Anger as officers bring in ‘cartel’ to build Easthouses school

Councillors accused senior officers of bringing in a “cartel” to build a new £22 million primary school after they appointed an Edinburgh-based group to take on the project without consultation.

Midlothian Council’s elected members reacted with anger after they were asked to approve a decision by officers to bring in Hub South East (HubSE) Scotland to redesign the new Easthouses Primary School and appoint a preferred contractor against the “express will” of councillors.

Councillor Derek Milligan (Lab), said elected members had made it clear they did not want to use HubSE, which it was claimed only allowed a pool of preferred firms to bid for contracts. “I thought we agreed as a council to continue with traditional methods and not lock this up because I have some real concerns about how Hub South East kind of work.

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“I was under the impression the council had agreed through several discussions to allow normal tendering to allow all companies to bid for this rather than a cartel.”

A CGI artist's impression of the proposed Easthouses Primary School.

HubSE decribes itself as a public private partnership , which is 40 per cent owned by the public sector.

The council’s head of development Fiona Clandillon said that because of the ‘resource constraints’ in her own team it was decided to use the hub route, which other local authorities have used.

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Cllr Milligan said he was unaware of any approach by officials consulting councillors about using HubSE. He was backed by Conservative councillor Peter Smaill who said he had attended a meeting with the council’s chief executive when he had been given the impression councillors would be consulted before the hub was used.

He said: “This was a device created more than 20 years ago taking a number of contractors, a cartel as Councillor Milligan calls it, who were experienced in procurement particularly in schools but it was not exactly full blooded competition so the question for me is how do we reassure ourselves we have had competitive pressure here?”

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SNP councillor Colin Cassidy added: “I also attended the meeting and expressed my concerns about this cartel sweeping up contracts.”

And Councillor Russell Imrie (Lab), the local authority’s planning convenor, said officials had overstepped their role.

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He said: “There is no governance whatsoever on this.

“Elected members at the end of the day carry the can and officers do not have the right, or responsibility, to do what they have done so I am very unhappy about it.

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“Today is a fait accomplis we can’t just stop Easthouses in its tracks.”

The new school will provide places for 459 children with an additional 16 places to support children with social, emotional or behaviour needs from across Midlothian, and 80 pre-school places.

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Newly-elected councillors urged members to approve the paper so the school could go ahead while expressing their concern at the decision being taken without consultation.

Councillor David Virgo said: “It is really important we get the school in but I am fully conscious I lack the experience of certainly Councillor Imrie and my concerns are around the ‘competitiveness’ of this process.”

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While Councillor Stewart MacKenzie said he would go with the ‘least worst option’.

However, he said: “I am surprised and disappointed if we have officers who have chosen to ignore the express will of the councillors or have not been made aware of it.”

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Council leader Kelly Parry (SNP) said that while it was clear no-one wanted to delay the project it was also “very, very clear that councillors have serious concerns over the financing of it.”

Councillors agreed to approve the paper, which will allow the school to go ahead with a planned opening in 2024, but ordered a report into the procurement process and officers decisions to be brought back to members after summer recess.

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Hub SE have been approached for comment.