I don’t often write much about Sandwell Council on here, but one of the things that has been bugging me for the last few years has been the Council’s procurement policies.
I suspect, as with most local authorities, Sandwell has been left with the scars of Thatcher’s compulsory competitive tendering regime. Old habits die hard, and the notion that you should look primarily for the cheapest tender when procuring goods and services has been burned on to the hearts and brains of local government procurement officers. Even in the days when quality or environmental factors can be taken in to consideration, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are guided by two overriding principles; can the contractor do they job in the timescales required, and how cheap are they.
Our problem in the Black Country is that despite the fact that we still actually manufacture quite a lot of things to a very high standard, the tenders are not always the lowest. And when the bids are open there is very little scope, even taking into consideration all of the ‘green’ issues, to let tenders locally to help stimulate the local economy. This leads to a ludicrous situation where, within EU procurement rules, we end up purchasing renewal windows for council flats from Sweden, when a local company down the road can supply them at a slightly higher cost and of a similar quality.
As a consequence, our glazing company ends up laying people off, and the Council ends up dealing with unemployed families claiming rent and rate rebates, and with all the other social costs of unemployment. Every attempt we make to weight factors to enable local businesses to compete favourably is met with much tutting and raising of eyebrows, and muttered remarks about ‘OJEU notices’ and ‘EU rules’
So I cautiously welcome this piece about a Private Member’s Bill by Conservative MP Chris White which will allow social factors to be taken into consideration in the procurement process. Although on the surface White’s Bill may have the intention of opening up competition to social enterprises, it may also have the effect of allowing local authorities to do more about local procurement.
It would be great if that could happen, but I suspect if there is any prospect of it happening then, like that giant foot in the Monty Python cartoon, the monolith of EU competition will descend upon it and squash the life out of it.