Procurement policy big business for Wales

Dylan Jones Evans says it is shameful how little we are taking advantage of our purchasing power

An article in the Daily Post last month reported that of the £552m in goods and services procured by local councils last year, just £155m was spent in north Wales.

At a time when the local business sector needs to be fully supported as it struggles to emerge out of recession, the finding that 72 per cent of local authority procurement is obtained from outside of the region is a shameful figure.

In fact, when you consider that even if only half of the goods and services that councils buy were purchased from local firms, this would bring an additional £121m into the North Wales economy, generating thousands of jobs.

Of course, it is not only councils that should be under the spotlight and I would also like to see health boards, universities, colleges and the Welsh Government itself release similar data for the region.

Certainly, it is an issue I have been writing about since on a regular basis 2004 and I am glad that this is finally getting some of the attention it deserves by politicians across all political parties.

But local procurement is not an issue only for north Wales. Recent research from Europe showing that small to medium sized firms (SMEs) won less than third of all contracts above £5million. Micro-businesses, which employ less than ten people, got only 6 per cent of the total market of contracts in terms of value.

It has been suggested that this situation is exacerbated by the tendency to issue large single contracts, which seem to benefit bigger companies. Instead, critics have suggested that public authorities should promote the practice of breaking down tenders into smaller lots, a move that would increase the probability of smaller local firms becoming successful.

One of the recommendations I made as Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives’ Economic Commission was for the Welsh Government to promote is the imposition of targets for spending public budgets with local small firms, as is the case in the USA where the Office of Government.

Contracting works to create an environment for maximum participation by small businesses in federal government contract awards. With the US government spending billions of dollars in purchasing goods and services from private firms every year, targets have been set for every government department as to the proportion of expenditure that will go to SMEs. More importantly, legislation in the USA ensures that the public sector must conduct a variety of procurements that are reserved exclusively for SMEs.

Those who defend the status quo in Wales suggest that it will be the taxpayer that will lose out if we favour smaller local firms over larger and, allegedly, more efficient, companies. There is simply no evidence for such a supposition.

I recently met with a group of north Wales construction companies who had expressed serious concerns over the new framework agreements for public sector construction in North Wales. These, they suggested, had been designed specifically to keep local companies out of consideration by a process that favoured larger national businesses.

Certainly, those public servants in charge of putting together these contracts, which are worth hundreds of millions of pounds, need to answer such concerns. However, when I asked the companies concerned about competition is that they said they would welcome it, as long as they weren’t excluded and given the opportunity to compete.

Indeed, as one of the owners of these firms stated quite firmly, “I have never lost a business contract to a large company and I am not about to start now”. Clearly, the evidence shows that the public sector in Wales needs to consider its policies towards supporting local firms through procurement.

However, it could start to address this issue immediately by ensuring that as a matter of course, every local business that wants to compete for a public sector contract is given the opportunity to do so.

And on such a level playing field, I would certainly back our companies to win these contracts every time.

Professor Dylan Jones-Evans is Director of Enterprise and Innovation at the University of Wales and Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives' Economic Commission.

5 thoughts on “Procurement policy big business for Wales

  1. Leanne Wood was banging on about this a while ago. Labour rubbished what she said saying that favouring Welsh businesses would be contrary to EU laws despite the fact that many nations within the EU ensure procurement policy favours local businesses. Why can’t Plaid, Tories and maybe Lib Dems work together on this seeing as the Labourites don’t want to implement policies which will make Wales a wealthier country?

  2. And by the way Mr Evans, Wales is not a ‘region’. It’s a ‘nation’… similar to the Finland place you always want to emulate… except without the powers of an independent nation.

  3. One thing I do know is that the Welsh Government are generally poor at procurement. Business runs circles around them. And the civil servants I have dealt with will NOT take advice. They like to protect thier silos and are afraid they will be found out.

  4. As a family owned micro business, my own experience is that it’s extremely difficult to obtain business from Welsh Government & council purchasing consortiums which favour large suppliers often based outside Wales. There is a corporate inertia biased against SME’s beginning with the contractual requirements. If my company depended upon sales to Welsh public organisations, I would not have a viable business. I therefore find it more rewarding to develop sales overseas. This is a sad reflection on Welsh business culture.

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