BSF is dead, slain this week by Michael Gove and the Treasury
More than 700 school projects cancelled, 123 academies on hold, and the announcement of a review into school building led by an electronics retailer and a supermarket - it all spells a particularly grisly end for the £55bn programme, and one that leaves the industry facing up to empty order books and ruing the millions wasted in bid costs. It’s bad timing and will be catastrophic for many firms, not to mention schools and pupils. But it’s the inevitable consequence of a government whose Conservative element, at least, is determined to get the deficit under control by the end of this parliament and which has never claimed to be wedded to Labour’s grand vision of overhauling every secondary school in the country under its somewhat abstract concept of “transforming education”.
Inevitable, too, are question marks over delivery agency Partnership for Schools’ (PfS) role, in the wake of Gove’s remarks that the school building programme has been characterised by “massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy”.
There is no doubt that the procurement route first introduced in 2004 was ridiculously costly to bid for - money that then had to be recouped in the cost of the buildings. The sheer scale of local authority programmes demanded wholescale bundling of contracts to make them attractive to finance and bid for. But the Treasury was never going to sign over £500m of work without doing its damnedest to ensure competitiveness. It also had to ensure that preferred bidders didn’t hold local authorities to ransom. This happened all too frequently in the previous regime of using PFI to fund schools and quickly dispensing with all but a single bidder.
Building Schools for the Future was very much a product of the scale of the task at hand, and PfS under Tim Byles made the best of it
The resulting system was not just belt and braces but elasticated waistband as well. But it was very much a product of the scale of the task at hand, and PfS under Tim Byles made the best of it - in the past two years, procurement times and costs have been reduced, and the programme has gathered momentum.
We will know the fate of the 14 or so schemes halted at, or just before, preferred bidder stage in three or four weeks. But Gove’s overall plans for capital spending in education won’t be clear until the review is finished at the end of the year. So the industry will be left in limbo over what will go ahead and how - and whether schools will go down a Tesco-style procurement process.
What we can be fairly certain of is that there will be a return to basics: the coalition will want to revamp schools based on the condition of the fabric, and we’re bound to see much more make-do-and-mend. The government may not want PFI, but it might not have a choice. And we can expect to see frameworks of PFI contractors set up to bid for the work to shorten the route to get to preferred bidder. That said, PFI has often proved disastrous for refurbishment contractors.
Getting back to basics will also mean trying to get better value for money - or lowering costs. But that could prove problematic as it doesn’t necessarily marry with the Tories’ more localist agenda. If you want every headmaster to be able to choose the colour of the doors, then it bumps up the price per square metre.
The coalition has been able to stop BSF in its tracks with sadly too little fanfare. It has won the mandate to cut back. But as taxpayers and parents, we still need to be concerned about the increasingly likely shortage of school places and the issue of quality control (since Cabe’s review panel has been scrapped, with as yet nothing put in its place). There may be less money to spend, but what there is can still be wasted.
Denise Chevin, editor