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Campus projects face priority queue after rush for funding

LSC board to discuss building schedule but two-year delay likely for some amid fears of excessive demand on budget

Building projects costing hundreds of millions of pounds may have to be put on hold for up to two years, colleges have admitted.

The news came as they also revealed the Learning and Skills Council had encouraged some colleges to increase their bids, adding to demands on the capital budget.

As the Learning and Skills Council board meets on Wednesday to try to get its capital programme back on track, colleges are calling for a system of prioritisation that will get the most urgent projects built, while others wait until 2011.

David Collins, president of the Association of Colleges, said: "We hope there will be an unfreezing of existing applications and that there will be some sort of criteria emerging that will allocate funding to colleges in a fair and equitable way.

"It's now a question of managing expectations to a realistic level and fitting the programme into a longer period than colleges expected."

Decisions to approve projects for Building Colleges for the Future funding were put on hold in December for three months, amid fears that the demand exceeded the pound;2.3 billion available over three years. But the delay came as ministers were trying to fast track public works projects to preserve jobs. It prompted them to call in Sir Andrew Foster to examine problems with the programme.

As far back as November, the LSC said it had bids for work totalling pound;2.9bn. Since then the total of 70 bids has risen, to 80 which have been approved in principle, plus a further 50 waiting for approval. The entire building programme is expected to cost over pound;5bn, with the contribution of colleges' borrowing having fallen to 30 per cent or less in some cases.

However, postponing a project until 2011 is likely to cause concern in some institutions, with the possibility of a change in Government and no guarantee that large sums of capital will continue to be available.

The college proposals for prioritisation have been put to the LSC, which refused to comment on the options that would be put before the board next week.

FE Focus understands that several colleges have been asked by regional LSC officials if they could wait two years for new buildings.

It also emerged that some colleges were encouraged to increase the size of their bids dramatically.

Dr Collins said his own college, South Cheshire, had originally put in a pound;25m bid, which would have preserved an old tower block, but the LSC had encouraged a total rebuild, costing pound;75m.

He said: "Up and down the country, the message that has been given out to colleges is to be ambitious, to use this opportunity."

The LSC's national strategy in March 2008 that launched Building Colleges for the Future, called for "cutting edge facilities". In the foreword, John Denham, the Skills Secretary, said: "State-of-the-art buildings make a huge difference to educational attainment."

Other building projects are even more ambitious than South Cheshire's, with City College Norwich bidding for pound;170 million to redevelop its campus, and the College of West Anglia seeking pound;150 million for its relocation.

But Mark Haysom, chief executive of the LSC, said the National Audit Office had judged the FE capital programme projects to be effective and high quality.

He said: "Since it was established in 2001, the LSC has worked closely with colleges to ensure that their project proposals are appropriate to the needs of their learners and by 2009 some 56 per cent of FE sector buildings have been renewed or modernised. In developing project proposals, colleges' project teams work closely with the LSC to ensure that these proposals meet their learners' needs by providing modern, highly flexible learning environments that help improve both college and learner performance."

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