Government veto for bypass contract

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Transport chiefs' plans to bypass a tendering process and hand a £106.5m contract for Norwich's northern distributor road to a local firm have been blocked by the government.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Transport chiefs' plans to bypass a tendering process and hand a £106.5m contract for Norwich's northern distributor road to a local firm have been blocked by the government.

Norfolk County Council hoped its partner firm May Gurney would be in pole position to build the controversial bypass within the scope of an existing strategic partnership arrangement it has with the company and consultants Mott Macdonald.

It hoped handing the contract to the Trowse-based firm would keep down costs and shield the scheme from labour shortages caused by the Olympic building boom.

But the move sparked concerns from opposition parties about cronyism and yesterday Mike Jackson, the council's director of planning and transportation, revealed government lawyers had blocked the proposal.

The council will now be forced to start a fresh tendering process, likely to add hundreds of pounds to the bill for the road.

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Mr Jackson insisted the decision would not set back the project and the hope is to have a contractor in place by the end of next year, ahead of any public inquiry.

“We have had the initial response from the Department for Transport which is unfavourable,” he said. “They have taken a different legal view of the scope of the strategic partnership contract.

“We need to talk to them and find out why they have come to a different view from our own lawyers and the advice of independent counsel we had.

“The DfT's initial response is they do not think it is appropriate for us to use the strategic partnership. It almost certainly means we will have to go out to tender again.”

The news came as officers were forced to disclose that consultants hired to examine whether the tie-up with May Gurney was providing value for money were in fact part of the Mott Macdonald group.

The council commissioned construction economists Franklin and Andrews to carry out a benchmarking study but a report to councillors had not disclosed the link.

Yesterday Mr Jackson informed members of the planning and transportation review panel of the connection on the advice of auditors.

“The reason we didn't think there was any conflict of interest is that though Franklin and Andrews are within the Mott Macdonald Group it's a very loose relationship,” he said. “They trade under a separate name and there is very limited management oversight of Franklin and Andrews within the Mott Macdonald group.

“We are satisfied that this is entirely appropriate. Franklin and Andrews are one of the world's leading authorities of this kind of work and having a base in Stalham it just seemed too good an opportunity not to use them.”

The disclosure sparked a mixed response from councillors, with some Labour councillors insisting they should have been told of the link much earlier.

But there was sympathy for the approach from the Tories and Lib Dems.

Lib Dem councillor Peter Moore, said he was not worried by the development. “There is such an overlap between businesses these days that you never know who it is you are dealing with. I am sure if there had been any problem it would have been picked up as part of the process beforehand.

Mr Jackson said he wanted members to have confidence in the exercise. “There is scope to review this benchmarking process and I certainly don't want go forward with any members doubting the robustness of the work we have done,” he said.

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