NHS Estates is to set up a list of preferred contractors and consultants to carry out its £3bn annual construction spend, writes Andy Cook.

NHS Estates chief executive Kate Priestley explained that the client wanted to set up a framework of construction suppliers on three- to five-year frameworks similar to those proposed by Defence Estates and pioneered by BAA five years ago. The initiative is called Procure 21.

But Priestley added that, unlike Defence Estates’ prime contracting scheme, NHS Estates would have a framework of consultants as well as a framework of contractor-led supply chains.

Priestley said a separate lists of architects was needed because NHS Estates puts a high value on design. “Our buildings are open to the public and have an iconic status in their communities,” she said. “Ministry of Defence buildings tend to be hidden away from the public.”

Robin Nicholson, chairman of the Construction Industry Council, welcomed the architects framework. “I’m delighted to hear that our message has got through.” Nicholson has been lobbying construction ministers Nick Raynsford and Beverley Hughes for the value of design to be retained in prime contracting-type initiatives.

It is understood that all NHS Estates jobs worth more than £1m will be undertaken by framework suppliers using one of the Office of Government Commerce’s three approved contracts. Major private finance initiative projects will be considered separately. Priestley would not comment on the £1m threshold.

Small contractors voiced fears that they might be marginalised by Procure 21. Brian Flint, deputy director-general of the Federation of Master Builders, said: “It is foolish to sideline small and medium-sized firms because it will cut off a lot of talent.” He added: “It does not represent best value or fair competition.”

NHS Estates is to start advertising the framework contracts in April. But the go-ahead could be delayed because health secretary Alan Milburn has yet to give a final seal of approval to the plans. Priestley is to meet Milburn on 9 March and adverts are expected to appear in the European Union’s Official Journal at the beginning of the financial year.

Subject to Milburn's approval, Priestley hopes to have framework contracts drawn up by October. It is likely that there will be national and regional frameworks.