Report by Sir Neville Simms criticises school building programme, as government pledges to go carbon neutral

The government's £40bn Building Schools for the Future programme has come under fire in an independent report for failing to meet sustainability standards.

The news comes as environment secretary David Miliband pledged that all Whitehall departments would become carbon neutral by 2012, and that emissions from government buildings would be cut by 30% by 2020.

The Procuring the Future report by the Sustainable Procurement Task Force, led by former Carillion chairman Sir Neville Simms, has singled out the BSF programme as an opportunity for the government to make a difference.

The recommendation within the report, which was launched by Miliband and Stephen Timms, the chief secretary to the Treasury, this week, said: "The Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills must work with the BSF programme to ensure that it is meeting high sustainability standards."

Simms hinted that a significant amount of work needed to be done to improve the sustainability standards of BSF. He said: "The taskforce believes that all big capital projects have to meet sustainability standards, starting with BSF."

He said: "The teams need to learn to design better within the budget. Teams should focus more on capital expenditure and then would save on operational expenditure. The situation isn't great at the moment but hopefully will get better."

A BSF spokesperson responded: "Early evidence suggests that sustainability criteria have been affordably adopted in many of the early BSF designs."

Other proposals in Simms' report included:

  • The government must evaluate the pilot public sector energy efficiency fund and consider its expansion in the comprehensive spending review
  • All public sector organisations with procurement spend of more than £1bn a year must appoint a commercial director to the board
  • The government must rationalise existing procurement policies into one unified sustainable procurement framework.
A group of industry players has responded to the report by calling on the government to make better use of its purchasing power.

The industry letter to prime minister Tony Blair, which was signed by David Fison, the chief executive of Skanska, Paul Drechsler, the chairman of Wates and Terry Hill, the chairman of Arup, said: "The procurement activities of the public sector are a significant and effective - but underutilised - tool to help meet your sustainable development aims."

The group, named Forum for the Future, also called for one minister to be given specific responsibility for implementing the taskforce's report and recommendations.

The government this week said cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell would enforce the report's recommendations across departments and agencies.

Skanska's Fison said the consequences of Simms' action plan would affect the industry in about five years' time. He said: "There won't be an enormous instantaneous impact, but after five years we will be able to see a remarkable change. Now we assess on cost but in five years the primary factor will be carbon. We are pleased Sir Gus is leading on the action plan for the government but we have to make sure they implement it."

Simms said it would be the government's responsibility to ensure that milestones and targets within the report were met.

Meanwhile, in a joint announcement, prime minister Tony Blair backed David Miliband's pledge by vowing to "green" the government estate, to make all government buildings carbon neutral by 2012 and cut emissions 30% by 2020. This includes all central government departments and their agencies.

But a Defra source involved in the initiative said the carbon reduction targets were ramped up by ministers at the last minute and were "probably unfeasible".

The source said: "Defra wanted 20% but the ministers said go higher. If we knew how we were going to do it, we would have said by now. Each department will have to get their own estates management person to deal with it."

Speaking at the launch of Simms' report, the Treasury's Stephen Timms also hinted sustainability would play a key role in next year's Comprehensive Spending Review. He said: "In a meeting last week the prime minister said shifting to a more sustainable lifestyle was one of the biggest challenges the UK faces. We will build this into the spending review."