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Government must offer clarity for schools work to succeed

‘About time’ was the response from people in the construction industry I’ve been speaking to following last week’s announcement that 261 schools would be receiving money through the Priority Schools Building Programme.

A fair enough comment, given we were expecting the announcement at the end of last year.

On one level, the delays were understandable. The government wanted to check money was going to schools with the most need, but led to inevitable frustration from an industry that is being seriously hit by the economic downturn.

The PSBP is not a panacea. Many schools have lost out and, for them, there are limited options for the foreseeable future. But the PSBP does at least acknowledge that much of the school estate needs renewal.

And of course, it provides hard-pressed firms with the opportunity of an income stream.

The challenge now is for government to inject some clarity into the next steps. We need to know more about the procurement process.

As the government’s chief construction adviser Paul Morrell argued in CN last week, sorting out the challenges in the procurement chain will provide better value for money as well as making life simpler for firms bidding for work. A steer on the future of BREEAM would also be helpful.

We also need to know more about the routes for starting work on those 40 or so schools identified as having absolute precedence. The timetable for delivery is ambitious, given we know how long it takes to get a school built.

And, of course, we need to know more about the PFI mechanisms which are going to apply to the lion’s share of the funding for schools being built or renewed under PSBP.

This information is crucial for construction companies to be able to lay the groundwork for building or refurbishment projects that will result in schools of a decent standard; schools which are fit for purpose and support teaching and learning.

Once we know more, firms can prepare by understanding the spread of batching; preparing local supply chains and bringing them in as early as possible; having bid, pre-construction and design teams well resourced and briefed; and getting a handle on bid costs and exposure, given the ITT process is likely to be streamlined.

We’re facing a leaner, tougher, faster environment. Both the government and the industry need to rise to the challenge of learning from the mistakes of BSF. Bureaucratic procurement, PFI funding problems and no robust post-occupancy evaluation were all part of the problem.

My biggest anxiety is that we repeat the same mistakes but keep hoping for different results. We need government policies and procedures which play to the strengths of the construction industry and ensure we build sustainable schools that meet the needs for the children of today and for generations to come.

Nusrat Faizullah is chief executive of the British Council for School Environments


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