Abi Brown: In Stoke, we now have the freedom to decide our own procurement policy

22 Feb

Cllr Abi Brown is the Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Few words make the average council leader’s blood run colder than procurement. It sounds clinical, technical, and is often the bad guy in the room, blamed for why things can’t be done easily. The reality though, is far from that – and getting it right, or at least being able to explore its options, holds the key to so much potential success, for both local residents and businesses.

Councils run on procurement, the obtaining of goods and services. There’s been much said in recent years of how procurement can be used to benefit your area through the positioning of it within the local economy, and in the wake of coronavirus and Brexit, is certain to be something that many councils return to look at.

Intrinsically, we all look to ensure that money is not only well spent, but also spent well, ideally locally. There is a whole spectrum of thought on how procurement can address that, whether through a singular focus on achieving value for money, or at the other end of the scale, ensuring the benefits are felt locally. In recent years, joint procurement has pushed these benefits even further, demonstrating the power of public sector spending to influence the local economy.

Of course, we all want to ensure local businesses and people benefit from the purchasing power of the local authority, but if the emphasis on only spending locally creates a fortress effect and creates a local monopoly, value for money could be very low indeed. Similarly, if value for money is pursued at all costs, the all important buy-in of local residents and businesses, particularly to large scale capital projects, can often be lost.

The middle ground though, can be easily accessible with a bit of thought and consideration, particularly around social value. It’s often easier for councils to purchase off large, already established, procurement frameworks, though of course these are normally by nature regional or national, meaning the likelihood of getting a local company is slim, although value for money is likely to be high. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have started to increasingly look at whether establishing our own procurement frameworks gives a better deal across all areas.

The largest and most ambitious framework we have established to date is for Professional Services. With an ambitious £750 million capital investment programme, and a desire to keep as much of the ‘Stoke pound in Stoke’, we decided that having our own framework would work well both for local businesses and also the taxpayer. And of course, as a regionally important city, we can also offer our framework, not only to other public sector organisations based in Stoke-on-Trent, but also further afield, giving them the confidence of locally based businesses and a likely shared vision of social value.

Despite a growing reputation nationally, professional services is not a sector that the city has been strong in, however increasingly we are seeing more growth in this area. The framework ‘lots’ were created to ensure parity for younger local businesses wanting to get some experience, as well as ensuring there was sufficient interest to create a good marketplace. Our social value weighting was a respectable 20 per cent, driven by a clear view that whilst we wanted value for money, a commitment to our city in some way would also be expected. On top of this, we also asked that successful businesses identify how they would support our number one priority of improving outcomes for children and young people, especially those within the care of the local authority. What we buy therefore runs to the core of what we do.

Interest was high in the framework, and although local businesses accounted for less than ten per cent of the tenders submitted, just over 50 per cent of the successful tenders are either based in the city, have a presence here, or have committed to locating locally – supporting jobs and the local supply chain. Without doubt, the clarity of the lots has also encouraged growth within professional services locally, who can see that there is opportunity to establish here. Staffordshire University – based in Stoke-on-Trent – will shortly open an architecture degree, and are also looking at other complimentary courses. Local firms also tell me that inclusion on our framework has helped them to secure work elsewhere in the country, based on the experience gained. This also supports to expand the sectors, increasing local knowledge, and adding to opportunities for our young people.

With a modest fee for use of the framework, interest from local and regional organisations is high, again ensuring there is a pipeline of projects for local businesses to tender for, and continued interest from larger national firms who may have been squeezed out because they didn’t have a local presence in perhaps considering Stoke-on-Trent in future for a regional base. Offers of work experience and apprenticeships for our children in care also help to ensure we all feel the benefit from ‘the family business’ doing the right thing too.

And the big winner is the taxpayer – great value for money and support for the local economy. Perhaps procurement is not so terrifying after all.

Abi Brown: How planning reforms can help level up red wall cities like Stoke-on-Trent

17 Jul

Cllr Abi Brown is the Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

After more than 100 days in lockdown, where many of us have seen our traditional way of life turned on its head, ‘new normal’ has started to look quite appealing. We have a new found love of open spaces and parks, and have embraced home working with vigour. Local businesses that were able to stay open or adapted their business models to ensure we could just nip out to them during lockdown – or even better, have them deliver to us – are highly regarded and form the centre point of our communities, alongside all those new friends we made during our enforced stay at home.

For some people, they looked longingly at this new recognition of what a great place to live could look like, and are now busy scouring the internet to find somewhere for a better life they saw others benefitting from during lockdown. It must have a great quality of life, be affordable but connected (physically and digitally), and have a sense of community. As you’d expect, I have a great suggestion, and combined with the Government’s recent announcements about planning, the mighty Stoke-on-Trent must surely be top of a number of lists.

Beautifully placed in the centre of the country, well-linked by rail, road, and air, with the country’s first full-fibre network coming on stream in the next year, we boast over 100 parks and green spaces, and some of the best value-for-money housing in the country. We drip with authenticity, in towns that reflect our ceramic heritage through beautiful and interesting buildings, and a city centre that also shares a bustling independent sector – a sector that is growing across our city.

De-industrialisation has challenged the live-work-shop model, and some of our towns have been notorious in recent years for the high number of empty properties. However, recent success in bringing back residential to our centres through government supported projects like the Housing Infrastructure Fund see us increasingly having more housing completions than the average London borough. As a city council, we’ve also invested ourselves in bringing forward housing through Fortior Homes, our housing company that demonstrates there is a market for high quality, mixed tenure, new builds – and bringing in other developers who now see the potential of our city too.

In our city centre, we have brought forward high quality city-centre-loving apartments alongside Grade A office accommodation and a shortly-to-open 4* Hilton Garden Inn hotel. Our Housing Infrastructure Fund scheme in Burslem – the Mother Town – brought in £10m to spend on remediating nine brownfield sites around the town, with the first now through planning and well on its way to delivering the first tranche of the 1,000 homes planned for the town. In a city where last year 98 per cent of our housing development was on pre-developed land, we demonstrate that brownfield first is not just something to aim for optimistically.

But new-normal means we need to go further. People living in towns makes them animated and interesting. It attracts new businesses who cater for the parents walking home from school, the home worker who wants to live near the action but not compromise on residential options, the recently retired who are looking for a more relaxed way of life but still with things to do and see. Expanding housing options in our towns is challenging, converting above shops into residential can be tricky, and working that mix of commercial and residential in together.

However, tackling these issues through planning change will arguably mean the rejuvenation of towns and cities like Stoke-on-Trent where levelling up means showing the rest of the country what a great offer you have, and building confidence in your place to be the best it can be. If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s about the need to seize the moment.