Contractors face “intense scrutiny” if they submit unrealistically low bids for public sector contracts, according to a senior official at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
Fergus Harradence, Deputy Director for Infrastructure and Construction, told a webinar hosted by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) that “any bids which appear unrealistically low will be rejected unless the bidder has a plausible explanation”.
He told BESA Chief Executive David Frise that the new procurement rules contained in the government’s ‘Construction Playbook’ were designed to “reset the government’s relationship with the industry because at the moment it is not working for either party”.
Harradence added: “Unrealistic bidding means the government does not get the quality projects it wants, and the industry suffers from low margins and lack of investment. It also leads to poor payment practices and unfair contract conditions that pass on too much risk to suppliers.
“We need to get away from a situation where people are only able to make a profit by putting pressure on their supply chains…that is what led to Carillion, We need the industry to behave responsibly and embed the rigorous comprehensive approach to quality that has been so successful in manufacturing.”
He said the playbook depended on everyone being more “open and honest with each other” and that government would prefer that projects appeared to cost more from the outset to avoid problems further down the line.
The Playbook was developed by the Cabinet Office in partnership with the construction industry and sets out how the government aims to achieve project delivery that is “faster, better and greener”. It includes advice to make wider use of digital and offsite methods and engage with suppliers earlier in the procurement process.
Social value also makes up 10 per cent of awarding criteria according to the Playbook, which became mandatory for all projects procured by central government in England last December. The Cabinet Office is working with the industry to develop a clear definition of whole-life value, which is due to be published later this year.
“The fundamental principle is that contracts should be profitable,” said Harradence. He also warned clients against issuing incomplete tender documents with poorly defined specifications, which increase the risk for bidders.
“We are starting from the basis that we want to do things differently. This persistent under-bidding for projects leads to ministers having to stand up in parliament and apologise for projects running over time and budget,” he told the BESA webinar.
He said too many clients were being given totally unrealistic expectations about how much a project would cost, which led to disputes and project over-runs. “There has to be a greater level of trust between the industry and its clients – this is absolutely pivotal. Without that trust, the process will run into the mud.”
Harradence confirmed that anyone who underbid would face a detailed interrogation. “If they have a good explanation that’s fine, but it is better for projects to appear to cost more – than us having to go cap in hand to the Treasury for more money further down the line.”
Frise said all BESA members would welcome the intention behind the Playbook and the move towards fully designed projects but would be watching carefully to make sure the rules were properly enforced and payment practices improved.