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The Conservative government has been criticised for some of the procurement actions of the last year or so, with allegations of mismanagement and cronyism. But the Labour Party has not been free of controversy in terms of how its politicians spend public money in local government.

Croydon council in south London has basically declared itself bankrupt, with mismanagement of a council-owned property company and bad decisions about acquisition of property investments contributing to the dire financial situation. We may come back to this as more detail emerges.

Meanwhile, Joe Anderson mayor of Liverpool, was arrested last December on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation.  He and four others were held as part of a police investigation into the awarding of building contracts in the city. The BBC reported that a “year-long police probe, Operation Aloft, has focussed on a number of property developers”.

An inspection ordered by the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government reported in March and the inspector, Max Caller, found major failings “in governance and practice”. That has led to the imposition of Commissioners in the City to help the council implement the changes needed. But the report also commented on Anderson’s son David, now caught up in controversy. His firm SCC was awarded contracts by the council through what seemed to be unusual procurement routes.

Mr Caller said that a decision to award SSC a £250,000 health and safety contract on the project to dismantle Liverpool’s Churchill Way Flyovers in 2019 ‘exposed the site teams to considerable safety risks’. The company had no previous relationship with the council before the ‘urgent appointment was instructed’ as work got underway in 2019.

The report calls for more power for the procurement function in the Council, but also highlights that it needs to up its game. More criticism for circumventing official processes and policies appears to be attached to the staff in other departments such as Highways.

This is only the latest in a long line of issues around public sector construction contracts. That area of spend has historically been plagued by claims of and indeed proven corruption in local government and elsewhere.

 Why is that? Well, it is one of the biggest spend categories for local government and many organisations, and it is also relatively opaque in terms of benchmarking costs and prices. So social care, or IT hardware are also huge spend areas for councils for example; but I’d suggest it would be pretty obvious if a care firm or laptop supplier were charging unrealistically high prices to fund bribery. If a firm was charging £25 an hour for carers when the standard for other firms or other councils was £18, even the slowest auditor or councillor might notice!

But a few hundred grand added onto a multi-million pound building contract for a new school or sports centre is much harder to spot. If we’re talking the council buying land or property, then there is even less of a clear “market value”. 

These are also areas where historically, professional procurement has been less involved than in some other spend categories. The construction departments in councils have had a reputation for being powerful and something of a law unto themselves.  I remember 20 years ago a friend of mine who was MD of a firm that supplied heating equipment refusing to deal with one Yorkshire council because the corruption was so overt. Basically his firm was expected to pay a % commission to certain individuals on every order.

So a lack of professional procurement scrutiny, bespoke work and limited market price benchmarks are factors that indicate how open to corruption a spend area might be.

Back to Liverpool and there is also a link with a controversial construction project where Unite, the trade union led by Len McCluskey, is the buyer.  The project appears to have cost almost £100 million against the £57 originally forecast. The BBC reported that; “The contract to build the 170-room hotel and conference centre was awarded in 2015 to the Flanagan Group, a Liverpool company run by an associate of McCluskey, who is the union’s general secretary. Another contract on the project was given to a company owned by the son of Joe Anderson, Liverpool’s mayor.”

Yes, it’s him again …

Anyway, Unite has responded saying “Every step of the way, the production of this complex was overseen by independent surveyors and architects. Accountability was built into the process to ensure that at every stage of this development we got value for this union’s money. All this was overseen by our democratically-elected, independent 62-strong executive council”.

 Bad Buying? Or worse?  I’m not sure.

OK, I misspoke yesterday when I said it was six days until publication of Bad Buying – it was five. So today, not surprisingly, it is 4 days to go, and we’ll look at a few more of the chapters – the full contents list is here, at the end of yesterday’s post.

One of the most enjoyable and interesting sections in the book to research relates to supplier incentivisation and why it can so often go wrong.  Take a simple example, one I saw in my own work. If you outsource back-office financial management, including accounts payable, you might agree to pay the outsourced service provider per invoice that they process.

But then if one of your key suppliers comes up with a smart idea to reduce the number of invoices, and they ask the firm doing the processing to adapt to a new process, they may well say “no”, because it will reduce their income. You really should be incentivising that supplier to help reduce invoice numbers – but that’s surprisingly tricky to do contractually.

And how do you incentivise construction firms? That’s been a long running challenge for buyers. Agree a fixed price, and you risk the supplier cutting corners on quality of work or materials; agree to pay on a “time and materials” basis and the project may never finish. That’s led to all sorts of interesting contract variants, such as the “NEC3 Engineering and Construction Contract option C (target contract with activity schedule)” which was used with considerable success on the London 2012 Olympic constucion programme.

Away from traditional procurement, there are fascinating cases such as the Colombian government, who in trying to get farmers to switch away from growing coca, actually introduced an “incentive” that made them grow more of that crop! 

There is more on that in the book, and another chapter picks up those cases that I couldn’t neatly categorise as having an underlying cause based on lack of capability or knowledge. So I called it “stupidity” although sometimes “arrogance” might be a better term actually. Yes, political stories do feature here, as too many politicians think they know best (even if the professionals are telling them something isn’t going to work) or want to build a monument to their own vanity.

The EU does get a mention here, with their programme to build airports in places that quite frankly nobody wanted to fly into.  Kastoria in Greece cost €7.7 million to build and generated revenues of €176,000 in seven years… then of course we have the somewhat crazy UK Brexit-related ferry contract with the company that didn’t own any boats. Another big success for ex-Minister Chris Grayling there.

But it is not just the public sector that suffers from this madness at times. Carlos Ghosn, the ex-Nissan and Renault chairman, is on the run from Japanese prosecutors in the Lebanon now. But whatever happens next, hiring Versailles for a party costing €635,000, supposedly to celebrate a business alliance but holding it on his own 50th birthday, and (allegedly, I should quickly add) inviting mainly family and friends, hardly smacked of humility and a deep concern for shareholder funds. 

There are also cases in this section that might tip over into the fraud and corruption section. I get into the murky world of defence contract “offsets”, and if you don’t know about this mechanism, it is another fascinating aspect of our procurement and buying world. With offsets, the supplier agrees to spend a portion of the contract value in the country of the buying organisation. So, for example, if India buys fighter jets from France, they might insist that the supplier spends 20% of the contract value with Indian firms. Unfortunately, that leads too often to decisions that are just wasteful and inefficient, or outright fraudulent – offsets are a very handy way of concealing bribes to the politicians or defence officials who placed the contract.

So I hope this has given you a further flavour of the book. There is still time to order and get delivery on publication day – check out the links here. There is also a Bad Buying podcast now (“Peter Smith’s Bad Buying podcast”) and the first two episodes are available on most podcast platforms. There is also a Bad Buying playlist on Spotify (all my section titles are also song titles …) It is a “diverse” playlist, as my daughter described it, but I’ll take that as a compliment!  You can make your own judgment on that.

The public inquiry into the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London, which killed 72 residents in June 2017,  has heard that procurement rules were circumvented to avoid an open tendering process. Bruce Sounes, who was the lead architect on the Tower refurbishment, told the inquiry that the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) asked the architect, Studio E, to defer some of their fees so that the cost looked like it was under the EU procurement threshold that requires a competitive process.

He told the inquiry: “I understood that this limit was the maximum contract value permissible under EU procurement regulations, above which KCTMO would have to follow a compliant procurement process in selecting consultants”. So 50% of the fees were deferred to keep the among billed below £174K.

That would have taken more time, and it was also likely that the favoured supplier, Studio E, would not have won the bid as it had little relevant experience, having not “been involved in high-rise residential, heating renewal nor the overcladding of occupied buildings.”

This artificial manipulation of contract value is almost certainly illegal under EU and UK regulations.  Buyers are not allowed to “artificially disaggregate” contracts to avoid the thresholds, for instance by breaking up a large requirement into multiple smaller ones purely to get around the rules. Deferring fees is somewhat different but arguably is an even more blatant method for avoiding the formal process.

It is a myth however that a contract value under the EU threshold means you don’t need to worry about competition. Whilst you don’t need to jump through all the hoops, buyers are still bound by principles of transparency, openness and fairness, and should show that they have used appropriate competitive processes given the size and risk of the contract. Clearly, that didn’t happen here. But just because a contract is “only” worth £170K, it doesn’t mean you can just give it to a supplier without competition.

The other puzzle here is exactly why KCTMO were so keen on Studio E winning the work. Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, said that after the firm had designed the neighbouring Kensington Aldridge academy, selecting them was “cheap, convenient, quick, even though Grenfell Tower was a completely different kind of project with different challenges”.  So, there is no hint of corruption there, although it was at best a poor decision, and an illegal one, as we’ve said.

Whilst we can’t say that the Grenfell disaster happened purely because of this open and shut case of bad buying, it is at the very least an indication of the tragic consequences that can result from poor supplier selection decisions. It is also a lesson that avoiding procurement regulations sometimes seems an easy way out; but it can have major consequences.