A good way to enrage someone who’s in trouble is to offer to help, then stamp on their foot … which is what the government has done to those working on education schemes
Sometimes all of us need just to stop, take a deep breath, and chill. But there are certain activities where it’s probably not a good idea to pause halfway. Transatlantic flights, cross-channel swims, root canal surgery and procreation are all processes where the Magnusson rule applies: once you’ve started, you should finish. If you want a satisfied customer, that is.
And the same thing applies to constructing buildings. I’ve written before in this slot about the terrible delays that afflict so many construction and repair projects in this country, from our roads to our schools. But even a glacial rate of progress is better than a sudden downing of tools. When a building project is halted halfway through, everyone is left disappointed. Workers lie idle and can’t be redeployed. Costs pile up without anything to show for it. Clients that had ventures planned for the completed site can’t get on with them. Constructus interruptus is an expensive way of making everyone unhappy.
And the worst time, the very worst time, to do this in a downturn. As the prime minister argued in January: “An economic slowdown must not be an excuse to slow down the pace of investment … we have taken action to bring forward our capital spending projects.”
It’s probably not a good idea to pause halfway through Transatlantic flights, cross-channel swims, root canal surgery and procreation
Now for all I know there may be massive government investment being brought forward in fantastic capital projects somewhere in the country. Perhaps new cathedrals, mighty pyramids, wonderful hospitals and palaces of learning are being built even as I speak. But in the area I do know about, in education, there aren’t any capital spending projects being brought forward. There are dozens being stopped.
A dozen dozen to be precise. No fewer than 144 college and sixth-form building projects that were due to go ahead this year have been cancelled by the government. The same ministers who boast about their Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme are halting the building of schools in the present. The neediest students, those on whose behalf the government regularly sheds crocodile tears, have been literally left out in the cold.
The decision to call a halt to these projects was taken by the quango that funds further education – the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). But ministers can’t wash their hands of responsibility. They had a representative on the LSC board when it became clear there weren’t the resources to press ahead with plans that had already been authorised. But even though the warnings were flashing last November, the government ignored the danger signals. Instead of getting to grip with the crisis in college funding, ministers replaced one unaccountable quango, the LSC, with three others, the Young People’s Learning Agency, the National Apprenticeship Service and the Skills Funding Agency.
Short of handing the colleges’ accounts to Bernie Madoff to
manage, it’s hard to conceive of a more wasteful government intervention
Meanwhile, the colleges that have had to put construction on hold are running up bills. Abingdon and Witney college has had a £30m project shelved and is paying £40,000 a month for 57 temporary cabins.
Other colleges are having to shell out for renegotiated loan finance, bank costs, professional advisers, the retendering of contracts and a hundred and one other unnecessary costs. Short of handing over the colleges’ accounts to Bernie Madoff to manage, it’s hard to conceive of a more wasteful government intervention than the mishandling of this programme.
Of course, students of the BSF programme, and this page, will be familiar with the government’s chronic mismanagement of capital investment in schools. By the end of last year we were supposed to have 200 new ones but the real figure was scarcely 20. I talked last week to an organisation involved in the academies programme, which has experience of bringing big projects in on time and under budget, and I was horrified by its story of consultancy costs and bureaucratic delay – all as a result of folding the academies programme into BSF.
Perhaps it really is time we all stopped, took a deep breath and, instead of chilling, told this government where to get off. Proclaiming the virtues of an active state and asking to be loved for helping the victims of the recession while stopping growth, strangling innovation and killing new construction projects is worse than hypocrisy; it’s the politics of bad faith.
Michael Gove is shadow secretary for children, schools and families