The future of the £55 billion Building Schools for the Future scheme was unclear this week after the Conservative party launched a major probe into its finances.
Construction News has learnt that the Conservatives are so alarmed by language in the Budget report that they have put all their schools policy plans on hold.
Shadow minister for schools Nick Gibb begun drafting Parliamentary questions to force the Government to reveal any plans to cut back spending on the programme.
Contractors now face an anxious wait to see whether either party will commit to seeing through in full the programme to rebuild or refurbish every state secondary school in England by 2023.
Mr Gibb told Construction News: “The Budget was a shock. With that level of debt there will need to be significant savings – and it is not clear where they will come from.
“We are worried about what funds will be available if we are elected. It concerns us that there will be less money.”
Key areas the shadow schools team will investigate include the planned level of schools capital expenditure from 2011 onwards, and whether there will be a reduction in the number of schools built or refurbished under BSF.
With national debt soaring during the recession, the Government committed in the Budget to making a raft of efficiency savings to help balance the books. The Department for Children, Schools and Families was tasked with finding £650 million extra savings in 2010/11 alone.
Opposition figures are concerned that this will mean cutting back spending on BSF. They were particularly alarmed by statements in the full Budget report that local authorities would enter BSF “in line with available resources”.
A list of priority councils to enter the BSF scheme at the next stage has been drawn up and released by the DCSF. But contractors are waiting for confirmation of which authorities will enter when.
Paragraph 6:21 of the full Budget report said: “Following the consultation last year on the future delivery of BSF, the Government has decided to move from the wave-based model used to date so that local authorities… can join the programme on a rolling basis, in line with available resources and only if [delivery body] Partnership for Schools assesses that they are ready.”
Mr Gibb is planning to probe both that statement and the DCSF’s overall post-Budget efficiency plans with a series of targeted questions in Parliament. He said: “All our policy development has had to be halted until we find out what is meant in the Budget.”
The DCSF insisted that the Government was committed to the schools rebuilding programme – but conceded that future spending was not set in stone.
A spokesman said: “We have to work within each three-year spending settlement, and have always said that [BSF expenditure] it is dependent on future spending decisions.
But he added: “Ministers been crystal clear that every local authority in England will be part of the BSF programme to rebuild the entire secondary school estate, with the vast majority of projects completed by 2020 and the remaining ones in the final stages of renewing their estate.”
He added that PfS expected to announce later this year some specific dates for local authorities to enter BSF.
Meanwhile, Mr Gibbs hinted that the Conservative party’s commitment to reducing national debt could mean big changes to the way BSF is delivered if it came to power.
Revenue spending could be slashed to protect capital expenditure – ominous news for PfS. Mr Gibbs said: “There is lots of waste in the state sector, and I’m determined to deal with that.
“We want to keep as much money as possible to spend on schools. The front-line is what matters, not Government quangos.”
The DCSF’s efficiency savings targets
The Budget set DCSF the following targets up to the end of 2010/11:
- £307m of savings in schools through a one per cent efficiency saving against cost pressures to free up resources to support more personalised learning
- 3 per cent efficiencies in the programme expenditure of non-departmental public bodies
- £650m additional savings without adversely affecting the quality of key services, including through further efficiencies across NDPBs and DCSF
- Economies of scale arising from the growth in post-16 learner numbers over the next two years