#163;4bn saved in one swipe, but has Gove picked well with BSF?

9th July 2010 at 01:00
The decision to freeze Labour's flagship #163;55 billion programme to rebuild or refurbish hundreds of dilapidated schools is not a surprise. But for many of those who hoped to be a beneficiary of its cash, it is nevertheless a devastating blow, as Richard Vaughan reports

This week, the coalition Government has pressed on with the most drastic public spending squeeze the country has seen for a generation by announcing on Monday that it will freeze the vast #163;55 billion school rebuilding programme.

When Education Secretary Michael Gove gave his assent to scrap Building Schools for the Future (BSF), he authorised the most predictable spending cut the new Government has undertaken since coming to power more than 50 days ago.

Mr Gove has been charged by the Treasury with finding low-hanging fruit in his Department to help reduce the country's #163;155 billion budget deficit, and in BSF he found a tree laden with such offerings on every branch.

Addressing the Commons on Monday, Mr Gove said: "The Building Schools for the Future scheme has been responsible for about one-third of all this Department's capital spending, but throughout its life it has been characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy."

It is anticipated that the move will save between #163;4 billion and #163;5 billion. But despite the ease with which the Education Secretary identified the school-building programme as an area ripe for squeezing, observers have warned that the decision is a dangerous one both politically and economically.

By calling off the rebuilding or refurbishing of 715 schools across the country - not to mention the hundreds of others that had not come even close to putting forward their case for BSF money - Mr Gove risks the wrath of his colleagues in the Commons who face the anger of their constituents.

However, in cutting the vast public spending plan on which the entire construction industry and its related industries have come to rely, Mr Gove and Chancellor George Osborne have rolled the dice on a gamble in which the whole country has a stake.

And as is often the case when decisions are made in the rarefied air of Whitehall, the repercussions of such actions are felt most acutely on the ground.

The lucky few schools which did secure funding to rebuild or refurbish their estate will be breathing a huge sigh of relief, but the many that did not will be staring at the prospect of many more years working in facilities not fit for purpose.

Mr Gove announced that a review body, headed by Sebastian James, director of electronic retailers DSG International, will look at how capital spending on schools could be less costly and less bureaucratic. But it is expected that any funds available will be used for patch-up jobs on schools most in need and used to provide individual grants for academies and free schools.

One of the biggest losers in this week's announcement was Liverpool. For too long the city has been languishing at the bottom of most league tables and is one the country's most deprived areas.

It was thanks to this dubious honour that the city received a tranche of BSF funding that helped to rebuild six of its schools. But by scrapping the city's planned #163;350 million programme, the Government has wiped out hopes of a new future for more than 25 other schools across the city.

For Anne Pontifex, headteacher of St John Bosco Arts College in the Croxteth area of Liverpool, the decision to drop BSF is a bitter blow.

"It is just devastating," Mrs Pontifex said. "It has been 18 months waiting with three all-day meetings a week trying to prepare for this. We have been on a long journey - six years ago we were a satisfactory school, three years ago we were good with outstanding features and then a few months ago we were an outstanding school. It is devastating for our staff, for our young people, for the whole community."

She says St John Bosco's pupils are learning in "sub-standard temporary accommodation" or in buildings that are too small, where the dining hall doubles up as a dance studio.

"Our buildings are really affected by the weather," she said. "In the summer time when it is hot, the building is unbearable, our technology lab had an internal temperature of about 42 degC the other day. In the winter the buildings are freezing.

"The staff work miracles getting the results they have, but it would be better if they were expending their energy actually teaching rather than on working around (the deficiencies of) the building."

Mrs Pontifex said there was a crumb of hope in Mr Gove's speech that her school might see some of the money to fund the refurbishment it so desperately needs, but it was nothing more than a crumb.

"I just hope they have some social conscience that the most deprived areas get something. I am not foolish, I know BSF was overly bureaucratic, and I would be the first to say we must get rid of bureaucracy, but they need to put this type of resource into the hands of those who know what to do with it," she said.

Liverpool Council says it will lobby the Government in an attempt to squeeze some additional funding from Whitehall.

The local authority had spent more than #163;7 million reorganising its secondary provision in anticipation of receiving BSF cash, and it says it will now send a delegation down to Westminster to hold a meeting with schools minister Lord Hill.

Councillor Jane Corbett, Liverpool Council's cabinet member for education and children's services, said: "It is such a massive deal for Liverpool. Our young people have been heavily involved. We have been looking at the way teaching is changing and we have been transforming education here.

"We had the worst performing schools in the country in 1997; now we are above the national average and we are improving four times above the national average. Liverpool had reorganised the whole of its secondary school sector ready for this last piece of the jigsaw and it has been cruelly axed."

But Liverpool is not alone. Local authorities across the country have spent millions in preparing themselves and their schools for the deluge of cash that BSF had promised. They now face a difficult task of having to shed hundreds of highly-trained staff who had been hired to facilitate the vast rebuilding programme.

The Government, too, has the unenviable prospect of dealing with contractors who have spent tens of millions bidding for contracts which have now been ripped up, and who have the taste of litigation in their mouths.

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

"They would certainly be more inclined to now than they have been in the past," Ms Squires said. "They don't have a lot to lose, 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."

Shadow Education Secretary Ed Balls described the decision to scrap the programme as "disastrous for hundreds of thousands of teachers, parents and pupils". BSF was a flagship policy of the previous Government, and widely held to be its most popular.

By cancelling it, Mr Balls said it was a sign that his opposite number was losing his battles with the Chancellor in protecting schools spending.

The truth is the Conservatives had always planned to at least scale back the school rebuilding programme, and few could have seriously believed BSF would have survived much longer, particularly after the emergency Budget was set out.

But heads, teachers and governing bodies will hope Mr Gove does start winning his remaining battles with Mr Osborne, before the cuts to schools begin to cut too deep.

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