Sunderland campaign to promote local businesses was handled by London agency

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City council chiefs have defended their support for Wearside firms after it emerged the authority’s own business promotion campaign was handled by a London agency.

Shoreditch-based Studio Blackburn was handed the £27,000 contract for the Make it Sunderland campaign, despite a Sunderland business bidding for the work.

Coun Mel Speding has defended the council's position.

Coun Mel Speding has defended the council's position.

Council cabinet secretary Coun Mel Speding defended the authority’s commitment to local businesses but said it also had a duty to council tax payers to ensure value for public money.

“The council has a robust process in place for awarding contracts,” he said.

“While we cannot discriminate in favour of local businesses, we do give every encouragement to compete for council contracts through our Buy Sunderland First scheme.

“To ensure value for money all contracts are judged on their merits and evaluated against a strict set of criteria which is clearly set out at the start of the process.”

While we cannot discriminate in favour of local businesses, we do give every encouragement to compete for council contracts through our Buy Sunderland First scheme.

Coun Mel Speding

The council had spent £138,000 on design services with Sunderland companies in the last two years, £169,000 with companies across the North East Region, and only £32,000 outside the region.

The Make it Sunderland contract had gone out to tender, said Coun Speding. He added: “Five companies submitted tenders in 2011 for the strategic and international branding framework of MAKE It Sunderland.

“One was from Sunderland, three were from outside the North East region, and one company submitted an incomplete tender.”

Work valued at £27,000 for establishing the MAKE It Sunderland brand framework was awarded in January 2012.

Rachel Travis of the North East Chamber of Commerce.

Rachel Travis of the North East Chamber of Commerce.

“Since establishing Make It in 2012, the city council has spent more than £138,000 on design materials with city-based companies,” said Coun Speding.

“In addition, through 2012, the City Council spent nearly £80million on contracts with city-based local firms and businesses and this has now risen to £91million in 2014/15.”

North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) policy adviser Rachel Travis said the rules on public spending meant councils had to advertise bigger projects nationally but Wearside firms were free to bid for work elsewhere in the country.

“Public Contract Regulations mandate that contract opportunities worth more than £25,000 must be advertised on the Government’s national Contracts Finder website,” she said.

“While this means North East firms face increased competition from outside the region, there is nothing to stop regional and local firms bidding for contracts across England that are now accessible via Contracts Finder.”

The chamber still wanted to see local councils in the region doing more to help smaller businesses bid for publicly-funded work.

“NECC has long campaigned on the benefits of breaking contracts into lots,” she said. “And with the new EU regulations on procurement also placing a strong emphasis on lots, we would like to see local authorities in the region do all they can to break contracts down.

“By doing so they are most suitable for the regional supply market and North East businesses have the best chance of being awarded the contract.”

Sunderland Tory leader Coun Peter Wood said the city council should be doing all it could to support local businesses, but it did have a responsibilty to those footing the bills.

“I think in Sunderland, we ought, as far as we can within sensible reason, to support businesses within Sunderland,” he said.

“We ought to be promoting Sunderland businesses, but we do also have a duty to ensure value for money for the tax payer.”

Sunderland City Council overhauled the way it awards contracts more than two years ago with the aim of giving Wearside businesses a chance to bid for more work.

A new Supplier Charter was drawn up – backed by the North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) and Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) – after the council appointed external experts to work with local businesses on an examination of its procurement policy.

The council’s cabinet approved a number of new initiatives aimed at supporting business, including:

n more than doubling the limit for contracts which go through the council’s Buy Sunderland First scheme from £75,000 to £173,000;

n simplifying the pre-qualification questionnaire and documentation process to make it easier for small businesses;

n dividing larger contracts into smaller lots, so smaller firms feel able to bid;

n encouraging firms to give feedback on their experiences, to help keep improving the process.

Figures in December 2013 showed the council spend almost 70 per cent of its procurement budget with firms across Wearside and the North East.

Sunderland-based firms won 36 per cent of the work based on value, and 68 per cent in total went to businesses in the North East.

To register for council opportunities, local businesses should visit www.buysunderlandfirst.co.uk and www.nepoportal.org.

For further information on registering, contact the council’s market development team on 561 2362 or email procurement@sunderland.gov.uk