As fewer and fewer contractors are willing to pay £4m for the chance to win a £100m PFI hospital, the government is being forced to decide between single-bid tenders and increasingly painful delays …

Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital is falling apart. It housed its first patients nearly a quarter of a century ago and simply cannot cope with the demands of modern healthcare. Derriford is the 19th worst hospital in the country for outbreaks of the MRSA superbug and the fifth worst for speed of treatment of heart attack victims. It operates at occupancy rates of more than 100% – some patients are cared for on trolleys.

The effect on patients is demonstrated by the delay in treatment of Nicola Panay, suspected rheumatoid arthritis sufferer. In a letter to The West Briton, her local paper, last month, Ms Panay wrote that the hospital had told her it could not treat her for up to 15 weeks. This was despite her fingers being “bent closed with painful and swollen knuckles”, waking up one morning unable to walk, and struggling to look after her “very demanding” two-year-old child.

A remedy for all of this ought to be in sight. The hospital should be three months away from appointing a preferred PFI bidder to refurbish it and build a planned care centre, complete with rehabilitation and day surgery facilities. Instead, it could be another 12 months until an appointment is made for the new-build element alone.

The problem was that the original bidding process had to be scrapped after two of its three bidders dropped out. The Department of Health has long frowned on single-tender bidding because it is not competitive. The result is that the scheme is in limbo, the renovation of the hospital may be delayed by as much as three years and, with inflation, an estimated £260m will be added to the estimated £340m pricetag.

The principal reason that bidders are so thin on the ground is that bidding for PFI healthcare schemes is painful for those who lose: the bid costs are estimated to be £4m for a £100m project. This means that the single bidder problem is about to become a familiar one. There are at least three other examples across the UK, and if single-tender bids are not allowed, it looks as though the government will have to find itself another procurement route.

A dire prognosis: Derriford, Plymouth

There was a warning this would happen. In 2002 the Department of Health received two bids, from Skanska and Bouygues, for the £750m St Bartholomew’s and Royal London Hospitals scheme. At the time, the DoH’s rules said three were required, but then it bowed to the inevitable and accepted a two-horse race. But it refused to accept the possibility of single-bid negotiations.

The first test came at Derriford in January and February this year. The project was at a disadvantage because few major builders have a strong presence in the South-west. A German–British consortium pulled out of the bidding because it could not find a construction partner, and Carillion is rumoured to have said that it would have looked at the scheme “if it were 200 miles further north”. This left only two actual bids: one from a team led by Australian contractor Multiplex and another by a consortium called Medico Vanguard, led by Amey and its Spanish parent Ferrovial. Then Multiplex withdrew to pursue projects in other areas of the country.

Syd Jamieson, Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust PFI project manager, tried to carry on regardless. “We had a lot of discussions on single-bidding, but there were so many interested parties involved, from the Strategic Health Authority to the Treasury, that it was very difficult to build a consensus.”

The public sector was nervous about the lack of competition. This would effectively put the project down the negotiated contract route, which the Building Cost Information Service has found to be 13% more expensive than competitive tenders. David Harrison is director of health at PPP advisory Partnerships UK and worked on the St Bart’s tender process. He points out that the Treasury’s value for money guidance issued last year “makes specific reference to concerns the public sector would have with regard to single bidders”.

So Amey faced the loss of a scheme on which an average of 15 people had been working for nearly two years, on top of bid costs that ran into hundreds of thousands of pounds. So the company decided to lobby the Treasury and the DoH’s private finance unit. Mel Ewell, Amey’s chief executive, argues: “In our opinion, single-procurement sources are rational as long as they clearly go through tests for best value. Instead, we’ve got a hospital in Plymouth crying out for investment, and we’re stood here ready to go with it. It’s frustrating. Unacceptable.”

Ewell adds that there have been enough hospitals that have gone down the PFI route since the Labour party came to power that a single bid would face tough scrutiny as so many parts of the process could easily be benchmarked. This would ensure that the bid would remain low.

Not all contractors agree. Chris Haines is PFI director at the UK office of Italian builder Impregilo. He was going to bid for Plymouth, but decided against it when the scheme went to the market. Haines says: “I can’t see single-tender bidding [in large PFI schemes] ever happening. It would be great if you were a bidder, as the contractor is in such a strong position.”

Haines’ withdrawal from the Plymouth race was significant. He had complained it was too risky, and wrote a paper to the private finance unit outlining his concerns. These centred on not being able to conduct structural surveys as they would disturb the everyday operations of the hospital. If there were latent defects, the winning consortium would be responsible for fixing them. That was a financial risk that could not be assessed, so Haines suggested the new-build and refurbishment elements be tendered separately: at least the primary care centre would get built. The department declined, believing it had three bidders.

Last week the trust announced that the project would be taken back to the market, although it will indeed be divided into at least two packages, as Haines suggested. The primary care centre should advertise for a fresh set of bidders in early autumn, but sources say the refurbishment may not hit the market for 18 months. Project director Andy Ibbs justified the decision by saying the situation made it difficult to ensure value for money, but what is more telling is that he added there would have been a lack of “visible” competition. Certainly, breaking up the project will make it more attractive, and may avoid accusations of a lack of competition. If it had gone with the Amey bid, however, the hospital would now be nearing financial close – saving itself up to three years and £260m, including inflation.

A lifeline: Stobhill and Victoria, Glasgow

North of the border, the authorities are starting to budge. Health procurement decisions are taken by the Scottish executive in Edinburgh rather than the private finance unit in London. A Balfour Beatty–Canmore Properties consortium has been named preferred bidder on the £190m Stobhill and Victoria hospital in Glasgow, even though no rivals emerged.

The Scottish executive gave the health board outline permission to see if this route was financially viable. It is understood that if it proves successful, another Scottish health board will give the green light to a single-bid negotiation. Andrew Gordon, the chief executive of Canmore Partnerships, argues that concerns over anti-competitiveness have meant the scheme will deliver better value than it would otherwise. “We’ve been subject to a scrutiny by the board and their advisers to an extent that is in some ways tougher than the multi-bidder approach. Look at the BAAs of this world. They don’t get three bids going in and they still get the right price.”

Not that Canmore is out of the woods yet. The Scottish executive still has its doubts, and can reject the scheme once the final business case has been presented. This is no mere formality. A source in the executive warns: “Single tendering is not our preferred option. The Greater Glasgow NHS board will have to show this is the right way to progress.”

The board is trying to demonstrate that the bid is value for money by appointing a consultant, believed to be Ernst & Young, to draft a “shadow” bid. For some critics, though, this is not enough. Jean Turner, the MSP for local constituency Strathkelvin and Bearsden, says: “I thought the whole point of PFI was competition. I’m very dubious that single-bid is value for money.” Dr Matthew Dunnigan, who has protested against the scheme on the grounds that it replaces five A&E units with two, backs Turner’s view: “This is contrary to commercial competition. This scheme can still fall.”

On the mend: Whipps Cross, London

If Glasgow hospitals succeed in using the single tender route, it seems that authorities in England and Wales might follow suit. Peter Coates, director of the private finance unit in the Department of Health, says: “We have not said we would reject it out of hand. If there is a case made that it’s the right thing to do, we would consider it.” True, but at least one NHS Trust figure says in the past he felt “steered away” by civil servants from that path.

If the officials do bring themselves to consider single-tenders, it would be too late for Plymouth, but not for the £350m Whipps Cross hospital in east London. Authorities fear that this high-profile scheme could be delayed 18 months if they re-tender the project, but a Balfour Beatty-led consortium has pulled out leaving Bouygues as the only bidder. The trust promoting the scheme is now talking to the department about proceeding with the one bidder. Otherwise, it is likely to return to the market later this year. A source close to the scheme says that there is little choice but to proceed with Bouygues: “The market is overheated because it is so small. If contractors haven’t expressed an interest now why would they the second time round?”

The idea appears to be that the consortium’s bid would be matched against the public sector comparator, which assesses the risk of a project. Tim Stone, PPP director at KPMG, thinks the department should consider using the “should cost” model. This would be borrowed from the Ministry of Defence, which often goes ahead with a single bidder. The MoD has not had a great deal of success with the system, partly because its projects tend to be one-offs. But Stone argues that it is easier to arrive at a sensible project cost on PFI health schemes as they are reasonably similar to each other. “Health PFI is a mature market so if it is absolutely necessary then the department should work with single-tender bidding,” says Stone, before warning: “But it needs to be jolly confident it is carefully thought out.”

It seems there is a way forward for the DoH. It can take a gamble on single bidders and try and find ways to ensure that contractors do not hold it over a barrel in the negotiation process. Or, as fewer and fewer bidders are willing to take on the financial strain of major PFI schemes, it can let its hospital stock rot.

Single-tender bidding at a glance

What is it?

In the context of PFI healthcare, it is when the NHS client receives just one bid.

Is that a problem?

Under Department of Health rules, at least two bidders are required to ensure competition. One bidder means it is effectively a negotiated contract, prices of which tend to be 13% higher than under a competitive process.

Why the push to allow single bids?

If too few bidders come forward, schemes have to be rethought and re-advertised to attract more bidders, at the cost of inflated prices and delays that can last years. The public sector is concerned that running a single bid may give a consortium too much power in the contract negotiations. On the other hand, if single bids are ruled out, firms may decide to pull out of the PFI altogether, thereby making a limited market even smaller and increasing the pressure to allow them. And if a scheme that goes to a single bidder is aborted, millions of pounds are typically added to out-turn cost.

Can prices be kept low?

Arguably. Running the consortium’s price against public sector comparator or a “shadow bid” set up by a team of financial experts should show whether it is value for money.

Vanguard hospitals scheme, Plymouth

  • £350m scheme
  • The refurbishment of Derriford hospital and the construction of a 300-bed primary care centre
  • Build completion due in 2010

PFI Prescription

Possible side effects of single bids: controversy, decrease in competition tender price gain, irritation in public sector


Two consortiums pull out, leaving Ferrovial’s Medico Vanguard as sole bidder. Project director Andy Ibbs warns that single-bidder negotiations would make it “very difficult to ensure … value for money”.

Current treatment

Cease negotiations with Medico Vanguard. Re-advertise scheme as two separate packages, to lower bid costs, attract more bidders and ensure greater competition. It also leads to a £100m increase in the cost of the project to the NHS and a delay of up to three years.

Alternative remedy

Continue negotiations with Medico Vanguard. Run its proposals against the public sector comparator to benchmark risks and costs to keep consortium’s price within bounds.

Stobhill and Victoria Hospitals scheme, Glasgow

  • £190m scheme
  • Two new ambulatory care and diagnostic centres
  • Completion date of 2007

PFI Prescription

Possible side effects of single bids: controversy, decrease in competition tender price gain, irritation in public sector


Already £90m over its initial budget and nearly a year late on awarding preferred bidder status. The reason being that only one bidder, a Balfour Beatty–Canmore Partnerships consortium, went for the project.

Current treatment

The Scottish executive has given initial permission for the Greater Glasgow NHS Health Board to negotiate with the single bidder. It must run a “shadow bid” against it, though, to ensure that it is not over-priced.

Potential ills

The Scottish executive has guaranteed that it will agree to the treatment. A source says: “Single tendering is not our preferred option.” Opponents of the scheme have started to take up the anti-competitiveness argument.

Whipps Cross Hospital scheme, east London

  • £350m scheme
  • Results in 25% increase in floorspace and 8% more beds
  • Build completion due 2010

PFI Prescription

Possible side effects of single bids: controversy, decrease in competition tender price gain, irritation in public sector


A Balfour Beatty-led consortium pulls out of the race to concentrate on five other PFIs, leaving Bouygues as sole bidder. Peter Coates, health department private finance unit director, says he would not reject single bidder negotiation “out of hand”.

Current remedy

The Whipps Cross board has drawn up several options, including going back to the market, but adding “soft” facilities management – for example cleaning and catering – as part of the bid, which would ensure a lengthy income for the selected bidder. A fresh tender process could delay the project 18 months.

Alternative remedy

Now that the DoH has started to bend on single-bidder negotiation, push them to accept it as the best way to avoid another embarrassing delay.