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Architects slam Gove's £2bn BSF replacement

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Architects have criticised education secretary Michael Gove for keeping private finance initiatives (PFI) at the heart of a new £2 billion privately financed ‘priority school-building programme’

Rubber-stamping many of the recommendations in the James Review into streamlined school delivery and procurement (AJ 08.04.11), the long-awaited replacement for the scrapped £55 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme could rebuild up to 300 schools identified as being ‘in the worst condition’.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Gove pledged to conduct a full survey of the school estate, revise schools premises regulations and guidance, and to accept Sebastian James’ proposals for greater standardisation of school-building design.

Robin Nicholson of Edward Cullinan Architects said: ‘It’s good that Gove wants a survey of schools, but there is nothing about carbon or the performance of new schools. These are two really big issues. And I thought we had got rid of PFI.’

Critics claim the new plans risk being dwarfed by the £22 billion schools maintenance backlog identified by the review.

Devereux Architects project director Jonathan Harford agreed: ‘It appears that PFI is not dead after all.

‘Providing £2 billion for 300 new schools equates to only £6.5 million per school – which is around a third of the cost of a typical new secondary school. The PFI model generally works best with much larger schemes.’

However, Lee Bennett, partner and head of schools at Sheppard Robson, admitted there were ‘some strands of sense’ in Gove’s message.

He said: ‘Promoting a more surgical approach of necessary renewal or repair is responsible; providing this through a “suite of standardised drawings” however will lead to responses possibly without architectural direction.’

RIBA president Ruth Reed said: ‘We support the broad thrust of the government’s response. The procurement methods used for BSF were deeply and fundamentally flawed, and the RIBA has consistently argued for reform.

‘However, we remain concerned about the emphasis placed on standardisation. The schools estate is highly complex and requires a variety of responses.’

A public consultation on the priority school-building programme has been launched, and will run for the next 12 weeks.


Further comment

Tony Langan, Aedas director

We welcome the initiatives set out in the James report and previously in the Government Construction Strategy, challenging the construction industry as a whole to become more innovative, more cooperative, less adversarial and less wasteful. In turn the Government has promised to develop an emphasis on outcomes and performance and to ensure Government procurement is led by an educated client so together we can maximise the investment in public infrastructure.

Christina Seilern, Studio Seilern Architects principal

There is a certain logic in trying to achieve efficiencies through standardisation of regulations and design. In Studio Seilern Architects’ own work with Knightsbridge Schools International we have developed an architectural language, structure and set of principles that can be particularised by the school in multiple settings around the world, be it a new build or refurbishment. In the case of UK schools, any standard designs and principles must be flexible enough to respond to the specific needs of the communities the school is to serve. Any standard designs should still be subject to a process of public consultation to arrive at individual school designs.

Ty Goddard, British Council for School Environments director

Today’s announcement recognises the profound need for investment in our school buildings.  A decent school environment matters. Key to the new capital funding programme’s success will be a common sense approach to allocation, which takes into account the needs of schools which apply.  We must guard against some of the problems that were a hallmark of early PFI-funded schools. We also welcome funding to meet the requirements for new school places, which will create some breathing space for hard-pressed schools.

On the specific comments in regard to the recommendations of the James Review: The importance of a comprehensive survey into the school estate cannot be understated – we can’t be sure of what we need to do until we’re sure of what the problems are. Complete standardisation of design may not be a panacea – one size does not fit all. Simpler regulations and less red tape will lead to a large sigh of relief for all those professionals involved in the design and construction of schools. We look forward to responding to the consultation on the other recommendations.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Peter Ullathorne: The Ullathorne Consultancy:
    PFI has come of age. PFI could just offer reasonable value in addition to the various rate discounts. If those who commission public buildings are well advised on value and performance (by RIBA Client Advisers) at briefing, design and in competitive dialogue then the finance, delivery and service packages offered by private sector providers can actually provide long term value. Thinking about schools and the now abbreviated programme of work, surely we need to surround our children with good parenting, gifted teaching and well designed environments to fulfil our responsibilities as adult? Let's not quibble over a few percentage points on the cost of meeting such responsibilities.

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