A HOST of rivals has entered the fray for the biggest scheme so far under the Government's Building Schools for the Future initiative.
Contractors are vying for the first stage of Kent County Council's £1.8 billion programme to revamp 110 secondary schools across the region.
Construction News understands that Balfour Beatty, Carillion/Capita, Laing Equion, Amey and Skanska UK returned prequalification documents to the authority this week, while Kier is bidding with the Investors in the Community (Mill Group/ Land Securities) consortium.
The deal is so big that the council has decided to split the programme into three stages so that a market already under pressure from Olympic construction demands and housing growth can cope with the workload.
Splitting up the scheme also prevents potential contractors being hit by astronomical bid costs.
The council's business plan for the BSF project says: 'Market intelligence suggests that even the larger consortia are struggling to absorb the costs associated with bidding. The bid costs on a £1.8 billion deal might well prove to inhibit the market.'
But the £600 million size of the first phase alone has put off firms already established in the BSF market, including Miller, Vinci and Taylor Woodrow.
A source at one firm said: 'We had a very hard look at this but decided it wasn't one for us. It is certainly a lot of work but we have been successful elsewhere and handling a procurement process this big is always a challenge.'
The council's business plan says: 'These three smaller procurements are still significantly larger than many of the other BSF programmes in the country.'
Kent is looking to establish three Local Education Partnerships with its eventual contractor and central Government to cover the construction work.
The authority will choose a shortlist of three bidders in January before a preferred bidder is selected next September.
Financial close is expected in May 2008. The first phase of the project involves 33 new secondary schools in Gravesham, Thanet and Swale, to be built between 2008 and 2014.
The next two stages of the programme - subject to the approval of future business cases - will see nearly 70 more schools built in Dover, Canterbury, Ashford, Dartford, Sevenoaks, Maidstone and Tonbridge We l l s up to 2021.