Suffolk County Council’s poorly-thought through divestment of their highway services has hit the rocks. Ten weeks to D-day and there’s no plan B. In an embarrassed press-release Suffolk County Council last week announced an Update on the Suffolk Highways Contract Tender Process
“Following a period of extensive and constructive discussion with Balfour Beatty Living Places, Suffolk County Council has not been able to confirm and clarify commitments made to the point where it can provisionally award the contract. It has therefore been decided that the procurement process will revert to the previous stage where Suffolk County Council can liaise with any, or all, of the bidders who submitted final tenders (including Balfour Beatty Living Places), before again identifying a preferred bidder.”
So after a year of negotiation in the pursuit of ideology, Suffolk’s planned divestment of highway maintenance and improvement works, winter gritting, street lighting, traffic signals and bridge to a private company is back to square 1 – only ten weeks before D-Day (ironically, April 1). Serious egg on face time!
And why did this happen? Alas, the release is remarkably short on detail.
Yet at the time the preferred bidder was chosen a few weeks back, SCC were positively expansive. “ There is a risk that the defined timetable slips and that the contract cannot commence on 1 April 2013,“ they said confidingly. “This is a key date. Many of our existing contracts expire on this date, as does the County Council’s agency agreement with Ipswich Borough Council (IBC) for the provision of highways services… The democratic approval processes and mobilisation period have been planned to avoid this eventuality .“
(But not, alas, sufficiently for this eventuality to be avoided)
Now, speaking as a person of average common-sense, I don’t think that at that point I’d have have put a document into the public domain which alerted the business world to the fact SCC was putting all its eggs into a single basket – and a basket with a loose handle at that! Its hard to negotiate when your head’s in a noose. Yet SCC – generally the first to withhold information on grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’ – went further, and told the world of the associated risks in their planning:
“..there is no “do nothing” option as from 1 April 2013. Current contracts expire on 31 March 2013 and will have reached their maximum term. Therefore a large part of the service would need to be re-procured, alongside seeking emergency extensions of existing contracts. This would present serious risks to service continuity, delivery and quality. There is also a risk that any attempt to extend an existing contract, rather than to carry out a procurement exercise, might be challenged by other providers…”
The LibDem and independent group have asked SCC for speedy responses to the following questions as to this debacle
- What happened since the Cabinet decision on the 11th Dec? What commitments weren’t confirmed, were they not outlined as part of the initial contract?
- How much is it going to cost the County Council in interim arrangements?
- What is the duration of the expected delay? When will the next preferred bidder be announced?
- What is the impact on the staff at IBC now that the timetable has slipped?
- What is the contingency plan now that contracts have reached their maximum term, will emergency extensions be required? What are the cost of these?
- Do you envisage a serious risk to the continuity, delivery and quality of the highways service given this delay?
and last, and possibly most importantly
- Can SCC continue to be assured this way of proceeding is actually ‘best value’?
As yet we are not much the wiser – but it looks like interim arrangements will have to be made at least until September. And what happens in the meantime is -literally – anyone’s guess!
As a constituent of mine remarked, “This lot couldn’t organise a hen-party in a chicken farm!”