Red tape fear dogs finance scheme

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Government plans to reinvigorate public building programmes through a new streamlined private-sector initiative will make little difference to colleges, say managers.

They are sceptical about suggestions that bureaucracy can be cut and argue that were ministers to succeed, the red tape demanded by Europe would still be costly and time-consuming.

Ministers hope that plans unveiled in the Queen's Speech this week will encourage more partnerships between the public and private sectors, with industry taking a greater share of any risks involved.

A six-week review was launched last week by Geoffrey Robinson, Paymaster General and minister responsible for the public finance initiative, but it is generally felt that any resulting improvements will benefit the health service rather than education.

The nine pathfinding colleges involved in the original PFI, set up by former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke in 1992, insist that such reforms are largely unnecessary for most big projects.

Newbury College, one of the nine, this week unveiled details of a Pounds 20 million Lifetime Learning Campus on the outskirts of the town.

Planned for a 40-acre greenfield site by the A34, it is the first time a newly created learning institution will have been built in England under PFI rules.

Principal Gordon Bull told The TES: "We think the PFI is a good discipline because it makes you look realistically at the lifelong costings.

"There is a problem with bureaucracy, but how the Government plans to cut it I really cannot see."

Several college principals pointed to the paperwork required by Brussels -with its demand for a detailed explanation of the purposes for procurement and whether it is for business or service industry use - as a continuing handicap to PFI applications, no matter what the Government does.

The 21,000-student college is in urgent need of new buildings. Over a third of the accommodation is temporary, maintenance costs are soaring and the building would cost more to refurbish than to replace.

Mr Bull wants a PFI partner to design, build, finance and operate a core 9,000 square metre college. There will be "shared use" of a planned residential management and development centre, plus sports and leisure facilities.

New building work also started this week at Yale College in north-east Wales. It is part of a programme to transform what was a sixth-form college into a fully fledged tertiary college, expanding student numbers from 3,000 to 4,000 by the year 2000.

But after testing the need for PFI, the principal, Emlyn Jones decided the college could manage the project more cheaply itself.

Companies that had made bids were not taking a due share of risks. Nor were they offering services for buildings, maintenance, cleaning and office work that the college did not provide already, he said.

"Going through the PFI process was costly and time-consuming, but it helped clarify our situation and taught us how we could do it more cheaply," said Mr Jones.

Most of the work needed on college buildings is for general maintenance and refurbishment costing less than Pounds 5 million, for which colleges may not need to use the PFI and can borrow from the banks.

But one principal said: "This is often the toughest nut to crack. At the end of the day, we want to know what the Government will do to assist us without incurring costly debts."

He recommended use of National Lottery money as suggested for schools by Graham Lane, education chair of the Local Government Association.

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