Careful planning is needed to ensure the success of public sector procurement – and the cracks are already starting to show

January may be associated with fresh starts and firm resolutions, but three weeks in and for many the good intentions are already starting to crumble. Perhaps just as inevitable as the sheepish demise of all those who have abandoned their detox is the emergence of cracks in the government’s attitude towards public sector procurement - as illustrated by the latest blows to resurrecting a meaningful programme of school building.

The government’s own figures showed last week that a fifth of England’s state primaries and a quarter of secondaries are at or over capacity, while data from local authorities suggests that there will be a massive increase in the number of both primary and secondary school pupils by 2015/16.

An overhaul of the client’s procurement methods may provide a reason for the year’s delay to future MOD contracts, but it does not change the scale of the negative impact on those involved

It doesn’t take much more than junior school level maths to work out that the funds currently committed to addressing this - including a £1.2bn package made available in the autumn statement - while welcome, will not go anywhere near far enough, or fast enough.

So it’s more than a little worrying that education secretary Michael Gove, engulfed by the furore over his suggestion that the Queen should receive a £60m yacht for her Jubilee this year, (at 85, Her Majesty presumably sees her best sailing days as behind her), had to be reminded by the House of Commons speaker this week of the pressing issue in hand. “I do not think that the yacht will provide additional primary school places, which is the subject matter under discussion,” was his curt rebuke.

Of even greater concern is the news broken by this week that education department officials have quietly pushed back their decision on which schools will be included in the £2bn Priority Schools Building Programme - originally due in December - until February. This is the second slippage to the government’s “flagship” secondary school programme even before procurement has got under way, and has left firms hoping to tender for work with a nasty headache.

Contracts were originally expected to come to market this spring, but with the announcement on schools pushed back, there is concern the procurement timeframe could start to slip. And for companies that have been forced to scale back their education expertise since the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future in summer 2010, further delay could leave them with a dilemma over the future allocation of resources.

Firms tendering for work from the Ministry of Defence are already facing up to this issue on a grand scale. In this case, an overhaul of the client’s procurement methods may at least provide a reason for the year’s delay to future contracts, but it does not change the scale of the negative impact on those firms involved.

The government’s decision last year to publish quarterly construction pipelines was an acknowledgement that - however constrained public spending has to be - the industry needs the certainty to plan ahead if it is to allocate its resources to deliver the UK’s most urgently needed schemes. That was a huge step forward, and rightly lauded by the sector. But if the government does not apply the same logic to longer-term projects across its departments, it is missing the point of the exercise - and is also in danger of jeopardising effective delivery of projects that are crucial to the social and economic fabric of the country.

Sarah Richardson, deputy editor