Leigh and Westcliff Times article – July 2015

The ability to communicate is described as an art, and like other arts this is sometimes a matter of taste. Total failure, though, is an objective measurement.

Southend-on-Sea Borough Council has an indifferent record on communication, according to some anyway. Under the previous administration it took this to new heights (or perhaps that should be lows) when the council was guilty of poor consultation that went hand in hand with a determination to ignore any outcome that did not align with their preferences. There were many who considered that the previous administration was just not listening; something the current grand coalition has been keen to put right.

By way of example I can cite the biggest petition I recall submitting, it was in the subject of the care homes, and it had something like 15,000 names on it. It took a change of administration before its objectives were at all met.

There is also the sensitive subject of development. Whilst getting universal approval for any large project is unlikely, the animus attracted by some would have been partially deflected if residents were better informed. I accept that sometimes the information is there, wanting only of its searching for; and the council’s own website can appear labyrinthine. Should the Government ever relax its desire to cut to the bone we may be able to push for improvements here. However, I am complained to that the council can give the impression of covering things up. Whilst I do not think this is happening, it is something we should be aiming to do better in. We should be an authority that provides clear and easy information on all that it does.

One area that has puzzled me is the procurement process locally. It is not that it is not difficult to understand, but I am genuinely puzzled by one aspect, and that is the limit for tendering. Any contracts for work worth less than £50K do not have to be advertised, and are awarded by officers with little obvious oversight. Three quotes are asked for; no-one is informed, no-one can tender for these, and no-one need know what criteria is used when selecting the ‘winner’. Quoting for a job is not the same as laying out a proposal; and we must always bear in mind that we are talking about taxpayers money here. The council describes contracts valued at under £50K as ‘minor’, yet I can remember many individual cuts in recent years which would also fall into the value category (for example, the distribution of black rubbish sacks). ‘Minor’ is not trivial.

Now, I understand that there has to be a threshold below which the awarding bypasses democratic oversight. One does not want minor contracts to have to go through bureaucratic hoops. These can be slow, and costly. But does the limit really have to be £50K (which I believe is the legal maximum that it can be set at)? This limit, set at the statutory maximum, does not inspire confidence. Whilst I do not suggest any impropriety, one cannot just be fair, one must be seen to be fair – and I am unconvinced that this is the case.

This has a couple of side effects. The lack of a tendering process for these smaller contracts often means that local businesses miss out. Officers, especially those under financial pressures, will be inclined to take the path of least resistance. This could mean that known friendly faces hoover up these contracts. It can also mean that a contract can be awarded to a small business that a council officer has a stake in.

Of course, all contracts, irrespective of size, are subject to auditing. In reality this means that with the smaller ones a sample is inspected. By smaller, of course, this means £49,999 or less in value – which by some measure is actually a large contract. If you break a large project down into small tasks you could imagine quite a bit of money being spent with any meaningful tendering process or audit.

I do not doubt the integrity of officers. But, can we be confident that taxpayers are getting best value? In terms of visibility I believe we could be doing better. Rather than adhere to the legal minimum, which weakens confidence, I would prefer a lower threshold for tendering. I would also like to see some bias towards Southend businesses – I want Southend’s taxpayers’ money to be spent on jobs for Southend’s small businesses whenever practical. I want local businesses to know that they can apply for these smaller contracts, and that they stand a decent chance of being awarded them. I also believe that a local business already has an investment in the community, and this should mean they will go that extra mile to deliver.

A year ago I was promised that this would be looked into, and I have chased this since. With all the challenges of trying to do more with fewer resources I realise that this has been put on the back-burner for good reasons. However, I can be dogged and I am determined to see a review of our processes.

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