Forward-thinking school governors in north London are battling to use the PFI process to construct a major new education building - but only on the strict condition that a design they already have by Feilden Clegg Bradley is used.
The trailblazing plan for a £15 million building for Haverstock School in Camden would be a unique rethink of the PFI route and a way of maintaining good quality in a procurement method which has been bedevilled by problems and hit by criticism from organisations such as CABE.
CABE commissioner and Feilden Clegg Bradley partner Richard Fielden is heading a group on getting good design in school buildings and he believes Haverstock could become a blueprint for other PFI schemes. Feilden, who has declared his interests to the commission and the Department for Education and Skills, said that the governors will vote in favour of the PFI mechanism, subject to Feilden Clegg Bradley's design being adopted.
'That has never been done before, ' said Feilden.
'This is one possible way that the PFI could develop - design first, then PFI. And in the right circumstances it has a lot to commend it.'
The practice was appointed last August and has designed the new-look school to Stage D. It plans to build a 1,200-place secondary school to replace 14 outdated buildings on site and was supposed to have started this summer, using a traditional procurement route and a budget of £13 million. The scheme will be submitted 'imminently' for planning and includes housing on part of the site. But Camden said that had it been procured traditionally, more space would have had to be surrendered.
Camden has won £17.1 million of PFI 'credits' for the project from central government. It confirmed last week that it wants to use PFI, while still using the original designs, rather than submitting to a new consortium's proposals. A spokesman said that using PFI with a 25-year lease on the school and services would also mean more money in the pot for other Camden schools. The DfES is understood to be 'not unsympathetic' to the plan.
The governors voted last week to submit an outline business case for PFI funding to the DfES. The report, seen by the AJ, argued that PFI will deliver the objectives of both the school and council, provide 'value for money' and be affordable.
The business case also reveals consortia have been contacted as 'potential partners' on the project, which will have to be advertised in the OJEC, probably in September. 'Positive' respondents were Kier Project Investment, HBG Projects, Vinci Investments (Norwest Holst) and Equion. And one of the firms said it would novate the architects after doing so on a previous PFI deal, without affecting the private sector's 'ability to innovate' - but subject to appropriate allocation of risk.
The Haverstock scheme could be a model for other PFI education schemes, avoiding the problems which have dogged schemes such as Pimlico School, the stalled project to demolish and rebuild John Bancroft's 1970 building. Pimlico parent governor Michael Ball was at a public meeting a fortnight ago where parents, teachers and unions discussed the proposals. But Ball said he was 'seriously depressed' to see Haverstock considering PFI and warned them away: 'I was saying to them 'Don't do it! You'll spend four years fighting.'' And he was also doubtful whether the design element of the design, build, finance and operate scheme could be successfully divorced while still achieving value for money for the developer. 'I don't think it can be done' he said. 'Value for money is the biggest driver in PFI - it'll be totally against the PFI system.'