Public procurement pilot shows promise for small producers

Public Procurement - Fresh-range

BathNES and Fresh-Range have linked up to provide local growers a new market with schools

Smaller growers have traditionally been reluctant to become involved in the public procurement process due to the complexity of the systems that weight it towards large companies. However, exciting changes are underway opening up new markets for smaller businesses

Tendering to supply local government, hospitals and schools has historically not been a simple matter, but a pioneering pilot scheme relating to the provision of school food has begun in Bath & North East Somerset.  Until now, it was customary for one supplier to be appointed for each food category. “Local farmers and smaller suppliers said that the previous system made it difficult for them to participate,” says Richard Howroyd, head of strategic procurement and commissioning at Bath & North East Somerset Council (BathNES).  “As a council promoting local food, it made sense to look at local procurement.”

So councillors decided to make the process much simpler for small, independent producers to supply food to BathNES’s local schools. “The contracts are being set up so that producers could supply anything from one to 60 schools – so you don’t need to be a big business to get involved,” councillor Martin Veal, BathNES cabinet member for community services explains.

The intention is ideally to source as much fresh produce as possible from within a 30-mile radius and the initiative is being promoted at farmers markets and suppliers events across the BathNES area. 

Logistics solution

The council has recognised that the biggest problem is logistics; organising distribution of food from numerous suppliers to ensure that schools have the food they need each day is no mean feat.  As a result, it is working with the Bristol-based, independent online food store Fresh-Range to pilot a system.

To achieve its aim, the council is using a dynamic purchasing system (DPS). This allows for more than one supplier to be appointed for each type of product, and allows organisations to join in a contract after an initial contract has been set up.  As Richard Osborn from Fresh-Range indicates “This ground breaking approach to procurement creates a more inclusive environment where all qualifying producers and suppliers can be listed on the platform and be considered for purchase by the council catering services and ultimately by cooks themselves.”

Producers do not even have to be part of the Fresh-Range network to take part. “Some producers and suppliers may already work with Fresh-Range, but many will be new producers that we’ve not worked directly with before,” says Osborn. “All producers and suppliers need to express their interest and submit their application to supply via the procontract portal. We have had a mixed response so far. Some companies have engaged quickly, while others are nervous because they have not considered the public sector before as it has been too complicated to tender. Others are taking the wait and see approach.”

Fresh-Range is setting up a new distribution centre and will take responsibility for all orders and deliveries. By consolidating orders and creating just one delivery drop per site, it will also result in environmental improvements from a reduction in carbon emissions. And it is hoped that the new system will allow more seasonal produce to be used. 

Regional potential

Although Howroyd acknowledges it is too early to say how popular this venture will be, he points out that local sourcing events for other types of produce have proved very successful.  “We had had times when there was literally not enough room for all those who were interested.  People were spilling out into the corridors.”

While this is the first time that a DPS has been used in this way, it is unlikely to be the last. There are indications that other local government organisations are seeking ways to make it simpler to tender and supply fresh produce. Osborn says that Bristol City Council is planning to take a similar approach while other local authorities are looking with interest at the way in which dynamic purchasing is being used as it has made tendering so much more accessible than traditional methods.”

Other approaches are also being investigated. In Wales, the Welsh government has an active policy of support programmes to help food and drink businesses within public sector procurement and is working on a new tendering framework for fresh produce. “We do all we can to encourage local suppliers in Wales, and to make the system easier for them to bid for, and win, contracts,” a Welsh government spokesperson says. 

As part of the procurement process, the National Procurement Service (NPS) engages and consults with all its customers across the Welsh public sector, to look at innovative ways of working with local suppliers. Strategies include establishing geographical lots, and facilitating tiered supplier events, bringing together and encouraging lead suppliers and potential tiered suppliers to work together to supply the Welsh public sector.

The NPS is also in the process of developing a wide range of food framework agreements for the Welsh public sector in 2016 and 2017. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetables framework is due to go out to tender in December 2016 and will be available for use in early 2017.

Meanwhile, the publicly owned procurement agency, YPO which deals with schools, local government, emergency services and the private sector nationwide, has just released details of the UK Food Deal Framework a new initiative designed to create a one-stop-shop approach including the provision of pre-packed, fresh fruit and vegetables.  The intention is to encourage the use of more local and regional suppliers so to provide more flexibility and choice.

And the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust has adopted a different approach again developing a market-garden hub in partnership with a local farm. The trust worked with growers to adjust their business to meet the requirements of the hub, for example by altering planting methods to extend the range of produce and the growing season.  The hub collects produce from smaller growers in Sussex, giving access to wider public sector markets because other hospitals, schools and even Sussex and Brighton Universities have also joined the buying group.

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