Local authorities were due to find out this week how much they will have available to spend on schools. Labour’s £55bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme has been abolished and the coalition has pledged to spend £15.8bn improving the school estate.
The construction industry was rocked when in July education secretary Michael Gove announced the withdrawal of funding for most BSF projects as part of an overhaul of the procurement process. After the spending review, he promised to “ensure that all future capital spending is focused on ensuring that there are enough school places to meet demographic pressures and to address urgent maintenance needs”.
Gove also said the department had “secured enough funding for all those BSF schools that we confirmed would go ahead in July”. However, Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools (PfS), has now told councils that 40% “efficiencies” are to be sought from those 600 schools.
After the initial cull of projects, the Capital Review Team was set up to ensure that future schools investment represented good value, to raise standards and to tackle disadvantage - no mean feat. The team consulted widely to engender radical changes for a system that was criticised as too bureaucratic, painfully slow and exasperatingly inflexible.
So what changes await those projects confirmed in July? Details are yet to be decided, but the review team’s suggestion is prefabricated buildings procured through the academies framework. The team wants UK schools to be delivered as cheaply as those in the US, where projects come in at £500 per m2. Many consider this a cut too far, but as well as reducing build costs, prefab means less time on site, less noise and dust during construction and no need for temporary accommodation.
Of course, the notion that future generations will be educated in structures composed of prefabricated modules is a far cry from the bespoke schools envisioned by BSF. Yet the announcement that, even within a drastically slashed budget, all 600 confirmed schools will still be built suggests this may be the way forward. There are, however, doubts over a “one size fits all” solution since generally schools are not large enough or repetitive enough in their unit sizes to be built from a set of standard modules. Many school sites are complex and require some bespoke design to maximise their potential.
As to the legal implications of changing the construction method, it could be argued that projects that are materially varied in terms of scope should be retendered in any event. Changes to the form of construction will cause changes to the terms of the contract, which will surely attract a different range of companies to tender than the original contract.
Failure to retender could cause those who felt they missed out first time round to bring claims against the local authority or lodge an injunction to stop the progress of the project.
The review team is also proposing that the work be procured through the National Academies Contractors’ Framework in the hope that this speeds up the process.
PfS, which itself was criticised in the wake of the scrapping of BSF, is aiming to cut the procurement time to about 25 weeks compared with the year-long process under BSF. Again the Capital Review Team has sought views as to how a suitable learning environment can be achieved at speed. It has been suggested that there would be fewer interviews and stakeholder meetings, less input from consultants and probably less engagement with schools in the early stages. It is also understood that the pre-tender questionnaire will be shortened and the time to return it halved from two weeks to one. Although this will reap rewards in the short term, it is likely that if fewer parties are involved in the early stages, it could lead to bigger disputes down the line and negligence claims being raised if things are rushed through too quickly.
Whether the modular construction method will also get the green light will only become clear after each local authority’s budget is announced. If, as speculated, only the 15 contractors that qualified for the framework last year will receive work, for them it is a matter of sitting tight. For those that did not qualify, the effects of the downturn continue to bite hard.
Rachel Cousins is a solicitor at law firm Weightmans