Just three weeks to bag buildings cash
Local authorities and schools are facing a race against time to bid for the Pounds 800 million earmarked for school construction after the funding was fast-tracked by the Government this week.
On Monday, Chancellor Alistair Darling said the money, previously allocated for education in the 2010-11 spending period, was being brought forward by a year to help bail out the construction industry.
From next April this will include spending Pounds 280m on the Primary Capital Programme (PCP) and over Pounds 450m on school modernisation.
And in a letter sent out by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) on Monday, England's 150 local authorities have been given until December 22 to get their bids in. Decisions are expected as early as January 16.
The dash for cash has raised fears that the PCP initiative in particular - which aims to rebuild or refurbish half of England's 17,000 primaries by 2023 - will produce poorly designed schools as local authorities scramble to get their projects up the pecking order. So far, 41 authorities have received approval for their PCP strategies.
Matt Bell, director of campaigns and education at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, said primary schools would suffer if the right designs were not in place.
Mr Bell, who in the summer said the Government's Pounds 45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative had produced too many poor designs, added: "The success of the (PCP) programme is highly dependent on the skills of the local authority, and some may not have the skills in place immediately. The right support structures must be in place to ensure that they can commission excellent schools."
A DCSF spokesman said it was putting design readiness and value for money at the top of its list when deciding who got what.
"Local authorities have got to be ready to go," he said. "They have to demonstrate value for money and that the build quality will be high. We don't want botched jobs."
The Government has said that any accelerated spending will be taken off the 2010-11 local authority allocation, which currently stands at Pounds 8.2bn.
The deadline for local authorities to sign up to the BSF programme expires today, and 70 councils in England have yet to send in their paperwork.
The Treasury has said the rate of current and capital growth - the amount spent by the Government each year - will slow down between April 2011 and the end of March 2014. But it has not clarified whether this will have an impact on education spending. Falling tax revenues, the onset of the recession and belt-tightening among government departments mean that growth will fall from a forecast figure of 1.9 per cent per annum to 1.1 per cent.
A Treasury spokesman said: "Government spending will continue to grow, just slightly less quickly." The amount spent next year will be Pounds 653.8 billion, up from this year's Pounds 623 billion. The next comprehensive spending review is likely to be unveiled next autumn and will cover the period 2011 to 2014, although no annual spending figures have yet been drawn up.
The spokesman added that education spending was still strong and was second only to health. Defence spending came in third.