Michael Gove’s insistence this week that the government will “vigorously contest” any judicial review of the decision to scrap the £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme is hardly surprising – after all, the man has hardly been equivocal in his damnation of the scheme.
But the escalating rhetoric around legal action ought to be sounding the alarm for all those with an interest in getting a new school building programme underway post haste.
It’s easy to have every sympathy with the four councils who have begun legal action. To be told you are going to receive billions of pounds of investment, then to be told (for some, at the second or third attempt at clarity) that you’re not, and on top of that to be refused an audience with those that took the money away, is obviously galling.
The raised expectations, and the impression of a hastily put together decision, have fuelled anger at the loss of investment, on which each local authority has their own tale of repercussions and lost opportunities. So you can understand the decision to seek legal recourse.
Should the application for judicial review be successful, the government will have to review the entire list of schools that are and are not going ahead. But whilst that may offer hope to some, the cold reality is the government does not have the money to fund the whole programme. Even if the basis on which schools projects are stopped has to be changed, the vast majority of the original funds will not be reinstated.
Noone has outlined a time frame for judicial review, and one lawyer I’ve spoken to said wryly: “The courts will probably push it through within months, but that could be many months rather than fewer.” Given that this government has every interest in slowing down spending, a prolonged judicial review and lengthy re-consultation process could well play into their hands – and against everybody else’s.
If that’s the way it heads, those councils that have complained would do well to push for a private solution, much along the lines of the special dispensation granted to Campsmount School in Doncaster (another scheme stopped by Gove) to have its fire-ravaged school rebuilt as part of a test of fast track procurement.
And anyone within the schools sector who has the ear of government would do well to push Gove to agree to it – and to put in place a newly prioritised programme, however painful the outcome may be for some, as soon as possible.