The Tories’ decision to cancel Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project is a blow to thousands of school children currently being taught in the most dilapidated, uninspiring and antiquated schools. They must now continue to be taught in substandard buildings
Labour, in it’s original programme, intended to spend £55bn over two decades, and would have rebuilt or refurbished just about every secondary school in the country. In Michael Gove’s drive to cut public expenditure, it has proved to be too tempting a target to miss.
Gove referred in his announcement to "massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy." The BSF programme was indeed bureaucratic and expensive, but this was not the fault of schools or local authorities.
The process was managed by Partnerships for Schools (PfS), a special arm of the Civil Service set up by Labour. Before any money was released for school building or refurbishment, local authorities were expected to pick their way through a long and protracted bureaucratic procedure that usually took months or even years of painstaking administrative work.
Once given the go-ahead, the early school designs had to be assessed by three different bodies – PfS, the Commission for the Built Environment (CABE) and a local Design Review Panel – and that was before planning permission submissions were made! The whole process was little short of Kafka-esque. The simple answer would have been to abolish the PfS layer of bureaucracy and give the money directly to local authorities but that is clearly not what Whitehall wants.
The expensive bidding and procurement process was driven by regulations established by the European Union to ensure “competitive tendering” between bidders and it followed procedures established by PfS. There is no doubt that this whole process was outrageously expensive and prolonged, taking more than a year, and sometimes two to complete…but again, not the fault of schools or the local authorities.
Because of the Labour government’s infatuation with private finance initiatives, almost all new schools being built were based on PFI schemes which amount to a back door privatisation of education. PFI schemes are extremely expensive to the public purse, involving the initial privatisation of just the school services. But after the 25 year life of the PFI contract the school building would revert to private ownership, available to be rented by the local authority or, no doubt, ‘rebranded’ as a private profit-making school.
No-one would have expected this dogma-driven government to do anything to help public services, but for a Labour government, the policy ought to have been to give local authorities the powers to use their own teams of architects, builders and designers, along with their education experts, to draw up design proposals and build the new schools at a fraction of the cost.
Many local authority leaders are now appealing to the Tories because of the devastating affect of the announcement made about BSF. It has to be said, however, that making high moral appeals to this Government are a complete waste of breath.
The Construction Products Association (CPA), noting that the economic recession has already cost 200,000 jobs in their sector, has estimated that over the next few years capital spending on education will be almost halved and that it will result in “further substantial job losses".
Local authorities too will lose out from the BSF abolition. Those involved in BSF have already spent millions on their own technical, legal, financial and educational teams who have been working with the private sector to develop school schemes and designs. The Local Government Association estimates that over £200m will be lost and many of these local authority staff will now lose their jobs.
This is the first round of ConDem cuts – cuts that will bring devastation to our public services and have a terrible affect on those who rely on them. The message is clear: don’t let them get way with it.