There is “a lot less apprehension” within the local construction industry about the SIC’s decision to sign up to a controversial national public building scheme following talks this week.
That verdict, which came from councillor Allan Wishart during yesterday’s Full Council meeting, was partially backed up by chartered surveyor and prospective councillor Theo Smith.
Earlier this year construction industry figures warned that firms could go bust, with hundreds of local jobs lost, if the council seeks cheaper building deals through the government-sponsored “hubco” procurement scheme.
The NHS, police and fire services, Scottish Water, the Met Office and some private banks already use centralised procurement. There have already been layoffs in recent months and local builders, architects, engineers and surveyors fear more redundancies will be unavoidable if the SIC follows suit.
Mr Wishart said the outcome of positive discussions between the local authority and industry on Monday had been a mutual desire to work closely together in the future. Mr Smith said the dialogue had been “quite good and quite positive”, though industry figures still fear the big contract to build a new Anderson High School will be beyond local constructors’ reach.
Mr Smith, who is a candidate for the Shetland West ward, said council representatives had offered assurances that although it has signed up to hubco, the SIC is not duty-bound to use it for every project in the way the NHS is.
He suspects that if Scottish Futures Trust funding is levered in to build a new AHS, it will mean the project’s main design and build contracts will go outwith the islands – though local firms may still get portions of work as subcontractors.
Despite the assurances, councillor Frank Robertson – another with many decades’ experience within the building trade – remains sceptical. He recalled seeing a similar setup to hubco enacted in Edinburgh in the 1960s. Then, as now, there had been promises that work would be given to local firms, but “absolutely not one single crumb came to them”.
Mr Robertson suggested taking a leaf out of Orkney’s book by allowing local firms to have “the first bite of the cherry”.
One way of ensuring that could be following the example of Wales, where tender documents for public sector contracts take into account the importance of social benefits, such as job creation. That might help skew things in favour of indigenous industry, councillor Laura Baisley suggested.
Rick Nickerson referred to anecdotal evidence of local businesses, particularly those who supply office stationery, feeling they are being excluded and are “slipping through the net”.
Mr Wishart said the Orkney system was being watched “very closely”, though the council had to be careful not to fall foul of EU legislation. He is not aware of anyone who intends to exclude local construction firms from bidding for council contracts.