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CITY ACADEMIES FACE EXPULSION

Perhaps it is telling that architects working on the government's controversial city academies are remaining tight-lipped about revelations of spiralling costs.

'It would not be appropriate for us to comment on things like costs, ' a Foster and Partners spokeswoman told the AJ. Funny that. Maybe it has something to do with Foster's Capital City Academy in Brent, originally estimated to cost £19.4 million, now soaring £7 million over budget, according to new figures released by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) last week ( ajplus 12.06.06).

And Capital City isn't the only academy project struggling with mathematics. In fact, of the 28 building schemes forming the -rst tranche of Prime Minister Tony Blair's project to transform education in England's inner cities, 18 academies have overrun by a total of £48 million.

Things have certainly changed since the Bexley Business Academy, also by Foster, was Stirling-shortlisted in 2004. While most architects are keeping their heads down over the embarrassing figures, John Carhill, managing director at west London-based Barnsley, Hewett & Mallinson, is happy to talk. That's because his projects, including the Walsall Academy and Sandwell Academy, are among the handful to come in on time and to budget.

Carhill is bemused by the widespread failure to deliver academies to budget. He says: 'We have been fastidious about building to area and budget because it is taxpayers' money.

One is disappointed to hear that some of these projects have gone significantly over budget, because from our experience we can't see why that should occur.'

The Liberal Democrats - long-time opponents of academies - are now demanding the suspension, if not the expulsion, of the schools from the government's education agenda.

Liberal Democrat Education spokeswoman Sarah Teather wants to see academies tested in the tough state education system before the next wave of 23 academies begins - especially as it seems they will be even more expensive to build.

Figures released in a written response from the government to the Liberal Democrats indicate that Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough could become the most expensive school in UK history, with a projected build cost of nearly £46.4 million. Meanwhile The Bridge Academy in Hackney isn't far behind with an estimated budget of almost £35 million.

Teather told the AJ: 'It's not a matter of begrudging pupils nice new buildings, it's about whether spending on academies is efficient and effective in getting the results the government claims. So far, the evidence from the existing academies is that they are not the rousing success ministers would have people believe.

The academies scheme is too expensive and not accountable to local people and cannot be the right way forward.'

Obviously the government's political foes are capitalising on the latest body blow to Blair.

But while the academies programme is still upright, it is nevertheless wounded in the public's perception. Surely, then, Teather has a valid point in calling for the government to halt the project and take stock?

Not according to Feilden Clegg Bradley (FCB) - one firm brave enough to go on record despite its academy project in Bristol shooting over budget.

Senior partner Keith Bradley agrees there should be 'a degree of responsibility' over costs but insists state-of-the-art academies are worth every extra penny and should not be halted.

FCB's City Academy in Bristol went £4 million over budget on an initial estimate of £23.9 million. But, as you might expect, Bradley says there is a very good reason for this.

'There are a lot of abnormals on a project of this type. Early budgets are always pretty crude. Bristol's costs went up for a good reason - there was a huge increase in accommodation, ' he says.

'Academies are one of the most difficult types of project because they are usually built in phases around existing schools.

They are worth paying for and good value if compared to new offices or PFI projects.

Academies have done pretty well in keeping costs under control in terms of building a quality environment, ' he added.

Not surprisingly, this view is echoed by the DfES, which stresses costs are being tightly controlled but may 'alter' during building and design for - yes - 'very good reasons'.

A spokesman said: 'Around half of open academies are in London and most are built on restricted brownfield sites and in some cases unforeseen problems arise which need to be dealt with after building begins. It would be toy-town economics to say that costs are over budget and out of control - you have to look at the details of each individual project.'

'Education, education, education' was the muchrepeated axiom of a more youthful Blair promising things could only get better. Nine years later, with his pet project having received a proverbial black eye round the back of the bike sheds, it's hard to imagine taxpayers stomaching more overspend. The Prime Minister may have little more than a year left at Number 10. The question is, will his beloved academies programme last any longer?

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