School’s out for UK’s £55bn BSF programme

The new coalition government has scrapped the previous government’s programme to refurbish all of England’s state-backed secondary schools. In practice, 715 projects have been cancelled while 706 will proceed where they have been completed or reached financial close.

The axe has fallen on the UK’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme as part of the new coalition government’s ongoing spending review, the Department for Education announced yesterday.

The £55 billion (€66 billion, $83 billion) BSF programme, started by the previous Labour government in 2004, aimed to refurbish or rebuild the entirety of England’s secondary schools by 2023. But new education secretary Michael Gove told Parliament yesterday the programme “has been characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy”.

The cancellation will apply to 715 projects that had yet to launch but the new coalition government will allow 706 projects to proceed where local authorities have completed contracts or reached financial close on them. A significant number of BSF projects are being procured through the UK’s private finance initiative (PFI) – the country’s standardised process of tendering public works to the private sector.

BSF: school's out

Where projects are at the preferred bidder stage, their future will be decided on a case-by-case basis, Gove said. Reuters reports that local authorities have selected preferred bidders for more than £1 billion of BSF projects in the past month alone. Some 180 schools have been built or refurbished since the programme’s start in 2004.

Gove had some harsh words for the BSF programme in Parliament:

“There are some councils which entered the process six years ago which have only just started building new schools. By contrast, Hong Kong international airport, which was built on a barren rock in the South China Sea and can process 50 million passenger movements every year, took just six years to build — from start to finish,” he said.

Ahead of his statement, BAM Construct, part of the Netherlands’ Royal BAM Group, urged the government not to cut BSF projects, but rather to streamline the procurement system:

“You could build a primary school for the price of what it currently costs to bid successfully for a BSF [project],” said BAM Construct design director Chris Gilmour.