Public sector procurement processes are strange things. And when I say strange, most would agree I mean challenging, difficult and sometimes frustrating.
So we were all pleased when Partnerships for Schools finally listened to industry demands for a review of the prohibitively expensive procurement process for the £45 billion Building Schools for the Future programme.
The British Council for School Environments called for a review when we launched nearly two years ago, and reiterated that call in a report, Manifesto for learning environments - a call to action, published last spring, which might be one of the reasons we were invited by Partnerships for Schools to take part in the review itself.
So far, so good - a problem and a route identified to come up with sorely needed solutions. But after that, things came unstuck.
Firstly, it became clear that the review wasn’t going to be as comprehensive as we had all hoped for.
Secondly, the review did not recommend a fresh approach to procurement that would address some of the systemic failures apparent to all those stakeholders presently bogged down in an over-complicated process; not only contractors but also our architectural partners, project managers, local authorities and schools.
The changes announced by Partnerships for Schools are welcome, as far as they go. Less duplication, a cut of seven weeks in the overall procurement time, a focus on effective partnering issues and cost savings in the design process - all good news.
But we need to ask: do the revisions address the fast-moving educational agenda, which demands that we design and build creative and imaginative schools for our teachers and children to work in?
Because when it comes to creative and imaginative solutions to the challenges of the procurement process, there seems to be a difficulty in applying those same principles. Of course there needs to be centralised and standardised elements of the procurement process but they must be a springboard for innovation, not a straitjacket which smothers new thinking and new ways of doing things.
Explore the alternatives
There are some great examples of fantastic partnering by local authorities, innovative framework agreements and of course the ‘smart PFI’ route developed by RIBA.
We should be investing as much time and energy in looking at the alternatives rather than accepting the fundamentals of the status quo and tinkering with them. The review could have tested what’s already in place and how it can be used, or adapted, in terms of best practice when it comes to BSF.
Let’s be under no illusion about the importance of this. Is there a real danger that some of our world-class architects, contractors and construction firms will decide that BSF just isn’t worth the grief and focus their energies on 2012 and elsewhere?
This is billions of pounds of public money being poured into our schools offering an unprecedented opportunity to change the face of our communities.
Dr Caroline Whalley is the new chair of the British Council for School Environments