Scottish public contracts should not be awarded on cost alone, says architect

Adam McGhee

There needs to be a fundamental reappraisal of the way public contracts are awarded to ensure the uncertainty facing Carillion workers and sub-contractors is not repeated, according to the architects behind a host of Scottish university buildings.

Architecture firm Sheppard Robson, which generates about one third of its work in the public sector, has worked on a raft of building projects in the education sector since its Glasgow office was established 10 years ago.

Past projects have included the Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, while it is currently working on the £63 million Knockroon Learning Campus in East Ayrshire.

Partner Adam McGhee, who heads the Glasgow office with James Dick, told The Herald that tenders should not purely be awarded on price.

He said: “I think the fundamental issue here is there is a complete misunderstanding of the complexity and the true cost of these types of projects.

“What we’re banking on here is a bit of a false economy. But if it’s the only economy in town and that’s where the big-ticket projects are sitting, people have to secure these projects as a business imperative, to secure their turnover. They will look for efficiencies throughout the course , but if those efficiencies don’t materialise, that’s where they end up with these significant losses.

“It just strikes me the big question here is: do we require a review of the procurement process, because it seems that a number of these big five contracting firms are suffering difficulties, and making significant losses on these government procured projects.”

The Knockroon Learning and Enterprise Campus
The Knockroon Learning and Enterprise Campus

Asked how he would like to see the procurement system reformed, Mr McGhee said bidders for projects should be made to deliver a “fairer” breakdown of the costs involved. “Fundamentally, the balance in assessing the appropriate bidder, cost and quality, needs to be properly re-assessed, so you are not just taking the lowest bid,” he added.

Sheppard Robson has previously flagged its concern that Scottish universities may find their expansion projects threatened by Brexit, with Mr Dick voicing fears the vote to leave the European Union could result in a vital funding source being blocked. He said this could impede the ambitions of institutions such as the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, which compete on the world stage when it comes to attracting staff, students and research funding.

Mr McGhee said Sheppard Robson has yet to see any notable effect from Brexit. However, he feels there may yet be a “ripple effect” for the company, which has staff from more than 60 countries across its offices in Glasgow, Manchester and London.

Mr McGhee said: “We haven’t noticed a massive impact. We certainly found opportunities in the aftermath of Brexit for our business to grow, and continue to be successful.

“What we are very aware of is businesses in London starting to see a downturn in specific sectors. The commercial office sector seems to be taking a bit of a downturn in London.

“We are almost holding our breath to see if there is that ripple effect that we have seen so often in history.”

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