Trust saves pound;11m for public purse

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
Efficiencies in building projects and pooled expertise net cash benefits

The Scottish Futures Trust says it has made the public sector pound;111 million better off in its first full year of operation, with most of the savings coming through school building.

By pooling the expertise and buying power of Scotland's 32 local authorities, and prioritising essential over desirable features in new buildings, pound;69m has been saved through its role in the construction of new schools.

However, the political backbiting about the trust - established by the Scottish Government, but now run as an independent company - continues, with opposition parties arguing the public has not got the alternative to public-private partnerships the SNP had promised.

The SFT benefits statement for 2009-10 was externally validated by financial and business advisers Grant Thornton and academics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. It highlights that the pound;111m of "net benefits and savings" are within the pound;100-150m originally forecast when it became fully operational.

Barry White, SFT chief executive since May 2009, said school-building savings were largely explained by the national collaboration encouraged by the trust, which gave local authorities better value from procurement and the ability to bulk-buy.

SFT is managing the pound;1.25 billion Schools for the Future programme to build 55 new schools, with the first secondary scheduled to be completed by 2013 and the first primary by the end of 2011.

Mr White explained that there had been a determination to change the culture of school design, to "buying what we need, rather than what we want", based on the principle that it was better to aim for "five really good, sustainable schools rather than four iconic ones".

He added that there had also been a determination to cut out extraneous space from school designs and produce better forecasts of pupil numbers.

The average area per pupil in school designs has been reduced from 12.8 to 11 square metres, producing an estimated eventual saving of pound;118m across 14 schools.

The average number of pupils planned for in those schools has reduced from 1,072 to 984, producing a saving calculated to work out as pound;19m.

The full impact would emerge, however, over a period of years as SFT became a centre of expertise for the public sector throughout Scotland and eliminated the need for local authorities to be constantly buying in expert advice.

SFT chairman Sir Angus Grossart revealed that the trust had got fully up and running quicker than he had anticipated, as local authorities gradually warmed to the idea of taking advice from a new central body, despite the pull of "established ways of doing things" and "territorial views".

He was reluctant to become embroiled in the "political football made of SFT from time to time", stressing that neither he nor Mr White were involved in the trust when it was first mooted several years ago.

SFT would seek the best value for each project, avoiding an "ideological or formulaic" approach, which would sometimes mean turning to PPP.

He added that there was no option but to "redefine what was possible and achievable" by SFT in the financial "dark landscape" that had emerged since it was first proposed.

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray this week dismissed SFT as an "expensive quango" doing what civil servants once did for nothing, although the Conservatives welcomed the news of its savings.

Despite Labour's upturn in the polls and the party's hostility to SFT, Sir Angus was sanguine about the future. He pointed to the reliance of SFT on validation, a process Mr White had likened to an MOT - picking out problems barely detectable by non-experts before they became serious.

"The more we validate SFT, the more effective we will be," Sir Angus said.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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