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I still don’t know if there will be a “Bad Buying Returns” book or perhaps an updated edition of the first volume, but the stories keep on coming in terms of case studies for potential inclusion.  The latest at least has an element of humour, which is a change from most of the pandemic-related bad buying we’ve seen over the last 18 months. It is, of course, the “Marble Arch Mound”.

Westminster council commissioned a mound or small hill to be built in London, at Marble Arch. It was to be a tourist and visitor attraction, designed to get people back into the West End of London and to shop in Oxford Street. The temporary 25-metre-high artificial hill, built on the corner of Oxford Street and Hyde Park, was supposed to be aesthetically beautiful and a great viewing point over London.  

The marketing drawings showed quite sizeable trees and shrubs covering its contours. However, when it opened a couple of weeks ago, there was dismay from visitors, who were annoyed at paying at least £4.50 for what one described as “London’s worst attraction”.  Instead of beautiful greenery, early visitors were greeted with sights of rubble, building works and scaffolding from the viewing platform, which was covered in brown turf. A tidy row of wheelie bins was arranged at its foot.

This episode seems to illustrate several of the drivers of “bad buying” that I discuss in the book. There is the tendency for politicians to like “vanity projects” – spending money where a business case in weak, but the politicians feel that they are creating a “legacy” or something that will make them more popular. Our Prime Minister Boris Johnson is of course a past exponent of this, with his ridiculous Garden Bridge (let’s blame actress Joanna Lumley as well for that), which wasted over £50 million and also saw some truly appalling procurement. There was also the costly Thames Cable Car and his crackpot ideas for a floating airport and a tunnel (or was it a bridge?) between Scotland and Ireland. 

In the case of the Mound, there seems to have been an arrogant attitude from a few council leaders who pushed the scheme through. There was no real consultation, and it was apparently not voted on by all councillors. That attitude again is often a precursor to bad decisions – witness my local council wasting millions on badly timed property purchases in Camberley, with decisions made by a small cabal without involving most of the elected representatives, let alone taxpayers.

But there also seems to have been a failure in more prosaic terms here around the specifications for the Mound, and tying down the cost of the construction. In May, the council reported the total build and operating costs would be £3.3m and £2m would be recouped largely through ticket sales to visitors. But now, costs are expected to be at least £6m, and it is not clear as yet exactly why that is the case. Amid all the light-hearted comments about the fiasco, the council’s deputy leader, Melvyn Caplan, has resigned and the political ramifications are growing.

However, the Mound is now free to visit, and ironically it has become busy as visitors flock to see if it is really as bad as the reports suggest … and let’s face it, Madame Tussauds still rakes in the cash so perhaps there is hope for the Mound after all.

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.