#163;4.6bn saved in one swipe, but has Gove picked well with BSF?

16th July 2010 at 01:00
Last week, the Westminster Government pressed on with the most drastic public spending squeeze the country has seen for a generation, announcing that it will freeze the pound;55 billion school rebuilding programme - and immediately sparked its first significant political storm.

England's Education Secretary Michael Gove was forced to "unreservedly apologise" in the House of Commons for errors by his department, which mistakenly listed 25 schools having projects cancelled when they had not or had been protected when they were due to be axed.

At the time of going to press, a fifth version of the school building plans had been published. But there is considerable anger in the building trade: Noble Francis, economist at the Construction Products Association, estimates that firms have "wasted" pound;100 million in winning bids that have now been cancelled and the industry expects an overall loss of pound;39 billion as a result of the change in policy.

Mr Gove was not for turning, however. The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme has been responsible for about one third of the Westminster education department's capital spending and, he told MPs in his initial statement that "it has been characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy".

It was at first anticipated the move would save between pound;3 and pound;4 billion by calling off the rebuilding or refurbishing of 715 schools in England. Later it was revealed, in yet another correction, that this figure had been increased to 735.

Andrea Squires, a partner at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, which specialises in advising schools on BSF, said there was a strong possibility of contractors taking legal action.

"Contractors don't have a lot to lose," she said. "They have always been anxious not to bite the hand that feeds them, but if the hand is no longer feeding them then they might have a go."

The Education Secretary attempted to calm the political fever by setting up a review body to examine how capital spending on schools could be less costly and less bureaucratic. But it is expected such capital expenditure will be used to patch up schools most in need, and to provide individual grants for academies and free schools.

Ty Goddard, chief executive of the British Council for School Environments and co-founder of the Centre for School Design, commented: "The loss of investment in the future of our school buildings will have an impact on the quality of our children's education. We will reap what we sow".

One of the biggest losers is Liverpool. In recognition of its deprivation, the city received one tranche of BSF funding which helped to rebuild six of its schools. By scrapping the city's planned pound;350 million programme, the Government has wiped out the hopes of more than 25 schools across the city.

For Anne Pontifex, headteacher at St John Bosco Arts College in the Croxteth area of Liverpool, the decision to drop BSF is a bitter blow. "Our buildings are really affected by the weather," she said. "In the summer time when it is hot as it is now, the building is unbearable; our technology lab had an internal temperature of around 42 degC the other day. In the winter, the buildings are freezing."

The local authority in Liverpool spent more than pound;7 million reorganising its secondary provision in anticipation of receiving BSF cash, like many other English councils. They now face the added difficulty of having to shed hundreds of highly-trained staff who had been hired to facilitate the vast rebuilding programme.

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