Last-minute invitations to tender give subcontractors increasingly tough time constraints in race towards millennium deadline.
Subcontractors are claiming that tender abuse is on the increase in the rush to finish projects by 2000 – with the Millennium Dome a prime example of small firms' difficulties.

Specialists are particularly concerned about the time allowed for tender returns. At the dome, contractors were asked by Kingston upon Thames-based Ellmer Construction on 21 December to tender for the M&E component of fit-out work worth £5m by 16 January.

Constructors' Liaison Group legal adviser Rudi Klein said that this contravened Construction Industry Board guidance, which specifies a six-week tender period for work involving design. "In spite of all the reports we have had saying this is wrong, there is no adherence at all to procedure right now. Things are definitely getting worse," he said.

Ellmer's invitation to subcontractors to tender says that: "The tender period restraints are currently a return date of 14 January which at any time of the year is unreasonable, and we are therefore assuming an extension to 21 January. However, to enable us to complete our tender we will need your submission by 16 January at the latest."

Ellmer goes on to explain that it may consider separating the work into mechanical and electrical packages, and then again into two further packages.

Klein said that, although he understands that firms such as Ellmer are under pressure to hit millennium deadlines, not enough contractors are prepared for these situations. He said: "The contractor putting out this document would have known those bids were required long before asking for subcontractors to prepare them over Christmas. As usual, everything is left to the last minute, and the specialist contractors have to submit their bids in a matter of days."

Klein explained that, although bidders may be prepared to work over Christmas, the consultants they went to for advice would not.

Ellmer joint managing director Peter Dwight said: "Subcontractors had to bid on their terms because of the criteria we were tendering to. Four or five weeks on a design-and-build project like this is not really fair.

New Millennium Experience Company, the client that gave Ellmer and other bidders from a fortnight before Christmas until 21 January to bid, denied that it had been unreasonable.

A spokesperson said: "This work was for a series of modular pre-fashioned buildings within the dome. The work required was nothing remotely approaching rocket science and seemed straightforward within the tender period allowed.

"We are not in a position to give people six months to tender."