Mark Leftly meets the man in charge of the government's £40bn Building Schools for the Future programme - Richard Bowker ...
If one man tries to organise the refurbishment and rebuilding of 3500 secondary schools in 13 years, is he:
(a) An optimist?
(b) A genius?
(c) Going to have to be very lucky?
"I'm absolutely not going to be drawn on that absolutely ludicrous question!"
To be fair, he's joking, but it has taken about 59 minutes of Building's hour with Richard Bowker for him to break out of his controlled, measured language. To be even fairer, it was a ludicrous question: he was asked if he would send his son to a private school, given that his role as chief executive of Partnerships for Schools is to improve 3500 public sector secondary education facilities by 2019.
Bowker smiles: "My son's only 19 months old. He will, however, be going to Blackburn Rovers. That I can assure you of."
Oldham-born, Blackburn-bred Bowker describes himself as "a Lancastrian through and through". Others have described him quite differently since he took up his role in charge of the government's £40bn Building Schools for the Future programme, which aim to refurbish or replace every secondary school in Britain. "I'm not sure if he's listening to industry concerns," says one schools construction expert. "He has a lively appreciation of his own worth." Others believe he has an eye on a greater prize, as it was speculated that he had been interviewed for the Olympic Delivery Authority two months after he arrived at Partnerships for Schools.
Bowker insists that he is listening to the industry, continually pointing out the level of consultation that has been carried out in setting up the school building programme. Also, he was Richard Branson's commercial director at Virgin at the age of 32 and then one of Tony Blair's favourite mandarins at the age of 39, thanks to his work at the Strategic Rail Authority, so he probably has good grounds to be a confident chap. He declines to comment on the ODA job, but insists that his schools role is a massive task.
It's a task that Bowker has made a pretty good start on in the six months since he took on the job. He is known to be popular among his staff - an important point given how morale has sunk in some agencies as a result of the recent problems with the PFI.
Among his achievements have been the appointment of the first four preferred bidders for Local Education Partnerships, the private sector-led PPPs that will build and maintain up to 90 schools in any given area. Then there is his restructuring of his Partnership for Schools and the addition to his empire of procurement responsibility for the City Academies programme.
An area that continues to concern contractors is whether there is enough capacity in the construction industry to meet the government's requirements. One bid director at an interested contractor says: "There doesn't appear to be a capacity issue at the moment, but that's because the schemes have been fairly slow trickling out to the market. The fear is that there could be a whole lump between now and the end of the year."
He adds that a big problem is the lack of appropriate IT companies to join bidding consortiums. Partnerships for Schools wants its preferred bidders to provide everything from computer kit to networks that run across a local education authority. Bowker insists that he is quite happy with what he's got, which is 27 bid teams up and running.
"I don't think bidders will overstretch themselves," he says. "One of the roles that we can play is to help communicate market appetite and capability around the councils and try and avoid that situation arising."
Bowker concedes that his ambition to have 12 preferred bidders, 10 of which are at financial close, by next March is a "colossal delivery" but adds quickly: "I genuinely think in a year's time people will be looking back at this and saying ‘flipping heck, this is really happening'."
I think in a year’s time, people will be looking back at this and saying ‘flipping heck, this is really happening’
He also admits that Partnerships for Schools will have to be careful this summer when it advertises for bidders for the second wave of schools in the scheme. There are 15 waves in total, and Bowker says: "We have to make sure that for wave two we don't dump the whole thing on the market simultaneously - you won't get value."
That word "value" is an important one to Bowker, who caused a bit of a stir in February when he suggested that parts of the Building Schools for the Future programme might be accelerated to avoid construction inflation.
He calculates that the cost of the first three waves of schools increases £8m a month as a result of rising prices. Bowker is currently talking to local education authorities to see if there are schools that can start their construction earlier than planned. "The point that I was making is that the programme is extremely important."
Bowker is in awe of the LEP model, convinced that it is going to give him the value he so craves. Essentially, the LEP is divided between the private sector consortium, which provides 80% of the equity, the council and Partnerships for Schools. The latter two organisations hold 10% each. There has been some criticism that the low stakes held by the public sector means that they are not really sharing the risk of the projects.
"I reject that completely," says Bowker, his slight Lancashire burr emphasised whenever he disagrees with a point. "Ten per cent is quite a material stake. It is real money. It means that the economic interests of the private sector party, the local authority and Partnerships for Schools are all aligned."
Once the LEP is formed, it runs the process of appointing subcontractors and maintaining the schools' estates over the length of the contract. If it is well programmed, it will ensure that the estates are gradually renovated or rebuilt through the life of the LEP.
Bowker says: "The LEP gives you exclusivity and actually what the private sector says all the time is they want this kind of certainty."
The trick for Bowker is to standardise the documentation setting up LEPs, thereby avoiding the need to "get another set of lawyers and another set of financial advisers every time you want to do a deal. I'm very clear that a standardised model is at the heart of this programme".
This is all very well, but standardisation and speed may present its own problems. Only 40% of the 3500 schools in the programme will be new-build. The other 2100 schools are to be refurbished, and these are often difficult and risky projects, as Jarvis discovered a year or so ago. Taking on so many schools at once means that estate surveys are rushed or simply sampled, not giving a true indication of how expensive a scheme will be.
Bowker says: "If you take an extreme example, the Birmingham LEP will have more than 90 schools, and we're not going to ask now for the private sector partner to give us designs for 90 schools. The bid costs would be ludicrous and it would never happen."
He stresses that this is why the partnership model, with all its shared commercial interests, is so important - and this, he says, makes the LEP model superior to the PFI, where relationships tend to be more confrontational. To Bowker, the LEP is more "transparent" than the PFI, and that's why he views it as such an effective procurement model.
But the truth is, nobody yet knows how well LEPs will work, since financial close on the first will not take place until later this month. Bowker appreciates the doubts that people have had because of the sheer scale of the programme: "The thing that will always have an impact on bidding is people saying: ‘Is this for real?' That's why the first financial close is so important. It's a totemic way of saying it's here, it's for real."
And if Bowker can implement his grand plans, the choice of what type of school to send his son to may become academic.
Bowker on ...
The education white paper
Explanation: There are fears that the education white paper, which gives schools more control over their own expansion and selection of pupils, will undermine the authority of a LEP.
Bowker: It’s got to be a good thing that successful schools are allowed to expand. How can that not be a good thing? The challenge is to make sure that we create a strategic framework where that greater access, that greater choice, that greater diversity financially can take place. That’s a challenge, but a deliverable challenge.
Explanation: There are some fears that the sheer scale and pace of the programme will lead to poorly designed schools.
Bowker: It’s important that we do not build 3500 modular rabbit hutches. I spent time working for Virgin, for example, and I’ve been involved in a fair amount of industrial design. This idea that design costs, is an expensive thing to have, is a nonsense.
The Countryside Alliance
Explanation: Bowker recently signed up as a member of the Countryside Alliance, causing some amusement given that one of Blair’s favourites supports an organisation that opposes his fox-hunting ban.
Bowker: I have a very firm view about, for example, since you’re hinting at it, the hunting act. I have got a house in Herefordshire. I’ve got about 15 acres down there. I’m passionate about the rural economy.
Explanation: Bowker’s team, Blackburn Rovers, is chasing a spot in the elite Champions League. They are battling with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur for the final place.
Bowker: No, I don’t think we’ll make it, but we’ll get a UEFA Cup spot. I can’t see Tottenham slipping up.
If they can play that badly, that useless and still win, it’s got their name written all over it.