Pressure mounts as government admits it only has funds for half of proposed schemes

Contractors on the stalled Learning and Skills Council programme to renew further education colleges are being told to cut prices or risk being thrown off projects.

The cost-cutting drive emerged as John Denham, the skills secretary, revealed that the council had received bids for £5.7bn of funding from colleges – double the £2.3bn the government has made available up to 2011.

One contractor said: “We’ve been told that if we can’t come up with a reduction of about 10%, they’ll put our scheme out to tender again. I think the colleges are under pressure to reduce prices if they want funding.”

Eight schemes, involving £300m of public money, were told to resume work this week, but 144 others are on hold and have to justify their funding requests.

The eight are in west Kent, Stoke-on-Trent, Coulsdon in Surrey, Liverpool, Solihull, Northampton and two in Bolton.

The government will announce the other schemes that will go ahead at the end of the month, after completing an assessment, but the scale of the demand means it is likely that only half will go ahead in the present spending review period, due to end in April 2011. Denham acknowledged this week that “it is clear that not all schemes can be implemented on the timetables originally envisaged”.

It is understood that some of the schemes on hold had reached site. These include an extension to the Colchester Institute being carried out by Willmott Dixon, and Abingdon and Witney College in Oxfordshire, being carried out by Leadbitter, where students are in temporary classrooms.

The debacle surrounding the programme, which was put on hold in January, is widely accepted to be the result of mismanagement. One source close to the programme said this week that some colleges, having been encouraged to be “aspirational”, had submitted “hugely ambitious” bids for up to £200m of funding. The source said: “The amount of bids from the South-east alone would have eaten up the funding allocation.”

The government is still struggling to work out a system for prioritising projects. The LSC and Cabe are discussing ways in which it could help colleges to deliver their buildings.

The bids from the South-east alone would have eaten up the funding allocation

Programme source

• An Official Journal notice has gone out for a £4bn framework to build Building Schools for the Future academies.

Some schemes still on hold

North Devon College

North Devon College

This in the design by Feilden Clegg Bradley for a £125m new college on the banks of the River Taw in the centre of Barnstaple to which the old college will relocate. This 34,000m2 building would be the largest infrastructure development in north Devon.

Basford Hall College, Nottingham

Basford Hall College, Nottingham

The £57m development was to replace the existing college. Construction would be among the subjects taught there and the building would include solar panels, wind turbines and rainwater recycling facilities.

Abingdon and Witney College, Oxfordshire

Abingdon and Witney College, Oxfordshire

Work on Abingdon and Witney College in Oxfordshire has stalled. Now the students and staff are working out of 57 cabins. The college is paying £40,000 a month out of staff salaries to hire the temporary structures.

How did we get in this mess?

1997 National Audit Office says the state of further education colleges is “often unsatisfactory”

1997/98 Government starts to increase funding, reaching £2bn in 2006/07

2001 Learning and Skills Council (LSC) is formed and given responsibility for channelling funding to the renewal programme

2008 Programme formalised under the Building Colleges for the Future initiative and £2.3bn of funding made available until 2010/11

January 2009 LSC admits it has placed “a small number” of projects on hold until March after unexpected demand

March 2009 Scale of delays and funding shortfall becomes clear. Denham says review will examine “what lessons must be learned for the future”