Road contract 'was bordering on the illegal'

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Controversial plans to bypass a tendering process and hand a £106m contract for Norwich's northern bypass to a local firm “bordered on the illegal” and could be challenged by the EU or the courts, it emerged last night.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Controversial plans to bypass a tendering process and hand a £106m contract for Norwich's northern bypass to a local firm “bordered on the illegal” and could be challenged by the EU or the courts, it emerged last night.

Transport chiefs last month revealed officials from the Department for Transport had blocked moves by Norfolk County Council to award the contract to its strategic partner firm May Gurney.

County Hall has a £10m tie-up with the Trowse-based firm and consultants Mott Macdonald, which it hoped could be used to build the proposed road linking Rackheath and Taverham.

Mike Jackson, director of planning and transportation, told councillors at a review panel meeting on September 19 that the DfT “initial response” was unfavourable and the government did not think it was “appropriate” to use the partnership.

In fact the council received a letter on September 13 from Steve Berry, a DfT official, questioning the scale of the proposed deal and said the authority had failed to demonstrate the need for early contractor involvement.

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“From our view, the scale of the proposed NDR is entirely disproportionate to the scope of the framework and therefore it is our view on your proposals that the use of the framework would be potentially illegal,” he said. “If Norfolk proceeds along this route, we believe that there is a real risk of a complaint being made to both the (European) Commission and/or the English High Court.

“I am afraid that our overall conclusion and strong advice is therefore that Norfolk County Council should not proceed any further with appointing May Gurney…and should instead commence a new procurement for this scheme.”

Last night the council was accused of downplaying the contents of the letter and keeping councillors in the dark about the true scale of the setback.

But the authority stood by its legal advice, though it admitted it would not challenge the government's decision.

Green councillor Andrew Boswell, who had previously raised concerns about the proposed contract and the lack of information surrounding the council's legal advice, said the authority should be more open.

“They are downplaying a major loss of face,” he said. “They haven't done their homework and it's not surprising they are downplaying it,” he said. “The letter should have been made available to the committee, that would have been the transparent thing to do. They are clearly covering up a major error of judgement about their ability to push it through.”

Denise Carlo, chairman of the No the NDR group, which unearthed the letter, said the authority had been misleading.

“I feel the officers have withheld the true picture from councillors and the public,” she said. “”They gave the impression this was interim advice when in fact it was quite clear that it was final advice.”

But Mr Jackson insisted he had not downplayed the issue.

“Our view has always been that working in partnership with May Gurney towards the signing of a contract to build the NDR would have paid dividends for the public, both in terms of cost-effectiveness and efficiency. Having taken expert advice, and been told that ours was a reasonable stance, it is disappointing to hear from the DfT that their view is that the scheme will need to go out to tender.”

Adrian Gunson, cabinet member for planning and transportation, accused opponents of the road scheme of “playing with semantics”.

“The important thing is it hasn't stopped the NDR, but does mean we start a tendering process which will cost us money,” he said.

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