Axe falls on England school building programme

LONDON (Reuters) - Plans to rebuild or refurbish 1400 schools in England were cut in half on Monday by Education Secretary Michael Gove as he scrapped the ousted Labour government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project.

Gove said he was closing the 55 billion pound programme to rebuild all 3,500 state-funded secondary schools in England by 2023 because it was overly bureaucratic and wasteful.

Some 715 school rebuilding projects would be scrapped. However, 700 school projects would go ahead where local authorities had completed contracts, or reached “financial close,” with contractors.

The decision will disappoint councils across England who had submitted proposals for refurbishment or rebuilding of schools but not yet signed final contracts.

It will also come as a blow to construction firms at a time when the education sector has been one of the few areas still offering work following the worst recession in decades.

The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, in power since May, has been critical of the administrative cost of the BSF programme, as it seeks to find ways to tackle a record budget deficit.

“Throughout its life it (BSF) has been characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy,” Gove told parliament.

His decision leaves in limbo a number of projects where local authorities had got as far as selecting their preferred bidders for building but not yet signed final contracts.

Gove said there were 14 areas where this was the case, and he would look carefully at the 2-3 most advanced projects in each area to see if he would let them go ahead.

Local authorities have selected preferred bidders for more than 1 billion pounds of BSF work in the past month.

BAM Construct UK, part of Dutch firm Royal BAM Group, said ahead of Gove’s statement it would be better to save money by simplifying the procurement system rather than axing projects altogether.

“You could build a primary school for the price of what it currently costs to bid successfully for a BSF (project),” said BAM Construct design director Chris Gilmour.

BAM Construct is preferred bidder for 850 million pounds worth of BSF work at Somerset and Camden in London, and is bidding for 350 million pounds of contracts in two other authorities.

Construction firm Balfour Beatty, another big player in education building, has won BSF contracts with five local authorities and is the preferred bidder in three others.

Around 180 schools have been built or refurbished since the programme began in 2004.

Ed Balls, who until the May election was Labour’s education secretary, said the BSF programme had been a “once in a generation chance” to transform secondary education in England.

“The freezing of the programme is a hammer blow for many hundreds of thousands of children and parents and teachers and governors who will now not get the transformed new school they were promised,” Balls told parliament.