Court challenge holds up R1.5bn schools project

A massive tender for the provision of so-called professional services to the Department of Basic Education’s drive to build 33 medium to large schools at a cost of more than R1.5-billion is being challenged.

Seventeen aggrieved firms in the fields of architecture, design and quantity surveying, who were not even asked to bid, are challenging the award of the professional services tender – which they estimate to be worth over R200-million – to a single firm of architects.

The department announced late last year that TCN Architects were the bid winners. The challenge is likely to slow down the basic education department’s drive to replace dozens of inappropriate school structures and build new ones in mostly impoverished areas.

It comes at a time when nongovernment organisations and thousands of pupils have been vigorously protesting against ongoing delays in delivery on the project described in court papers as being of fundamental national importance.

The 17 firms want the Grahamstown High Court to set aside the tender awarded to TCN on the basis that the process followed was uncompetitive, unfair, unlawful and unconstitutional. At the heart of the challenge is the DBE’s accelerated schools infrastructure delivery initiative (Asidi).

According to court papers, under Asidi, the department had in 2012 asked all companies in the built environment, including civil, structural, electrical and geotechnical engineers as well as architects, quantity surveyors, and environmental specialists, to apply to be accredited and placed on the Asidi panel to render services in line with the initiative.

The panel was announced in 2014 and it was from this group alone that the DBE exclusively drew for bids for all Asidi-related projects.

The current contested request for proposals (RFP), under the heading DBE07, called for the provision of professional services for the construction of some 33 medium to large schools across a range of disciplines.

But, despite the project requiring a range of expertise in the built environment, the department had asked only accredited architectural firms from its Asidi database to submit proposals.

In fact, it is suggested in court papers that not even all accredited architects were asked to bid.

These facts alone made the contract unlawful, say the 17 firms.

Dennis Taylor director of the main applicant, MMPA Quantity Surveyors and Project Managers, maintains that this project does not, in any event, even fall under Asidi.

He says the nature, value and extent of the work required under DBE07 were substantially different from that identified under Asidi.

The Grahamstown correspondent attorney for the applicants, Owen Huxtable, yesterday confirmed that the matter would be argued on June 8.

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