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The flexible friend

Ministers back the use of cross-sector contracts, despite rising concern from critics. Martin Farrell reports

Stoke-on-Trent is locked into one of the country's biggest private finance initiative education contracts.

The local authority has signed a pound;153 million deal with Balfour Beatty to rebuild and maintain every school in the city. Critics argue the council has practically signed away control of its schools for the next 25 years. But Mike Inman, the council's head of premises and playing services, strongly disputes this.

The council signed a deal two years ago covering all 125 secondary, primary, nursery and special schools in the city, but negotiated a clause into the contract that they could increase the number of schools to 135 or drop to 95 without altering the terms of the deal.

According to the authority it has since been able to close schools without being faced with the possibility of private contractor penalties. Since the deal was signed, 16 schools in the city have either shut or been earmarked for closure.

Mr Inman said more closures were possible as pupil numbers continue to fall, although Stoke anticipated longer-term growth.

He insisted this type of contract was the only way for local authorities to avoid the most damaging PFI pitfalls.

"There is much more flexibility with a large contract," he said. "We knew we were going to face changing demographics. I don't know if some of the early PFIs really thought about change over 20 or 30 years. The problem with a small contract covering only one or two schools is there is little scope for change."

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