What a feast has been laid out for the building industry by Tony Blair’s government.
In just nine years, the government’s annual budget for building and refurbishing schools has grown from £700m to a dizzy £5.1bn for this year and next – and this level of investment should continue for another 15 years. It means that 140 secondary schools will be built and another 95 refurbished every year, and within a year or two, primary schools will be joining the programme. No wonder the biggest contractors, such as Balfour Beatty, Kier, and Carillion, and consultants, such as Atkins, Aedas and HLM, are all scrambling over each other to tuck in (see pages 42-45).
The big question is how to prepare and serve the banquet. After decades in which investment in the physical fabric of the education system has been steadily run down, expertise within local education authorities, consultants and contractors has been all but extinguished. In an attempt to rekindle it, the government set up Partnerships 4 Schools last year, and now plans to install branch offices in every council. But their task is not simply to resurrect old designs and procurement systems. New forms of education reliant on sophisticated IT have emerged, and the Treasury is keen to push the use of PFI and framework agreements to procure school buildings.
No wonder, then, that confusion reigns. PFI bids and framework agreements are being set up, yet by forcing through competition for large bundles of schools at breakneck speed, they risk wasting what expertise is available. If design-and-build tenders are invited from three consortiums for six schools, 12 fully detailed designs may end up being ditched. The large scale of the bids, typically £50m, automatically disqualifies smaller firms that often take a more client-friendly approach.
And the competition process concentrates on streamlining detailed design and construction at the expense of consultation with the school staff, children and local community.
PFI has a value in linking construction with facilities management, which tends to mean that schools are built soundly and sustainably. But whether the PFI can also take care of initial briefing and concept design is more questionable. As CABE, the RIBA and Partnerships 4 Schools argue, schools and local education authorities need proper advice and discussion about their educational needs and design options before they are exposed to the full might of a construction consortium. And if designs are commissioned before PFI bids are tendered, the expertise of smaller firms could also be brought into the mix. Valerie Bragg is an educationalist who worked with Foster and Partners on the first city academy. In her interview on pages 46-48, she points out that productive consultation may involve reining in architects as much as encouraging them.
More than that, as education is an eminently public issue, the debate about how to provide new school premises ought to be widened out from government circles. Surely it’s worth considering Paul Morrell’s idea of setting up a new body to bring together the professional expertise of education and construction (page 12), perhaps on the lines of the British Council for Offices?
With a feast like this, we have to take care not to bolt it down, as the result will be indigestion. And not only will the industry suffer, but so will schools and, most unfortunately of all, their pupils.
Martin Spring, architectural editor