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Autumn Statement: £5bn capital projects boost announced

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Billions saved by cuts to Whitehall budgets could lead to the construction of more schools but architects fear design timescales may be compromised

Chancellor George Osborne has announced a £5 billion cash boost for new schools and infrastructure to be paid for in savings from Whitehall budgets.

The capital projects investment will see £1 billion put aside for 100 new free schools and academies, creating an additional 50,000 new school places. The new schools are expected to start construction in autumn 2013.

Whitehall department budgets will be cut by 1 per cent next year and a further 2 per cent the following year to pay for the projects. New roads and other infrastructure projects will also be included in the programme.

Prime minister David Cameron said: ‘Government departments aren’t actually spending up to their budgets so I think we can say to them, you’ve got to cut back some spending, including some unnecessary spending.

‘Let’s put that money into things that will make a difference in our country and in our economy – more roads, more school buildings, more infrastructure to make our economy work better, to make our country work better.’

British Council for School Environments chief executive Sharon Wright welcomed the news but argued the money must be ‘spent wisely’ to ensure ‘decent environments’ for all children.

She said: ‘We’re glad to see the government recognising the importance of investing in school buildings, and this will go some way towards addressing the shortage of school places and the growing pupil population.’

Paul Scott, director of TP Bennett, which designed the Toby Young-backed West London Free School (WLFS) welcomed the cash injection but warned that rushed contractor-led programmes and a minimal design stage could store up problems for the future.

Scott said the political imperative for a speedy solution to the schools crisis meant architects had to draw up designs for what are often tricky, constrained sites, sometimes in a matter of days.

‘The design work is done at risk to meet ridiculously short programme times,’ he said.

TP Bennett was drafted in at the last minute to work with contractor Willmott Dixon after a split with original contractor Apollo. Scott said: ‘I had to design the WLFS over the weekend.’

Anthony Langan, director at Aedas, said: There is a latent demand from teachers, students and parents for quality educational environments, there are plenty of good architects to design them and we have the  frameworks to procure them and contractors in place to build them. However,  the real challenge to the government to get the additional £1bn of funding into the system quickly enough to make a positive impact on the construction economy of the UK in 2013’

David Tonkin, Atkins’ UK chief executive said: ‘Infrastructure is one of the few areas of investment which allows governments to deliver short-term gains in a way which have long-term benefits. This is why it continues to play such a fundamental role in the UK economy. The funding schemes announced to support the extension of the Northern line to Battersea Power Station and the accompanied redevelopment, major upgrades for four trunk roads and motorways, extra fast broadband in 12 smaller cities and the next phase of HS2 will provide a welcome boost for jobs and the economy. At the same time they will help provide the backbone for the country to meet its long-term needs.

‘Making PFIs a more attractive proposition for both public and private sectors should unlock vital funding for further investment in infrastructure. PFI schemes have been criticised over the years, but if targeted in the right areas they can deliver excellent results, such as the one which is currently managing and upgrading many miles of the M25 Motorway.  With aging infrastructure to maintain and enhance, and requirements for new builds, such as power stations, roads, railways, schools and hospitals, an improved system to facilitate private sector investment in public sector programmes is key.’

He added: ‘While the government has been focusing on other elements of education, engineers and builders have been developing a range of modular and standardised options for enhancing school facilities. With £1bn funding now committed for building 100 new schools and expanding others, the engineering and construction industry can implement these solutions quickly and more cost efficiently than has been done in the past.’


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