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"No concerns" over taxpayer-funded contract of £66,000 to think tank in financial difficulty, council says

PUBLISHED: 11:31 16 August 2019

The report, entitled Suffolk's Strategic Housing Role, commissioned by Suffolk County Council and produced by ResPublica. Picture: JASON NOBLE

The report, entitled Suffolk's Strategic Housing Role, commissioned by Suffolk County Council and produced by ResPublica. Picture: JASON NOBLE

Jason Noble

Fresh controversy has emerged over a £66,000 report on housing in Suffolk after it emerged a think tank commissioned to do the work had gone into administration just days before the publication.

Labour councillor Sarah Adams questioned the county council's due diligence process.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNLabour councillor Sarah Adams questioned the county council's due diligence process. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Suffolk County Council commissioned ResPublica to carry out a study in March 2018 into the possibility of becoming a unitary authority.

A change in leadership from the council in May meant that work had to be paused, and was re-purposed to be about future housing in the county once it was clear there was no longer a desire for unitary status.

But now it has emerged that ResPublica entered a company voluntary arrangement in July 2017 - eight months before its involvement with the county, and formally went into administration around a week before the report was published.

The council has said its due diligence at the time of the initial commission did not reveal any concerns.

A spokesman said: "We didn't have any concerns about ResPublica's financial position when we asked them to carry out detailed and independent policy research, interviews and analysis for us.

"In any case, they were paid on receipt of the report in December last year, and the county council is now implementing many of the recommendations, including stepping up our work to make more use of the land that we own."

When the report was published in February this year, it came under fire from Conservative MP Dr Dan Poulter and opposition groups at the county who questioned the value for money of a 14-page report costing £66,000 - around £4,700 per page.

A council spokesman said it didn't value the work on the number of pages, and described it as a "crass" way of valuing the work.

ResPublica has defended its report, revealing that it had already completed more than half of its work when the scope of the work changed, and said a "short strategic report" was in fact what the council had asked for.

"More than half-way through this project, the council's priorities changed and they decided this report was no longer needed," a spokesman said.

"Acknowledging this change, the substantial work already done, and working within the constraints of the limited budget that remained, we were asked to produce a short strategic report on housing policy and policy options in the county.

"This involved commissioning a leading policy expert to carry out this work and conducting 17 face-to-face interviews with representatives from the district councils, the LEP, Chambers of Commerce, and DCLG.

"In November 2018, we presented the outline of the report to a group of cabinet members and senior council officers. Their feedback was that the report should focus yet further on a few strategic areas and needed to be much shorter and more concise.

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"Following this feedback, we delivered, as per the brief, the draft report to the council in December 2018. After further amendments the slimmed down report was published in February 2019.

"To be clear the only factors that effected the delivery and shape of these reports were the change in council's brief, a decision to produce work on a wholly different subject area and their request for brevity and a short strategic report."

Sarah Adams, leader of the Labour group at Suffolk County Council, said: "Questionable commissioning practices seem to be a regular theme at Suffolk County Council. Just recently, we had the fiasco of the Upper Orwell Crossings with the commissioning process falling under the spotlight.

"You have got to question what sort of due diligence Suffolk County Council carries out before awarding major contracts. This work was worth nearly £70,000 of taxpayers' money, yet it was given to a company which was in the process of collapsing.

"Now it is revealed that the brevity of this 14-page report - costing Suffolk's taxpayers the princely sum of £4,700 per page - came as a direct result of the council's shambolic briefing.

"When the report was released, a Tory MP said he was 'alarmed' at the amount of money that had been wasted. I imagine he will be even more concerned now this has come to light."

Timeline

July 2017 - ResPublica enters Company Voluntary Arrangement

March 2018 - Suffolk County Council commissions ResPublica to carry out work exploring unitary status for the authority

April/May 2018 - Leadership change at SCC causes work on unitary status to be paused

September 2018 - ResPublica study reworked to study housing provision in the county

November 2018 - ResPublica produces first draft of report to council, which requests more focus on several areas and a more concise report

December 2018 - Final delivery of ResPublica report and firm paid by county council for completion of work

January/February 2019 - ResPublica enters administration proceedings

February 2019 - SCC published ResPublica report, which comes under fire for its £4,700 cost per page

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