Architects, engineers and QSs at local government conference fear losing power under new council rules.
Architects and other consultants have voiced concerns that the best-value regime for local government, which comes into play tomorrow, will see them stripped of their traditional role as project leader.

Under the new regime – which will replace compulsory competitive tendering – contractors will strike formal partnering agreements and prime contracting and long-term deals direct with councils. They will then oversee the appointment of consultants.

One of the speakers at a local government taskforce conference in Nottingham on Monday was Clare Wright, an architect and author of the RIBA publication Commission Quality. She told Building that designers were increasingly wary of “cosy relationships” forming between contractors and clients. She warned: “We should be careful. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the product matters. It’s not just process.”

Martin Duffy, systems development manager for Buro Happold, who was at the same conference, said: “We have fears that some authorities will not see it as important to partner with a design consultancy and that designers will be left out of the loop.”

This concern was also voiced by Martin Needler, a partner in EC Harris. He said: “One of the big fears is that consultancies are being pushed out of the process of construction.”

However, there was little sympathy among local authorities for the consultants’ cause. Hackney council’s procurement manager, Noel Foley, said: “What we want is good design – design that is innovative and sustainable. We want designers to step back from the agent role, to abandon the bourgeoisie position and become part of the team. We want them at the heart of the team with the client at the head.”

In her keynote speech, construction minister Beverley Hughes challenged councils to take on leadership roles and radically alter the way they procure local authority projects.

But she came under fire later after she called on councils to use partnering contracts to address non-commercial issues such as equal opportunities. Speaking from the floor, Helen Randall, senior solicitor with Nabarro Nathanson told Building: “Section 17 of the Local Government Act 1988 prevents local authorities from considering non-commercial issues when letting contracts. Clearly, this is problematic for authorities that wish to promote equal opportunities through procurement.”

In response, Richard Footitt, DETR official responsible for local government competition and quality, said a paper on relaxing the relevant restrictions would be released before Easter.

Also at the conference, Hughes unveiled 30 demonstration projects aimed at showing that best value could be achieved in construction. These include a £33.5m National Ice Centre being built by Laing for Nottingham City Council.

But the projects also received criticism. Duffy said: “All we’re talking about here are single projects, then the team is disbanded. Long-term partnerships seem to be absent. Some look at project-by-project partnering. A clearer definition is needed. If it is just project focused, nothing has changed: it is just price plus all these other issues.”

How best value will work

Under best value, councils will be legally obliged to buy the £16bn of construction services they procure each year on a mix of price and quality. Partnering, long-term deals and prime contracts will be encouraged. Firms that win work will undergo rigorous benchmarking, as the services they offer will be measured against those procured by other authorities. Complying with best value means councils have to fill in exhaustive documentation to prove that their choice of service provider is the best use of taxpayers’ money. The government has set up the Innovation Development Agency to offer seminars and guidance. Non-compliant authorities face intervention by the secretary of state.