Procurement conference sees North Norfolk Business Forum and Norman Lamb MP urge small and medium-sized firms to try for public sector contracts

A little-advertised website could hold the key to unlocking thousands of pounds worth of contracts for small and medium-sized businesses in north Norfolk, a conference heard today.

More than 80 businesses, including a taxi firm, flooring provider, IT specialist and pork-pie maker, gathered to discuss ways of breaking into Norfolk's lucrative public sector procurement market, worth more than �1bn a year.

And a hand count revealed that the majority had never heard of the Contracts Finder website, used by many public sector bodies to alert registered firms about potential business.

The conference, run by North Norfolk MP and business minister Norman Lamb and North Norfolk Business Forum (NNBF), was also attended by the procurement heads of Norfolk bodies including the fire service, county council and police.

Mr Lamb set them a number of challenges, including using the website for all contracts and simplifying or dispensing with complex 'pre-qualification questionnaires' used to draw up contractor shortlists,

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Ian Doughty learned that Norfolk fire service uses water tanks like those his Melton Constable Structure-flex firm exports to Antarctica.

'I will be ringing the fire procurement chief on Monday,' he said.

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Delegates also heard from Harry Harrold, project director with website development company NeonTribe, based in Roughton and Cromer.

The business, launched four years ago and employing eight people, has just been accepted on to the government's newly-launched G-Cloud Framework, a list of firms from which the government can procure IT services.

Mr Harrold said it had taken time for the business to gain the experience and confidence to apply but they were now hopeful of landing big orders.

Euan MacPherson, NNBF chairman, said the event, at Upper Sheringham's Pinewoods Leisure Centre, had been a great success.

'The Contracts Finder website was the biggest revelation. People didn't know about all the business that was available,' he added.

Mr Lamb said he hoped the event would help stop 'an awful lot of money leaking out of Norfolk' and show heads of procurement that some of the best businesses were small ones within the county.

Commenting after the conference, Ian Mackie, deputy leader of Norfolk County Council and cabinet member for finance and performance, said: 'Supporting small local businesses is a key priority for the council, and about 40pc of our spend is already with SMEs (small and medium enterprises).

'We have already made our tendering processes much simpler, and we were one of the first councils to use Contracts Finder. We would be delighted if all other Norfolk authorities made use of this service.'

? Norfolk County Council is urging small and medium-sized businesses to take on apprentices and help the county's young people and themselves.

The council has earmarked a �3m fund to help SMEs grow, according to Ann Steward, the council's cabinet member for economic development.

She said: 'By assisting young people to get an apprenticeship and ownership of vocational training, they will be able to increase their capacity by developing a high-skilled worker. By providing the funding for businesses to take on an employee we are offering sustainable growth for our economy and a lasting skill for young people.

'For hundreds of Norfolk's young people, this scheme will allow them to take a vital step on the career ladder and will present them with the chance to learn and develop lifelong skills.

'We have also set aside �500,000, to ensure that our young people and businesses fully realise the potential that apprenticeships present to them. We will of course be looking to work closely with schools, sixth form colleges and further education colleges in order to deliver this message.'

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