Reg.45 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (PCR2015) and Art 45 of Directive 2014/24 regulate the admissibility of variants or alternative offers in public tenders. As Pedro has indicated, the rules do not provide any novelty that will anticipate a change in practice.
The rules in reg.45 PCR2015 are facilitative of the admission of variants and establish some minimum guarantees that contracting authorities must comply with in order to ensure the effectiveness of the general principles of procurement (reg. 18 PCR2015) and, in particular, transparency, non-discrimination and competition. These are:
(a) Contracting authorities need to indicate in tender documentation whether or not they authorise or require variants [reg.45(2)], and variants shall not be authorised or required without such an indication and shall be linked to the subject-matter of the contract [reg. 45(3)]. In my view, this requirement of transparency is appropriate, but the default position should be the opposite. Given the strong focus on technical neutrality in reg.42 PCR2015, and in case performance specifications are used, distinguishing a variant from a 'standard' offer may be very difficult or actually impossible depending on the circumstances. Hence, the restriction derived from the need for the contracting authority to include an authorisation of variants in the tender documents is superfluous and could be problematic. An alternative default rule authorising variants in all cases, subject to meeting minimum technical specifications (see below) would have been preferable.
(b) In case they require or authorise them, contracting authorities shall state in the procurement documents the minimum requirements to be met by the variants and any specific requirements for their presentation, in particular whether variants may be submitted only where a tender which is not a variant has also been submitted [reg.45(4)]. Only variants meeting the minimum requirements shall be taken into consideration [reg. 45(6)]. The establishment of minimum technical specifications makes sense and is similar to the rule concerning procedures involving negotiations (reg.29 PCR2015). However, in case a contracting authority did not do so, it would suffice to assume that all technical specifications are minimum, so that variants can be incorporated in terms of performance requirements or potential improvements on the minimum specifications.
The last clause of reg.45(4) PCR2015, whereby contracting authorities can require the submission of a 'standard' offer for their variant to be accepted is very problematic and actually thwarts this instrument from delivering diversity of technical solutions and maximising competition for the contract by suppliers that cannot meet 'standard' requirements but could deliver on the basis of an alternative offer that could be advantageous for the contracting authority. In my view, unless very good reasons exist, contracting authorities should refrain from requiring variants pegged to 'standard' offers.
(c) In order to make the assessment of all offers possible, transparent and non-discriminatory, contracting authorities that authorise or request variants shall ensure that the chosen award criteria can be applied to variants meeting those minimum requirements as well as to conforming tenders which are not variants [reg. 45(5)]. In any case, contracting authorities shall not reject a variant on the sole ground that it would, where successful, lead to a different type of contract (supply, service) than the one originally envisaged [reg.45(7)]. These requirements could have been implicit as extensions of the general principles in reg.18 PCR2015, but their express imposition probably limits the scope of discretion of contracting authorities once they resort to the use of variants in their procurement. Nonetheless, they do not exhaust the requirements derived from the general principles.