COMMERCIAL: Contracts for patient transport services in the North West are to be procured on a primary care trust cluster-basis after warnings the existing regional arrangement may break competition rules.

Following a complaint from an independent provider last year, the Co-operation and Competition Panel launched an investigation into lead commissioner NHS Blackpool’s decision to amalgamate 80 PTS contracts and award them all to the North West Ambulance Service Trust.

It concluded this approach was likely to exclude smaller providers and warned NHS Blackpool would need to ensure it had demonstrated “clear and justifiable reasons” to continue with it.

Now NHS Blackpool has confirmed it will seek tenders on a PCT cluster basis as well as for the whole service “to enable comparisons to be made on the impact on costs and quality”. There are five PCT clusters in the region covering 24 PCTs.

The tenders will be advertised through the Official Journal of the European Union in April. Previously the CCP had warned the PCT could be in further breach of competition rules if it had not completed the procurement process by April 2012.

A spokesman for the panel said the CCP were “concerned” about the “delay” in issuing the procurement.

A spokesman for the Independent Ambulance Association welcomed the decision.

He said: “Independent companies will now have an opportunity to compete for these contracts on a level playing field, giving the commissioners the ability to compare all bids on quality of service and best value for taxpayers’ funds. We hope that this will set a precedent for all contract procurement procedures in other regions in the future.”