Council says town centre scheme is 'value for money'

Market Place redesign
Market Place redesign

Council bosses have defended the contracting process for the Wigan and Leigh town centre regeneration schemes amid criticism taxpayers’ money may have been squandered.

Documents detailing the tender bids, viewed by the Observer, reveal the cash-strapped town hall could have saved more than £200,000 by choosing different firms.

A source with knowledge of the deals has also accused the local authority of neglecting its obligations to boost the local economy by opting for non-borough based companies.

Wigan Council has countered the claims, however, firmly maintaining the chosen deals offer the best value for money for residents, will boost the local economy and that all regulations have been adhered to during the tendering process.

The regeneration of Market Place in Wigan was placed on an indefinite hiatus last week, days before construction work was due to start. Although the transformation of Leigh town centre will go ahead as planned.

Documents reveal the combined cost of the two winning bids totalled £1,831,934 (£1,167,154 for Wigan and £664,780 for Leigh).

But bids were received to carry out the works at a combined cost of £1,613,946 (£1,044,527 for Wigan and £569,419 for Leigh) a potential saving of £217,988.

The documents do also show there were higher unsuccessful bids for each contract.

Speaking to the Observer before the decision to delay was announced, our source said opting for the cheapest two bids would not have compromised on quality.

This is because all the bidders would have been experienced firms and the council could have ensured the works were up to standard during the construction.

They said: “The over-riding motivation in schemes such as these is value for money; in this instance, for the taxpayers of Wigan and Leigh, this has not been the case.”

It is also claimed that bidders for the Wigan contract were instructed to factor in more than £200k for the bespoke architecture and street furniture elements, with the designs including several striking lighting poles.

This was despite some firms, our source claims, informing the town hall the materials for this aspect of the plan could have been sourced at a cheaper rate.

The documents seen by the Observer do not verify this aspect of the tendering process, but the source said: “The contractors were denied the chance of reducing this excessive figure by obtaining lower competitive quotes.”

Responding to this claim, Karl Battersby, Wigan Council’s director for economy and environment, said: “The proposed artwork and street furniture are unique, high quality bespoke features that have been designed by the artist Chris Brammall.

“It would not have been practical to secure these specific elements from other suppliers without compromising the design objectives.”

Another criticism levelled at the contracting process was the council opting for companies from Nottinghamshire and Coventry for Wigan and Leigh, respectively.

Local authorities are expected to adhere to guidelines that require them to consider the benefits to local firms.

However, Mr Battersby said the winning companies will be expected to utilise local contractors “where possible.”

The town hall has also said the 60:40 split between price and quality used in assessing the bids was deemed the most appropriate - “given the specialist nature of the works and high profile of the scheme” - although the ratio is another aspect of the process criticised by our source, who claims price should have been given a greater weighting.

Giving further backing to its contracting system, the town hall told the Observer the process was agreed with its “specialist procurement team” and the successful bidders were approved by the deputy leader, Coun David Molyneux.

And any suggestion parts of the assessments for the respective bids were out-sourced to another party, such as the architects - another detail claimed by our source - would “not be correct.”

Mr Battersby, speaking before the delay was announced, added: “In order to deliver the project successfully the council undertook a thorough procurement process.

“Contractors bidding for the works had a full understanding of the quality and price ratio.

“The aim was to secure a contractor who was able to complete the works to the highest standard at a competitive price.

“We have offered feedback to unsuccessful bidders to give them advice on how they could improve their submissions in the future.

“The results of the investment will be a major boost for Wigan town centre.”

The Observer source, a tendering professional with knowledge of both deals, who we are choosing to keep anonymous, said: “The shelving of the Market Place project will come as no surprise to anyone involved in the flawed system and the decision brings into question the inadequacy, and indeed competitiveness, of the contracting system.

“Will the 16 contractors who tendered for the scheme now have their costs reimbursed by the council?”