Free school firm with two staff wins potential £70bn net zero deal

The Place Group will help schools buy services to hit emissions targets through a new 'everything net zero' framework

The Place Group will help schools buy services to hit emissions targets through a new 'everything net zero' framework

2 Aug 2022, 13:39

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A small firm that supported dozens of new free schools has won a contract to help public sector bodies spend up to £70 billion on net zero initiatives.

The Place Group will manage a new “everything net zero” framework that schools, trusts, councils and other UK public bodies can use to find services and products that help slash emissions.

It will run tender competitions to help organisations buy support on greener estates, design, technology, construction, energy, water, waste management, and transport from “leading sustainability organisations”. Frameworks typically involve access to a list of pre-approved suppliers on pre-agreed terms.

Free school firm branches out

Place Group is better known for its work supporting free schools than decarbonisation, helping the first one to open and working on more than 60 projects over the past decade, according to its website.

It also co-founded nine-school Bellevue Place Education Trust with an international private school group too, with its two directors both on BPET’s board.

The reported size of the new net zero contract had been met with some surprise on social media, given the Place Group’s most recent 2020 accounts list only two employees and net assets of £344,417. The company, based in Penzance, Cornwall, is so small it is exempt from audit.

Official contract documents published online list the deal’s value at £70 billion, excluding VAT – roughly equivalent to the Department for Education’s entire annual budget.

Place Group said in a statement it had “not been awarded a contract for £70 billion”. It said its own income would come from a “very small framework levy that suppliers pay if they win contracts.” Fees are yet to be determined.

Chris Kastel, CEO of E2BN, a consortium of councils offering the deal, said £70 billion marked the “theoretical maximum value that could go through the framework”.

While no government money has been pledged so far, he said it was not an “unreasonable” upper limit given one recent estimate that £140 billion capital investment is needed to decarbonise public services.

The framework will be open to UK-wide public bodies spanning central departments, devolved administrations and education, health, council, NHS, fire and police bodies.

‘No single organisation can be an expert’

Contract documents say Place Group’s role will be to “impartially control, manage and deliver” the framework, and “maintain and integrate such competing sub-contractors as necessary” to ensure choice and best value.

Simon Rule, CEO of the Place Group, called the buying framework “ingenious” in offering public sector bodies a “unique, broad supply chain of specialist sustainability solution providers” who can deliver on net zero commitments.

“No single organisation can be an expert in all areas of sustainability or have the full range of services that can deliver green agenda solutions to the wider public sector,” he said in a statement.

Fellow director Claine Delaney said cutting emissions and value for money were “our mission”.

Firm ran buying services for south-west schools

The firm describes itself as a “specialist consulting, research, project management and procurement company”. It says its work has included more than 200 multi-academy trust “efficiency and growth projects”, and it offers decarbonisation support directly to schools too.

Place Group, trading as Schools’ Buying Club, also previously ran a buying hub pilot for the DfE in the south-west – reporting it saved schools £26 million. The department subsequently chose to move the programme in-house.

SBC was appointed to run procurement for BPET too, according to the trust’s accounts. The trust’s 2020-21 register of interests notes Claire Delaney, chair of trustees, and Simon Rule, are directors of SBC and Place.

But it says SBC’s contract was ” tendered in the marketplace” and any fees earnt through supplier rebates are provided at cost.

The net zero contract has been awarded by the East of England Broadband Network – known as E2BN – which linked the deal to the government’s goal of slashing three-quarters of emissions from public sector buildings by 2037.

E2BN is a not-for-profit group formed by a group of local authorities to secure value-for-money broadband for eastern schools, but now offering wider buying support to schools nationally and even abroad.

It previously handed SBC a similar £4 billlion contract dubbed “Everything FM” in 2020, running a similar framework for facilities management services.

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