Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Binge Government Strikes Again

Just get them built

As the NHS has illustrated so graphically, government spending binges rarely end well. Labour's NHS splurge pumped up a healthcare system unused to such a rich diet, and wholly unable to handle it. Costs escalated, low grade hospital staff were recruited en masse, and management overheads ballooned. Huge amounts of the extra money have been wasted, and all that extra weight will make it even harder to cope with the lean times now in prospect.

There's another binge currently being inflicted on our school system. It's called Building Schools for the Future (BSF), a £45bn programme launched in 2004 to rebuild or refurbish no fewer than 3,500 schools in 15 years. 100 were meant to be finished by the end of this year.

It always looked crazy. As Paul Foster, head of education at leading building consultants EC Harris, said: “The government comes along after 50 years of spending not much on schools and decides to spend shedloads. All of a sudden, local authorities have to procure something worth £150-200m. Does anyone think they have the capacity to deliver that?

Well, clearly the government thought they did. Or more likely, they simply ignored the question and pushed on regardless.

But they've now banged up against reality. Despite their best efforts at force feeding, they can't get the patient to swallow. Local authorities are proving incapable of running the procurement process even half efficiently, and the whole programme has snagged up in red tape. Only a handful of schools are anywhere near completion.

The quango running the programme, Partnerships 4 Schools, is taking emergency action. The binge must somehow be forced through, and feeding tubes are being prepared.

These will take the form of streamlining the design process and shortening the procurement time. Construction companies will find it easier and cheaper to secure contracts, which will supposedly save £250m pa.

Sounds good for the construction companies, but taxpayers should be very concerned. P4S wants to dilute the bidding process so that for example, the number of bidders will be reduced, and "detailed design will be produced later in the process".

It's straight out of the Simple Shopper Playbook. The commissars want the schools in the numbers laid down in their production target. Period. Cost and design considerations are secondary.

Build in haste, repent at leisure. We predict a horrible legacy of poorly designed schools, cheap construction techniques, and burdensome maintenance.

Not to mention that £45bn cost... and its overrun.


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