But what really infuriated the colleges and their teams is that the organisation continued to push them to spend their own money on projects that were effectively doomed
The Learning and Skills Council was set up to run one of Labour’s inspiring grands projets: the renewal of England’s further education colleges. After the scale of the recession became clear, it also became a way of transfusing public money into the moribund economy (with the collateral benefit of training workers for the eventual upturn). The funding budget was £2.3bn, and the projects in the pipeline were enough to keep 40,000 livelihoods intact. Now it’s clear that the programme has gone gruesomely wrong: colleges that were told that their plans would be approved started spending on project teams and, in some cases, site works; these have had their cash taken away, and the likelihood is that many will not start again for up to two years. What was not clear was how the LSC got it so wrong.
Our investigation into why the LSC overspent by 150% is a shocking tale. Even after officials began to realise that too many schemes were being approved, they endorsed £1bn more. But what really infuriated the colleges and their project teams is that the organisation continued to push them to spend their own money on projects that were effectively doomed. As we went to press, Sir Andrew Foster published the official report into the LSC’s performance. This was suitably savage: the overspend, he said, was predictable, avoidable and caused by the absence of a long-term strategy compounded by inadequate management, information and monitoring.
Thankfully the LSC will go the way of Railtrack in a year’s time. But worryingly, as it hovers between life and death it will have overarching responsibility for the National Apprenticeship Service, which is being launched this month to manage training across the UK and attract the next generation of construction workers. At least Simon Waugh, the chief executive of this service, is not an LSC official. Let’s hope he can keep his distance from the LSC so the industry’s future employees do not suffer the same damage as the ones who were working on the colleges.
What would Ray do?
As Ray Mears never tires of pointing out, survival is a state of mind. If you find yourself in a jam, keep thinking. Separate the things that are necessary from those that are not, and organise them in order of importance. Keep your nerve and maintain the morale of those around you, regardless of where you think we are on the U-curve … and if you scan our news pages – councils starving contractors, the prison service cutting frameworks and of course the LSC fiasco – you might well think we’re still sliding down the left-hand upright. What we’re offering in our survival special is a Swiss army knife of ideas. So, an expert panel dissects the business plans of three smallish firms, we analyse the best places to forage for work and look at ways to keep the blues at bay. We even throw in some tips on legal self-defence for good measure.
Just to whet your appetite, here are a few pointers. First, don’t expect much help from the government in the near future – that arch-survivor Peter Mandelson says other initiatives need time to bed in. Second, most managers are spending time restructuring, so it’s not surprising if there’s been no time to implement new ideas. One simple place to start would be e-tendering – it can save 30% of your costs. Third, if you’ve made a reputation on high-end services, there’s no point slashing your fees to compete with someone operating out of a three-bed semi. Finally, remember to celebrate the good stuff – contract wins, topping-outs and talented professionals. Even Ray would agree that you’re still allowed to have fun!
Denise Chevin, editor