Austerity measures set to build on standardisation and value-for-money
While political arguments swirl around his head, the Scottish Futures Trust's pound;180,000-a-year chief executive, Barry White, is getting on with the job.
The SFT is the Scottish Government's agency managing the delivery of capital projects in the public sector, including the pound;1.25 billion school rebuilding programme. It is charged with providing 55 new or refurbished schools, beginning with completion of the first primary next year and the first secondary in 2013.
It will have taken four years for the SNP Government's first new school to materialise - a source of much criticism from political opponents who point to the 528 schools built or refurbished between 1999 and 2009, largely commissioned under the previous administration.
The creation of the trust as a "not-for-profit" alternative for PPPPFI schemes has been dismissed as window-dressing - or "PFI-lite", as public services union Unison put it.
But Mr White is adamant that the trust is on course to deliver. "The speed of the programme reflects the availability of funding", he says.
The programme also reflects the Government's determination to rebuild schools in a way that limits profits going to the private sector. The 28 secondary schools will be paid for by a contribution of 67 per cent from central government and 33 per cent from the local authorities; the 26 primary projects and one special school are being funded on a 5050 basis. The Government will provide pound;800 million of the pound;1.25bn, with councils finding the balance.
The trust says it will add value by seeking value-for-money on buildings which are well-designed and highly sustainable. It pledges to deliver an initial benefit of pound;7 for every pound;1 it spends.
One way of driving down costs, Mr White says, is for the 32 local authorities to collaborate. The trust has already started testing its ideas, in a pilot project which combines the rebuilding of Lasswade High in Midlothian and Eastwood High in East Renfrewshire. While the cost is pound;65 million, it aims to save pound;2 million by jointly procuring them.
Mr White has considerable experience in the construction industry, including managing projects under the controversial Building Schools for the Future programme in England. One of the main lessons? "Let's not have 57 varieties," he says.
"Schools are largely the same - 80 per cent of how they're constructed is similar and only 20 per cent is different," he adds. "It's a bit like the Volkswagen Golf and the Ibiza: they look different, but it's the same chassis, the same gear-box."
As well as building the trust into a centre of expertise and achieving economies of scale through collaboration, Mr White also intends to challenge council costings. "Why is it," he asks, "that one authority estimates it can build a primary school for pound;2,100 per square metre while another, for exactly the same spec in the same kind of area, calculates pound;3,600. The variations are huge".
He hopes Scotland can learn from other countries, like Germany and Ireland where costs are 20-30 per cent lower.
The SFT found several factors in these two countries that bear down on costs - pipelines of regular work, well-run procurement, centralised controls (especially in Ireland), modular construction which puts the roof and walls up in six weeks and better productivity in the construction industry.
Storm clouds are gathering, however, and the SFT has already sounded an alert that hard times ahead will require a "hard-headed" approach to best value. In its submission to the Beveridge review of impending budget cuts, the trust said the focus will be on "needs" not "wants", as the days of plenty give way to nights of austerity.
It continued: "There has been an implicit assumption that better educational outcomes will be delivered from a pound;25m school than from a pound;20m school.
"This is not proven and, even if true, makes a value judgment in favour of four `iconic' pound;25m schools rather than five fit-for-purpose pound;20m schools . We will have to accept elements of design standardisation and appropriate space allocations to stretch budgets.
"We can learn from the North Sea oil platform experience of `design one, build many'."