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Tendering process will hit Alistair Darling’s fast-track plans

Industry experts have cast doubt on Government plans to “fast-track” construction projects including schools, medical buildings, housing and leisure centres.

The move - which was announced by Alistair Darling last weekend - will potentially create thousands of extra construction jobs at a time when the industry needs it most.

A Treasury spokesman said: “It is about bringing forward future spending to create work now, when it is most needed.”

Government borrowing so far this financial year now stands at £37.6 billion - the highest since records began in 1946.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has given the nod for Government departments to dip into their 2010/11 budgets in an attempt to give a Keynesian-style stimulus to the economy in the months ahead.

But analysts warned there may be little practical benefit in fast tracking projects with departments worried about compromising the tendering and audit process in a rush to get projects “out the door”.

Carl Emmerson, deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said: “In practical terms, departments may not be able to get projects off the ground any quicker.

“Big public sector projects require much time and complex planning applications.”

Speaking at the CN Forecasting conference this week, David Smith, economics editor at The Sunday Times said: “The Treasury is keen to do it but it is easier said than done - the politics may be more important than the reality. I don’t think it’s a huge cause for celebration.”

David Gardner, director of public policy at KPMG, said: “Whether anything will be forcibly fast tracked remains to be seen, it is unlikely due to the complexity of programmes.

“But from one perspective this is at least a clear signal that no public projects will be cut.”

Nick Raynsford, deputy chairman of the Construction Industry Council and former construction minister, told Construction News that the fast tracking of public spending would be achieved by frontloading long-term projects.

For instance, the 15-year Building Schools for the Future programme will see an increase in the number of schools built now, before tailing off towards the end of the plan.

Michael Ankers, chief executive of the Construction Products Association, said: “Clearly it’s something we have been pressing for but one of my concerns is that these are the sectors that are incredibly busy already - there’s no problem in frontloading BSF for instance, but is there capacity?

“What I would like to see is far more investment in social housing and also encouraging the improvement of the energy efficiency of existing housing stock. It’s a big win, you can get it moving quickly and it involves smaller companies as well.”

Ian Cox, chief executive of The Concrete Centre, said: “The construction industry consists of 250,000 firms and employs 2.1 million people, thousands of whom are under threat of losing their jobs during the economic downturn.

“Investing in the construction industry means investing in the national economy.”

Further detail of the Government plans will be set out in next month’s Pre-Budget Report.

Departments have no plans to speed up spending

The Government departments that spoke to Construction News were unable to say which projects they will be able to fast track.

A Department for Children Schools and Families spokesman said it would be investing £22 billion of capital funding into schools over the next three years with the Building Schools for the Future programme accelerating.

But he would only reiterate the estimate made earlier this year that 200 secondary schools a year will be built in England.

A Communities and Local Government spokeswoman said there were no plans to bring forward future spending above the £1 billion housing package – announced in September – that will deliver 5,500 more social houses over the next 18 months.

The Department for Health said there would be little effect on NHS building in the short term.

The Department for Transport said its major projects would not progress any quicker, while the Department for Culture Media and Sport said Olympic projects were progressing to a strict timetable.