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Council's pound;16m office bill

Post-16 training organisation taken to task over costs which "beggar belief". Martin Whittaker reports.

MINISTERS have been asked to justify the cost of running local Learning and Skills Council offices amid growing concern over the amount the organisation spends on administration.

MPs from all the major parties have questioned the Government over the cost of the council, which oversees post-16 education and training. They say some of its offices, claiming some could have been sited in less expensive areas.

Accommodation costs for the local LSCs alone total nearly pound;16 million a year - equivalent to the entire national administration budget of the Further Education Funding Council. The Association of Colleges has called on the Government's "bureaucracy-busting" task force, chaired by Sir George Sweeney, to impose strict controls on what is spent on running local LSCs.

The issue of the location of local LSC offices was raised in January by Jeff Ennis, Labour MP for Barnsley East and Mexborough.

He asked adult skills minister John Healey why South Yorkshire LSC occupied a "very posh new office" in Sheffield, when it could have been sited in a disadvantaged former coalfield area like the Dearne Valley or Barnsley.

Mr Ennis told FE Focus this week: "Purely and simply on a cost comparison basis, I would have thought it could have gone to the Dearne Valley."

He had told the committee: "I am referring to the signal it sends out to the people in South Yorkshire, particularly the ones who do experience adult literacy and numeracy problems, that everything is centring on Sheffield and not where it is needed most."

Andrew Turner, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, is writing to his local LSC to ask why it chose to locate its head office in Fareham, when it could have been sited on the Isle of Wight where rents are cheaper. "I will ask them what they did to compare the cost of their premises with costs elsewhere in their area," he said. "Fareham isn't the most expensive area in Hampshire but it's still more expensive than the Isle of Wight."

According to Government figures passed on to The TES, running costs of the LSC represent nearly 3 per cent of its pound;12.8 billion budget for post-16 education and training for the current year and 2002-03.

This is a tenfold increase on the pound;16m running costs of the FEFC in its final year. Ministers say that these extra costs take account of the additional responsibilities of the LSC. But critics have long argued that the LSC administration budget perpetuates inefficiencies of the previous Training and Enterprise Council regime.

Estimated accommodation costs of local LSCs for the current year range from pound;79,725 for LSC Shropshire, up to pound;1,046,283 for Hertfordshire, according to LSC figures.

David Gibson, chief executive of the AOC, said: "The size of some of these costs beggars belief, but they must be partly accounted for by the doubling between 1996 and 1999 of the TEC workforce, now mostly transferred to local LSCs. All those bureaucrats have to be accommodated somewhere.

"I hope Sir George Sweeney will recommend in future strict controls on the level of LSC spending on their offices, as well as cuts to the size of their workforces, so that a higher proportion of the money allocated to the LSC can reach the learner."

An LSC spokeswoman said: "Our local offices were allocated to us by ministers, based on advice from government offices after a period of consultation locally.

"We are currently re-assessing and re-conforming our property in order to reduce the overall cost of premises, and optimise value for money. With 47 local arms, this process will obviously be lengthy.

"The Learning and Skills Council must provide a working environment of sufficient calibre to match the standard of employee it aims to attract and attain."

The Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said South Yorkshire and Hampshire andIsle of Wight local learning and skills councils were sited at former training and enterprise council headquarters. "Factors taken into consideration included the need to get best value for money by using, where appropriate, premises then occupied by TECs, and the need for locations that would facilitate effective operation of the LSC," she said.

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