How the neighbours do it

Previous reading regarding this post can be found in “The Impossible Dream“, in which i made some predictions regarding North Somerset tendering. 50% of my predictions were correct, although i underestimated how keen First would be to push back against the seemingly unstoppable expansion of Crosville in Weston-super-Mare. There has since been a significant retrench by the independents who have announced the cancellation of their commercial services in the town. Meanwhile First are showing significant hunger for expansion in the area again.

Anyway, following on from this, we appear to have two neighbouring local authorities doing things in very different ways.

Everything by the book.

North Somerset called operators to a presentation at the end of February where they illustrated their new Dynamic Procurement System (DPS). For those of you not involved in the office work side of the industry, a DPS exists where a local authority wants to establish that operators are capable of delivering a service (and filling in mountains of mostly irrelevant paperwork) before they are allowed to bid on any individual contract. Most local authorities now utilise a DPS of one type or another. Many insist that the operators have to undertake lengthy paperwork exercises as often as every three years to have the opportunity to operate a contract.

Over recent years, North Somerset and their clueless “procurement experts[1]” Agilisys have been asking for all of this documentation each and every time operators applied to run a bus service or home to school contract. This will be changing to a new system whereby operators have to answer a rainforest’s worth of paperwork before they can get to this stage. Operators will need to prove not only that they have policies for everything from Health and Safety to Equality and Diversity to Social Value, but also demonstrate that we have action plans in place to improve our performance in relation to these areas.

Let me put that in to perspective – i run a bus company which currently has two employees. As much as my driver is talented, trying to encourage him to become more diverse could be a challenge. We currently run a non-discriminatory bus service: we have never turned any intending passenger away, even in the aftermath of having pensioners fist fighting on the bus[2]. Disabled? We’re fairly well set up for that. LGBTQ? Not a problem. Vulnerable? We’ll do our best to help. Ignorant or Objectionable? We’ll smile through gritted teeth as your pass scans in.

We also have to produce accounts, financial statements and supporting material. This is so that we can have the honour of providing a service for which the council almost always pays us in arrears, sometimes months after the service has been provided. In this circumstance, the council is never at financial risk.

Paperchase.

This new DPS will be the first i have experienced which is being set to a “standard contract” produced by central government for the procurement of services on behalf of the public sector. Having been used to questionnaires of 30+ pages, this takes the formalities of contracts to a whole new level. I firmly believe that this is being done so that the only companies with the capacity to provide to local government are large national companies and charities. The public sector is a lumbering dinosaur and finds it easiest to deal with organisations that match their characteristics. Sadly this may well not deliver the best service to the public.

North Somerset Council further demonstrated their inability to understand the needs of smaller operators early on. At the end of March they held two Q&A sessions to answer any queries operators may have had on the DPS questionnaire. Both were held at times which clashed with the afternoon schools movement. Having queried this scheduling, we were told that they could only arrange it when their “staff and premises were available”, rather than the more pressing requirement of when operators were available. As a result, only two operators attended the first of these sessions (Thu 30th March, in Portishead).

Back to the paperwork; the Standard Selection Questionnaire used to ensure that organisations comply with government policy is 41 pages long, 17 of which are preamble (mostly in garbled newspeak). We then have 16 pages of questionnaire in 8-11pt text at single line spacing. Further reading about public sector procurement can be found on the riveting Public Sector Procurement Policy pages of gov.uk. North Somerset Council have expanded this template to a whopping 61 pages.

Overcomplicated arrangements such as these will be the death of the smaller, independent bus and coach sector. The paperwork burden for producing all this material is astonishing. For an organisation such as First, Stagecoach or Hackney Community Transport (CT Plus), they already have centralised units which can produce this paperwork at will. The Buses Bill is going to exacerbate this situation, giving local authorities free will to franchise bus services to the lowest bidder at will, meaning completing paperwork such as this will be compulsory if you want to retain any business at all.

Despite assurances during the early stages of consultation from the DfT, there will be no protection for smaller nor local operators. Do ask Stephen Fidler what happened to this pledge if you bump in to him.

The suggestion made by North Somerset at their initial presentation of the DPS was that all work would go through their tendering portal. This means that there would no longer be any de minimis payments to operators in order to keep uneconomic, but socially positive parts of existing services running. Absolutely everything will be tendered. This scenario does have some advantages – services previously ringfenced for the Community Minibus sector will now be available to properly licenced bus and coach operators. I would quite appreciate the irony of taking a contract to provide community minibus service with a commercially operated bus away from an organisation such as Nailsea & District, for whom North Somerset Council have bought dozens of minibuses from public funds. This would prove one of the modern misconceptions of public transport – that community schemes are always best value to the taxpayer. This simply isn’t true, as the Wookey debacle illustrates.

Living next door, but polar opposites.

Meanwhile over at Bath & North East Somerset, a contrast to the North Somerset approach is to be found. Such trivialities as contract paperwork or putting bus services out to for all operators to bid upon seem to have passed out of fashion.

Yet another tranche of public money is being spent with one of their favoured operators. Following on from the significant payments to First to serve the (then unopened) Somerdale development in Keynsham with services 17/17A, Paulton to Bristol service 177 and the increased frequency on service 1 in Bath, First have done rather well from protected funding for their services.

But First are not the only operator to benefit from preferential deals which have been struck behind closed doors without the opportunity for any other operator to get involved. Other instances of this include the Ralph Allen School services RA3/RA4, Bath Spa University service 701 and a second bus for service 768 from 30th April 2017. You could also add the secretive award to their own in house operation of services 752 and 754 (for an undisclosed sum, following it not being awarded at open tender) to this list.[3]

We’re also still awaiting the retendering of services 20A/20C in Bath which was mooted to be happening (and consulted upon) over a year ago. Wessex have recently announced the withdrawal of the weekday short journeys between Twerton and the University outside of term time, which suggests that yet another deal has been done. Given that there are a lot of opportunities here which have been a done deal in private, it seems that B&NES doesn’t really like putting routes out to public tender any longer.

The council would no doubt argue that these examples are services which have been selectively awarded for the greater good with funding which has been drawn in some cases from developer funding, but it remains an awful lot of public money being spent without any kind of market analysis to ascertain whether best value is being achieved.

But The Corporation is coming…

In related news, B&NES own public transport department is likely to soon be absorbed in to the new Avon County Council’s unit which will combine all the activities of B&NES, Bristol and South Gloucestershire. I wonder if this new set-up will lead to greater transparency and better decision making. I don’t rate the probability highly. It is far more likely that Bristol City Council’s uncontactable faceless drones[4] will end up in charge of everything and the North Somerset Heavy Paperwork approach will be enacted here too.

[1] – The Agilisys organisation used a stock questionnaire for procurement of bus services, then got upset when i kept pointing out that the questions didn’t make sense in the context of providing a bus service as it was all set out for a product based business model rather than service.
[2] – Yes, really.
[3] – If you want to catch the return journey of service 754 on a Monday, don’t bother going to Radstock at 12:30 as the driver can’t often be bothered to start there. Instead, pop down to Midsomer Norton for the 12:35 journey which generally departs about 12:20. It also doesn’t serve Paulton on the return journey, as it is scheduled to do. This is the sort of quality operation that the council is so keen to protect.
[4] – Bristol City Council have a telephone system for hot desking which doesn’t work. Contacting any member of their public transport team is mostly impossible, even more so if they’ve decided to ignore your emails. Emails are much easier to ignore than phone calls.
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