The European Commission has weighed into the ongoing controversy surrounding the redevelopment of Pimlico School with an attack on the 'unlawful'method of selecting the team masterminding the demolition and rebuild scheme.
In a test case which has ramifications for billions of pounds worth of other PFI schemes approved by Government using similar methods, the EC has written to the UK government with 'reasoned opinions'. It argued that the procedure in two British cases - the other was for community facilities in Ipswich - infringed the Procurement of Construction Works Directive.
Normal ly PFI deals are pushed through under the 'negotiated procedures' route, which allows organisations such as Westminster to consult with contractors and negotiate terms with one or more of them.But the EC says this should only be allowed in 'very specific circumstances' and wants to see at least five bidders in such processes, rather than three as was the case with Pimlico.
According to the EC, boththeUK and Germany had incorrectly applied the EU's public procurement directives and their 'strict' rules obliging organisations to follow 'open and competitive tendering procedures'.
Pimlico governor Michael Ball said: 'PFIs as a whole are now under threat. The EC could declare them all null and void and there could be a huge amount of egg on the face of the UK government. They've allowed billions of pounds worth of schemes to go through in what the EC now says is questionable.' Westminster's legal team is waiting for Treasury guidance.
Westminster has also now asked education and employment minister Jaqui Smith for an extension to the deadline on a claim for a £25 million PFI credit allocation to half-fund the £50 million replacement scheme. The council said last week that it agreed with school governors and the developer consortium to set a new crunch date of 30 November to reach a solution - either PFI rebuild or refurbishment. But Smith has already granted three extensions and warned chair of governors Europe Singh in August that there were other worthy claimants to the money. 'In these circumstances we cannot continue to earmark the very considerable amount allocated to your project indefinitely, ' she wrote.
If she refuses an extension, the rebuild case will collapse.
The Pimlico scheme has already weathered stiff criticism from heritage bodies and architects who argued that the building should be refurbished rather than demolished to make way for an Ellis Williams-designed replacement and luxury flats.
Now Ball said the governors and Westminster City Council are to prepare an alternative refurbishment study. Ball is investigating names of architects which could be used in the study.