Deputy prime minister John Prescott has made a dramatic last minute intervention to prevent Westminster City Council from granting full planning permission to its own project - the controversial 'pathfinder' pfi proposal to knock down and replace Pimlico School with a new building and luxury flats.
Prescott's department at the Government Office for London (gol) issued an Article 14 directive by fax to the council at 4pm on Thursday last week telling them he would have the last say on the £49.5 million scheme. The directive is an open-ended holding order allowing gol to weigh up the situation. The letter arrived just two hours before planners recommended the green light for the proposal, but the reworked scheme was still ratified by the planning committee.
Despite further slating of the 'mediocre' design of the school building and 'disappointing' look of the flats, long and severe criticism of the 'unacceptable' loss of 25 mature plane trees, and attacks on the likely pressure on parking in the already cramped area as a result of new facilities in the Ellis Williams designed project, councillors accepted the officers' recommendations (aj17.6.99). They voted unanimously to approve the scheme pending Prescott's formal authorisation. The council issued a press release hailing the 'milestone' as 'a clear indication of the project's overall deliverability' and now hopes to gain support from the governing body, although some of the governors are now considering a judicial review of the affair.
Like much of the council, Conservative ward councillor Kit Malthouse told the meeting he accepted the need for a new school (a premise which many of the objectors feel is a false one) and that the pfi route was the 'only one available to pay for it'. In fact, as governor and home secretary Jack Straw intimated at a meeting last week, the only justification was that pfis do not affect the uk's Public Spending Borrowing Requirement. For that reason the Government is keen for Pimlico to proceed to prove the mechanism a viable one. There is something of a pfi logjam - currently there are over 100 similar education projects at a similar stage in this country representing a value of £1.5 billion, with only two signed so far.
Malthouse added, however, that he could not support the application, which was 'half-hearted to say the least', and was a reworking of the consortium's first attempt which 'merely tinkered' with the original design. He added that those responsible for the traffic survey must have been 'blind in one eye'.
Further controversy occurred at the committee meeting when the council's director of education Simon Milton prepared to speak on the issue. But councillor Alan Bradley said it would set an 'unfortunate precedent' if he was allowed to speak, since he was 'in effect the client' - and he, at least, was refused permission.