Fire Services – Price Variations Between Authorities, Who Would Have Guessed!

A new report that got quite lot of press coverage this week suggests that different fire services around the UK are paying very different amounts for equipment and supplies. This will have been greeted with a weary sigh by many experienced procurement people in the public sector, followed by the words, “do you remember Firebuy”?  This was the announcement from the Home Office;

“The Home Office has today (24 August 2016) published the first-ever national overview of what each fire and rescue authority in England pays for 25 common items of uniform and equipment. The move is the first step in the government’s programme of reform for the sector, announced in May 2016, focusing on diversity, efficiency and transparency. The data will enable authorities, and the public, to compare how much they spend on these essential items to ensure they are getting the best value for money.

All 45 authorities in England provided data on their recent procurement, and the items published today include workwear, vehicles and firefighters’ personal protective equipment, as well as frontline equipment such as breathing apparatus and automated external defibrillators”.

And surprise, surprise, it shows big differences in prices paid. As the Telegraph reported;

“The most significant difference was in the price of waterproof jackets, with Bedfordshire paying £19.35 for each one compared with Cornwall which paid £98.04. The price paid for personal laptops ranged from £224 in Northamptonshire to £1,280 in Avon, while prices for white shirts varied from £4.20 in Essex to £17.50 in West Yorkshire.

The most significant differences, however, came with more expensive purchases. County Durham and Darlington fire service spent £875 each on 17 thermal imaging cameras in June of this year, while Greater Manchester spent £4,928 on 50 in the same period”.

A note of caution here. We’ve see public sector price analysis previously (the Philip Green report for instance) where it eventually emerged that the comparisons were not truly like-for-like. But we would have thought that a white shirt is a white shirt really, and a 400% price variation hardly seems reasonable. But we have been here before. Firebuy was set up in 2005 to address this very problem, and was closed down in 2010 having come up against all sorts of issues. Read this National Audit Office report if you want to know more – it was a sad story really of lack of buy-in from individual fire services as much as anything.

So the Home Office is now pushing collaboration again. Three fire services were awarded £370,000 from the Fire Transformation Fund in May 2015 for a joint project to establish a national procurement collaboration hub for the sector, supported by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA). CFOA is also forming a new Strategic Commercial Committee, led by Ann Millington, Kent Fire and Rescue Authority’s chief executive, with the objective of transforming the fire commercial landscape as a whole.

A new committee! That should do it then. Nothing like a committee for sorting out an intransigent problem that has been around for decades. No, we shouldn’t be cynical. Luke Malton has been appointed as the CFOA National Collaborative Procurement Coordinator, and as far as we can tell, the idea is to build a small central team to drive the initiative then have different fire services leading on collaboration for different spend items.

Why is this so difficult though? That’s a topic for another day, and an examination of a couple of very fundamental strategic procurement issues. Next week maybe - watch this space.

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