Izzi Seccombe: Councils need simple and efficient public procurement to ensure the best value for public money

14 Jan

Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association and the Leader of Warwickshire County Council.

The announcement of the trade deal with the EU on Christmas Eve means that, four and a half years after the referendum, Brexit is now complete.

Conservatives in local government welcomed the announcement of the deal, which provides much needed certainty for the businesses and residents that we represent, and I am sure that all Conservative Home readers will join with me in congratulating the Prime Minister for delivering on his promise at the 2019 General Election to ‘Get Brexit Done.’

So now that we have the trade deal, what are the opportunities for local government that result from our exit from the EU?

In the limited amount of space available here, I want to focus on three particularly important issues: procurement, state aid, and the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Prior to Brexit, councils had to follow EU-wide advertising and award procedures when they bought goods and services. Not only did this process often sit uneasily with their aim of supporting the local economy, it could also take between three and eighteen months, which is twice as long as typical private sector procurement

Councils need a simple and efficient public procurement regime which ensures the best value for public money and respects local decision-making. Shorter timescales, lighter-touch advertising requirements and award procedures, a speedier way of dealing with legal challenges, greater negotiation with suppliers, and a new focus on SMEs and Voluntary Community and Social Enterprises (VCSEs) are all potential benefits of a reformed UK-legislated procurement process.

In this new environment, developing procurement skills within councils is crucial to helping us achieve significant savings for the taxpayer and deliver improved services for residents.

In recognition of this, the LGA has been working with the Cabinet Office to offer contract management training for council officers, and more than a thousand have taken advantage of this offer to date. Councils or councillors interested in this can email productivity@local.gov.uk for more details.

Encouragingly, the Government has already launched a Green Paper, Transforming Public Procurement, which sets out its proposed changes to the UK’s procurement rules, putting value for money and transparency at the heart of the new approach and including plans to help unleash wider social benefits in line with the existing spirit of the Public Services (Social Value) Act that councils have been following since 2012.

The proposals also include measures that councils have been calling for to assist them in the procurement process, including providing more scope to exclude suppliers for poor past performance and corruption-related issues, as well as reforming the remedies system by making the court review process faster and less costly, capping damages, and investigating the feasibility of tribunals.

Bearing all this in mind, I would encourage all those involved in public procurement to have their say and respond to the consultation by the deadline of the 10th March.

Secondly, our exit from the EU also provides an opportunity to reform how grants and public subsidies work. In so doing, I am clear that any new state aid rules should be based on local government’s experience of what works on the ground.

Processes can be simplified by introducing flexibilities for councils. For example, future changes to the UK’s state aid policy could allow support for non-profit-making activities or social enterprises who reinvest surplus back into the local community. Similarly, those organisations that operate in the culture, heritage, arts, or non-profit sports sectors may also merit a more flexible approach.

Thirdly, since the referendum, the LGA has been lobbying the Government to ensure that there will be a suitable domestic replacement for EU regional funding. Put simply, Brexit provides an opportunity to give local areas a greater say over how to target a new and simplified regional aid fund at local projects for the benefit of local people.

This should nicely complement the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, and I was pleased that the recent Spending Review contained the “Heads of Terms” for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the Government’s replacement of the European Structural and Investment Funds), whilst also confirming that the fund itself will be worth at least £1.5 billion a year.

I welcome the clarity this announcement has brought, and local government has made an offer to co-design the programme with Government and also the investment framework for local areas that sits behind it. The investment proposals and specific outcomes outlined in the UK wide investment framework need to be locally determined by councils and combined authorities as they have a democratic mandate to represent their communities, and it also needs to respect current local decision making and devolution agreements.

The additional £220 million to help local areas transition to the UKSPF in 2021/2022 by running pilots and new approaches is also to be welcomed. We are working with the Government and local areas to ensure there is a smooth transition to the new funding regime.

However we individually voted in the 2016 referendum, the reality is that Brexit has happened and it provides the opportunity for local government to build on the ambitious programme of devolution of powers to local communities that has taken place since 2010.

I am determined that in 2021 we seize the opportunities that are now offered to us to provide services in a more efficient, flexible, and responsive way to the residents that we represent.

Izzi Seccombe: Conservative councils are working hard to safely return to normal life

5 Aug

Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of Warwickshire County Council and the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association.

The recent lockdowns in Leicester and much of Northern England are a timely reminder that Cornavirus has not gone away, that for all of us many restrictions still remain in place, and that unfortunately it is unlikely that life will return to normal for some time.

However, since my last article for Conservative Home, at the end of May, the nation as a whole has experienced a significant relaxation in the Covid-related restrictions, including the re-opening of restaurants, pubs, cinemas, hairdressers, hotels, and campsites and various other types of businesses on July 4th.

In the run-up to what became known as ‘Super Saturday’ councils played a crucial role in supporting businesses, venues, and high streets, as well as some of our own civic amenities and services, to prepare for the re-opening and in communicating to residents the changes that were being put in place.

However, in order for our high streets to re-open the businesses that had previously operated there had to still be in existence. The fact that many of them were was in large part due to the decisive action that the Government and councils took during the preceding months.

As Conservative Home readers will be aware, the Government has provided an extensive package of support to workers and businesses throughout the crisis, including the furlough scheme, business rates relief, the Small Business Grants Fund, the Hospitality and Leisure Grants Fund, and the Discretionary Grants Fund.

Local government was the delivery mechanism for much of this support and councils have worked hard to distribute almost £11 billion to more than 800,000 eligible businesses.

For many councils this has involved responding proactively and flexibly to the unprecedented circumstances; for example, by setting up dedicated teams and redeploying staff to process applications as well as using websites, social media, and traditional media to reach businesses that were eligible for funding but for whom they did not have the relevant information.

This provided a lifeline to struggling businesses worried about their future and I am extremely proud of the work that Conservative councils undertook in the months and weeks preceding the easing of the restrictions.

For example, Medway Council has processed and issued more than £35 million in financial support to businesses overall, and more than £1.6 million on top of that to small businesses specifically as part of the Government Discretionary Grants Fund.

To highlight just one example from my own county, Warwick District Council has issued 2,395 payments totalling £31,080,000 to local businesses, representing a 93.8 per cent payment rate.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Midlands, Walsall Council has a 94.6 per cent payment rate and it is joint top with Dudley Council, also Conservative-led, in the ‘league table’ of councils in Birmingham and the Black Country for the number of grants paid.

Of course, whilst keeping businesses afloat so that there was a functioning high street to return to in July was essential it was also critical that people were confident enough to return to their old shopping habits when they were permitted to do so.

Again, we in Conservative local government were grateful for the additional funding that we received from central government to help facilitate this.

For example, the £50 million ‘Reopening High Streets Safely Fund’ was used by councils to introduce a range of practical measures ahead of July 4th, including new signs, street markings and temporary barriers, and by businesses to adapt their services, for example by introducing contactless payment facilities.

Marketing campaigns were also launched in councils across the country to explain the changes to the public and reassure them that their high streets were safe places to visit.

For example, in Harborough the district council sought to reassure shoppers with a number of proactive measures, including deploying council officers in high visibility jackets to provide information and advice, setting up hand sanitiser stations and using street stencilling to indicate where people should queue.

In addition, in collaboration with Leicestershire County Council, road closures were introduced to facilitate social distancing and safe queuing, thus giving people greater confidence to return.

Meanwhile, Warwick District Council has worked with its market operators to put in place a phased return of the popular weekly markets in Warwick and Kenilworth whilst also introducing free parking in all of its off-street cark parks.

However, whilst many suburban shopping centres are seeing increasing numbers of people returning each week, concern has been expressed about city centres and larger shopping areas.

Again, Conservative councils are doing all that they can to ensure that these are safe places which people feel confident visiting.

Over 80,000 jobs in Westminster depend directly on the hospitality industry and the city council has worked with landowners, businesses and residents to develop more than 50 separate street-wide schemes that deliver outdoor dining areas. These include footway widening, providing tables and chairs in former parking spaces, and, in some cases, timed pedestrianisation of streets.

Furthermore, whilst the Business and Planning Bill was going through Parliament, the council introduced its own interim scheme that allowed businesses to trade outdoors. For example, a fast track tables and chairs licensing scheme, which costs businesses just £100, and temporary events notices, allowed businesses to get up-and-running outdoors within a week.

As we enter August, with the advent of the Government’s ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme and many of us enjoying a staycation, it is to be hoped that domestic tourism will give a much-needed boost to the economy and Conservative councils have led the way in highlighting the many great things that there are to do in the UK.

For example, in Medway, the council is actively promoting its own heritage attractions, such as Rochester Castle, The Guildhall Museum, and Historic Dockyard Chatham, all of which have reopened and are welcoming visitors again.

Clearly, the battle against Coronavirus is not yet won, but I know that in the months ahead, Conservative councils will continue to do all that they can to support their communities and get their local economies going again as part of the national recovery effort.