on.If one wishes to build anything one has to plan the foundations first and have a standby plan if things go array.It saddens me to see this miss management ,and everyone blameing everyone else.Some twenty years ago I lost all my money in the last down turn,so I`m no stranger to DISASTER .I have tuned things around without carping.
    Lets just sort out The Cutty Sark for Greenwich and honour HRH the Duke of Edinburgh`s vision.

  17. andrew gilligan on February 11th, 2010 6:51 pm

    Nigel – I know that’s what the council told you, but according to the HLF it’s not true. There was no such deadline. They agreed to resume funding last August. Even the deadline you quote is three weeks away – time enough for a bit of scrutiny, surely? And how can you support a scheme that will, in the opinion of its own chief engineer, damage the thing it’s supposed to be rescuing?

  18. Wolfe on February 11th, 2010 7:36 pm

    Thanks, Andrew, for getting this sorry story into the national press. Some of us have been banging on and on about the mess the project is in for months in the hope that exactly that would happen.

    Nigel, the points about the very real risks of raising the ship deserve far greater scrutiny. Almost no-one, who knows anything about the methods involved is in favour of the idea. The only real reason for now doing what so many experts have warned against is to provide a venue for corporate entertainment. Bearing in mind that Cutty Sark was, and still could be, a national monument, should the creation of somewhere that will appeal to companies looking for a place to drink and eat canapes really take precedence over proper renovation and preservation, regardless of the possible income?

    Wouldn’t it also be useful to see a comparison of the projected cost of raising the ship and not raising it before making decisions on funding? Finally, as you have mentioned, the secrecy surrounding the project has been frustrating and now, it appears, was designed to prevent anyone knowing about the hash that has been made of the job so far. If you could give us some idea of what the”firm evidence that financial and management controls had been overhauled” actually is, we would be less likely to believe that those who have been wrecking Cutty Sark should be left to continue doing the same…

  19. Nigel Fletcher on February 11th, 2010 7:37 pm

    A very useful debate on this thread, and plenty of issues I will be following up. At the end of the day, as Andrew says in his article, we all love the Cutty Sark. Robert is absolutely right in his comment that the priority is to get it sorted out so we can have something we can be proud of.

  20. Rod on February 13th, 2010 10:17 am

    Dead right on all points – you and I were trying to get this out in the open last Autumn.
    “the secrecy surrounding the project has been frustrating and now, it appears, was designed to prevent anyone knowing about the hash that has been made of the job so far.” At some point in the not-too-distant future someone with authority needs to look into this whole issue of where the money went and the subsequent cover-up. Balfour Beatty have some pretty big questions to answer.

    If you could give us some idea of what the”firm evidence that financial and management controls had been overhauled” actually is, we would be less likely to believe that those who have been wrecking Cutty Sark should be left to continue doing the same…” I second this – please give us details.
    On the face of it (given that we have been and continue to be kept so much in the dark) it would appear to me that this project should be taken away from the Cutty Sark Trust, who seem to have lacked the knowledge and experience to run this. Having farmed it out, they seem to have been unable to control their project managers, and have apparently colluded in the cover-up.

  21. Megad on February 20th, 2010 3:44 pm

    I am afraid that the proposed elevated position, as displayed in the Council propaganda sheet turns the old queen of the seas into a tart in a window. If one needed any more proof that the “heritage” industry does not value its charges, this is it. Tacky plastic souvenir anyone?

  22. Richard Young on February 20th, 2010 9:32 pm

    I think this whole thing needs a Channel 4 News airing.
    Maybe we could all prompt the news media with an email pointing out our concerns.
    If there really is a serious issue here, then the sooner it becomes higher profile,the sooner a solution might be found..if there is one.

  23. Greenwich Council Meeting: 24th February 2010 | on February 25th, 2010 10:06 am

    […] answer to a question from Cllr Paul Webbewood (Lib Dem, Middle Park and Sutcliffe) to reject recent criticisms of the plan to suspend the famous tea clipper 11-feet off the ground as part of its restoration. He […]

  24. Indigo on July 19th, 2010 4:42 pm

    In the current issue of Private Eye

    And still the cock-ups continue. The trust recently spent £1m on recycled teak for the deck. The specification was for planks 3.5 inches by 5 inches, at lengths ranging from 18ft to 36ft, “machined to a decking profile”. The correct sizes were vital to ensure that deck planks matched up with bolt holes in the iron frames; but when the timber arrived much of it turned out to be 5 inches thick, of random width, and at lengths between 6ft and 8ft. Since the project managers had signed off on the delivery and pronounced themselves satisfied, they couldn’t ask for a refund when a visiting shipwright pointed out the mistake. They now have £1m of teak sitting uselessly at an airfield in Wiltshire.

    Astonishingly no naval architect or shipwright is overseeing the restoration – which may explain why more emphasis is placed on creating an “iconic” leisure venue than on giving the old girl a sympathetic refit.

    It’s also why Greenwich council stumped up an extra £7m five months ago. Justifying this extravagance, at a time of budget cuts elsewhere, council leader Chris Roberts raved that “the difference between the iconic scheme the council has supported and simply putting the ship back together as was could not be greater”. Indeed – the main difference being that in the view of most experts his iconic scheme will damage the fabric of the ship.

  25. Cutty Sark to reopen on April 26th | on March 2nd, 2012 6:44 pm

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