The saga of London’s ugly bus shelters and EU procurement rules

24 Jun

If I ever drift into dismay at the direction (or lack of direction) of Government policy, I find listening to the Moggcast on this site a great tonic. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s presence in the Cabinet means all is not lost. He combines clear Conservative principles with the tenacity and ability to see them applied as policy. An important example of his work as the Cabinet Office Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency is the dramatic streamlining of the procurement rules inherited from the EU. Over £300 billion of public spending goes on procurement each year so the importance of obtaining value for money is significant. The Procurement Bill has had its Second Reading the House of Lords.

Lord True set out its aims:

“The current regimes for awarding public contracts are too restrictive, with too much red tape for buyers and suppliers alike, which results in attention being focused on the wrong activities rather than on value for money. There are currently over 350 different procurement regulations spread over a number of different regimes for different types of procurement, including defence and security. We have removed the duplication and overlap in the current four regimes to create one rulebook which everyone can use. The Bill will also enable the creation of a digital platform for suppliers to register their details once for use in any bids, while a central online transparency platform will allow suppliers to see all opportunities in one place.”

From a local government perspective, Lord Moylan gave some fascinating insights into the flawed nature of the current arrangements and suggested the rules should be streamlined further. The criminal law already deals with corruption. His experience of local government was that officials could, in any case, find ways of getting round the procedures to have the client they wanted:

“I know of one public procurement project, for services, which allocated 40 per cent of the points to what was called ‘project compatibility’. When I said, ‘What does that mean?’, they said, ‘It means that we can choose whoever it is we want to work with, because they will be compatible with us.’ “

Moylan gave another example of a proposed “new, iconic bus shelter for London.” He had proposed this as the bus shelters in London are “absolutely appalling.” 

“Peter Hendy, who was then commissioner of Transport for London, was good enough to agree that something should be done. I was representing London Councils at the time, so we set up jointly a process in which we invited architects to submit proposals for this wonderful thing. TfL officers ran it as a procurement process. A large number of wonderful designs were put to us – 20 appeared – some of which were so extravagant that they could never have been used. A design panel was put in place to make the architectural judgments, only for us to discover at the end of the presentations that we were not allowed to take design into account because the TfL officers had used the branch of the procurement process that you would use if you were buying a piece of air-conditioning plant. So it was to be judged entirely on the specification of whether it kept the rain out and things such as that. The entire purpose of the exercise was defeated through a misapplication of the procurement process, and we all agreed, exhausted by that point, that basically we would abandon it and come back to it. But we never did, so London still has a wide variability and a high level of ugliness in its bus shelters.”

It is not only London that has bus shelters which, though they might be functional, are dreary and soulless. How can community pride be engendered when our towns and cities are disfigured by such structures? That is not inevitable – the Victorians never put up with it.

I appreciate that TfL could have managed the procurement process better. It might have transpired that even if they had done so, their “design panel” might have chosen something awful. But this sorry saga does show that a cumbersome procurement process might not just mean a higher financial cost. It lends itself to a box-ticking conformity that blocks innovation and means that officialdom is content if a process is correctly followed – no matter how drab or expensive the outcome. Rees-Mogg is to be commended for easing the restrictions. That will be a start. But the greater challenge, for local authorities and the rest of the public sector, will be to change the culture.

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