Tim “Yes but No but Yes” Pollard ought to come under intense pressure at an emergency meeting at Croydon Town Hall tonight over his handling of the tendering process for the outsourcing of the management of the borough’s libraries if it emerges that the council failed to get proper, accurate legal advice over the terms of the bidding.
Not that the public or the”post-Leveson” media will get a chance to witness the proceedings, since there is a move to stage tonight’s events “in camera”, which is a highfalutin way of saying “in secret”. So much for openness and transparency.
An 18-month bidding process saw Croydon choose to hand the borough’s 13 public libraries over to John Laing Integrated Services in November, despite Laing coming bottom of three bidders in terms of cost and service (according to co-tenderers at Wandsworth). Coincidentally, JLIS is a subsidiary of the developers, Laing, with whom Croydon is 50-50 partners in the ultra-secretive £450million Urban Regeneration Vehicle, which could include the borough’s library buildings.
With JLIS just weeks away from taking charge of Croydon’s libraries on April 1 with an eight-year contract worth about £30million of public money, the Tory-led council’s plans to privatise the public libraries were thrown into chaos when Pollard, the deputy leader of the local Conservatives and cabinet member in charge of libraries, was forced to announce that their preferred bidders had rejected the terms, because they did not want to inherit the pension liabilities of existing borough library staff.
Pollard only announced this at the end of February, when the Conservative mayor, Eddy Arram, refused to allow this extraordinary admission to be questioned.
The opposition Labour group – which has already announced that they would cancel any outsourcing contract should they win the local elections next year – has tabled a motion that has forced tonight’s emergency session to be called.
It has already emerged that from the £250,000 budgeted to pay for running the tendering process, according to council papers, the council has in fact spent just £94,000.
In this cost-cutting era of austerity, this might seem like the epitome of good management, saving Croydon Council-Taxpayers more than £150,000.
Yet there are strong suspicions that the council may be shown to be pennywise and pound foolish, and some are asking whether the cost-cutting on the tendering management – possibly through not engaging appropriate legal advice – will end up costing the borough much more.
Croydon’s Tories had budgeted to save £1 million in 2013-2014 through handing over the libraries to JLIS, something which is already looking like a misguided pipedream.
It is noteworthy that Wandsworth, another Conservative-run council which ran its bidding process together with Croydon, has encountered no such difficulties, and managed to include the proper running of its archive service in an outsourcing package awarded to rival bidders Greenwich Leisure, and all for a considerably smaller rate of charges than that demanded by JLIS.
Whatever the outcome of tonight’s meeting, with the council forced by JLIS’s pursuit of a bigger profit margin to return to the consultation phase, as required by European Union procurement rules, the result is likely to be continued uncertainty for our much-reduced, demoralised and put-upon library staff, whose jobs have been on the line for almost two years.
Undoubtedly, those council library staff, the borough’s regular library users and all other residents who, through their increased Council Tax will be paying for this immense administrative cock-up by Pollard and his council predecessor, Sara “Book Token” Bashford, will be entitled to straightforward, on-the-record answers to many questions, including these:
- Which elected councillor signed off on the original libraries tender requirements and documents?
- Was the cost of the pensions commitment included in the original documentation provided to potential bidders?
- If not, why not?
- If it was, then how can JLIS justify withdrawing from the contract offered to them?
- More to the point, how can the council justify giving JLIS another opportunity to bid?
- If the pensions information was not included in the tender documents from the council, did any of the other bidders ever question this or request the information?
- If JLIS – a company that has wide experience of taking on public employees with other local authorities – knew the pensions information before it submitted its final documentation, what legal grounds have they for withdrawing on the basis of the size of that contribution?
- How much will the re-tendering cost Croydon’s Council Tax-payers?
- Will the council make all the original tendering documentation available publicly and if not why not?
- Will the council give an assurance that there will be no cut backs to the budget for the library services and no library closures as a consequence of its mis-handling of the tendering process?
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