The fallout from the government’s decision to axe the £55bn Building Schools for the Future initiative continued to twist grotesquely over the weekend, with the revelation that even the government’s revised list of affected projects affected is plagued by errors.
But as schools and their construction supply chains attempt to work out first, if their schemes are affected, and second, what they can do to improve buildings now the government has frozen the scheme, another injustice seems to be coming to light. And that is the apparent witch hunt of Partnerships for Schools and its chief executive, Tim Byles.
Anyone who has been involved with the BSF initiative over the three and a half years since it has been headed by Byles knows that it has not been perfect. An average procurement time of around 22 months, with a cost of £4-6m per winning bid, is never going to win plaudits for its efficiency.
The length of time between the selection of preferred bidder and financial close has, particularly during the recession, drawn the ire of many architects and consultants who simply cannot keep paying staff to wait in the wings ready for when a project might, or might not, hit the ground.
But anyone who has been involved with the initiative before Byles was appointed will know that things could, actually, have been a lot worse. PFS may have been far from creating a perfect scheme, but it was also far from the dark days of the scheme’s launch, which lay at the heart of the scheme’s criticism and delays.
Back in 2004, the government said it wanted to build 200 schools by December 2008, but in reality only 42 were renewed during those four years. During the 2008/9 financial year, 54 were opened. Byles’ leadership has been widely credited with bringing about that improvement. And, when the recession was at its worst, let’s not forget that PFS was one of the first UK organisations to secure emergency funding from the European Investment Bank, meaning projects like the massive Barnsley scheme could reach financial close despite the tightening of bank lending.
The fact that the Department for Education has been guilty of woeful mishandling of the stopping of the programme cannot simply be pinned on PFS. All quangos exist to serve their political masters, and the timing of the announcement and its content was within Michael Gove’s gift.
If the government were to seek to pin the blame for the fiasco on Byles and PFS, as has been suggested by media reports over the weekend, it would not only be unjust but it would also be highly detrimental to whatever school building programme this government has in mind for the future.
Without experienced procurers like Byles, any hope of a coherent initiative to replace BSF already looks doomed to failure.