Ifs and buts of a private enterprise

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Preparations for the Enfield PFI began with a business plan in December 1997. The authority knew that rising rolls left it with a shortfall of school places, but it had no capital assets to use on school buildings and no realistic hope of central government funding.

"For us it was very new," recalls Tony Minchella, who, as Enfield's deputy director of education, oversaw the project. A Treasury Taskforce gave the green light in February 1998 and the authority advertised for contractors across the European Union as the rules require.

More than 40 organisations came to an open day for the scheme. Contractors with previous PFI experience in the health sector saw education as as simpler deal, with smaller projects and fewer critical issues.

"But the reality was that the private sector knew very little about building a school," says Mr Minchella. "They needed a lot of guidance."

Laing-Hyder was one of 10 serious bidders to receive the three volumes of invitation to negotiate. Margins were important. Laing-Hyder is expected to make between 12 and 14 per cent on the deal over 25 years, not huge profits by most contracting standards and low enough to discourage some bidders.

The Department for Education was pessimistic about the timetable set by Enfield and the contractors, but the school opened bang on target after 16 months Other educational PFIs in Hull and Portsmouth have also run to schedule.

Not everything is perfect at Highlands. Monica Cross, the headteacher, argues that 10 laboratories will not be sufficient when the school's sixth form is full. Despite excellent outdoor facilities and a sports hall, there is no gymnasium and staff workspace is inadequate, she says. But this isn't the fault of the main contractor. The school was built to DFEE guidelines which, she argues, are out of date.

"It's got woeful office accommodation," she says. "The DFEE doesn't understand the need for staff office space. There is no examinations office, no secure store."

There is excellent access for the disabled, with adjustable sinks and benches in science labs and doors on which numbers are repeated in Braille.

Laing-Hyder directly employs two caretakers, an electronics AVA technician and an ICT technician. "Third-party lettings are being managed by one of our staff," says Ms Cross, "And we're billing them for that time."

Catering and cleaning have been sub-contracted, but Laing-Hyder manages the contracts.

Since the Enfield deal was signed the Treasury's PFI taskforce has metamorphosed into Partnerships UK, itself a PPP, to develop new deals.

Partnerships UK: Contact David Goldstone. Tel: 0207 273 8354www.partnershipsuk.org.uk

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