Seven-year wait for school

5th May 2006 at 01:00
The plans were approved ages ago, but a valley comprehensive PFI scheme is still at a standstill. Jayne Isaac reports

Seven years after a private finance initiative (PFI) to replace a valley comprehensive was approved, not a single brick of the new school has been laid.

The land chosen for the development remains deserted while pupils at the existing Maesteg comprehensive, Bridgend, remain split between two sites more than a mile apart.

The final PFI agreement between Bridgend council and contractors Babcock and Brown has not yet been signed, despite the fact that the school was due to be completed last year.

PFI schemes were first introduced in 1992 by the then Conservative government in Westminster, to bring private money into the public sector.

Private partners build a new school or run maintenance and repair contracts in return for annual payments.

A scheme to build a new school for Maesteg on an old coal washery site was first proposed back in 1999. It envisaged reclaiming the derelict site using Welsh Development Agency money, and bringing all Maesteg's pupils together on a single campus. Their old school buildings would then have housed the county's first Welsh-medium comprehensive.

The land reclamation scheme was completed two years ago but no PFI agreement has been reached for the school.

Jeff Jones, the then Labour leader of the council, said: "It was a win-win situation.

"I was a pupil at the school in 1966 when the comprehensive was created by merging Maesteg grammar school with the town's secondary modern. I saw the difficulties of operating a school on a split site at first hand.

"When I became leader of the council in 1996, I was determined to get the school on to a single site. PFI gave us the chance."

Labour lost control of the council in the 2004 elections when a Liberal Democrat-led alliance seized power. Mr Jones accused the new administration of allowing the scheme to drift.

But Bridgend council leader Cheryl Green denied there had been a lack of drive. "We are totally committed to this project, it is crucial for the regeneration of Maesteg," she said.

"The Assembly government is no longer committed to PFI schemes for schools, and there is no incentive now for private firms to complete one scheme to move on to the next. The private sector has been dictating the pace of this project, but we are doing all we can to keep things on track."

Don Buttle, chair of governors at Maesteg comprehensive, said: "A school on a split site creates extra difficulties and costs."

"We need all the pupils under one roof to reap the economies of scale. The scheme will also bring the school into the centre of town, where it can become the focal point for the community."

The earliest that the full business case can be submitted to the Assembly government for approval is later this month.

The council hopes that approval will be obtained by July so that work can start in August. The completion date for the school is spring or early summer of 2008, with a September opening.

Ogmore MP Huw Irranca Davies has grave doubts about this timetable. He said: "I also fear the council may not get value for money because only one contractor remains in the negotiations."

An Assembly government spokeswoman said the Maesteg scheme would be fully evaluated to ensure that the deal represents good value for the taxpayer.

She added: "The government is willing to use PFI where it represents best value. The important thing is to secure investment in public assets while getting the best possible deal for the taxpayer."

PFI AT WORK IN WALES

* Penweddig secondary, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion;

* Pembroke Dock primary, Pembrokeshire;

* Lewis Pengam boys and Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni, Caerphilly;

* Ysgol John Bright, Llandudno, Ysgol Aberconwy and Ysgol Dyffryn Conwy in Conwy;

* Rhydfelen comprehensive and Garth Olwg primary, inRhondda Cynon Taf

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