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Prescott ducks Pimlico inquiry

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Deputy prime minister John Prescott has refused to come to the rescue of Pimlico School by ruling that the scheme - Westminster City Council's pathfinder Private Finance Initiative, and an example to kickstart billions of pounds worth of other education schemes for Labour in the uk - is of nothing more than 'local importance'.

Prescott's Government Office for London sent letters on Monday this week to the council and interested parties, such as original architect John Bancroft, making clear that Government's policy on call-ins is now 'very selective'. After 'careful consideration' of all the information before him, including reams of representations and criticisms from third parties, Prescott considered the controversial scheme to provide a new Ellis Williams- designed school and luxury houses to be best left to the council - and client - to decide upon.

Last month the council was prevented from giving full planning permission by an Article 14 holding directive from gol, sent two hours before the planning committee (aj 24.6.99). Now Westminster, which said it was exciting 'and good news for education' with that obstacle cleared, will work to try and persuade the governors of the scheme's merits and get education secretary David Blunkett to exempt the project from strict new rules on selling off playing fields - introduced through a government circular only last month.

School governor Michael Ball said of the news: 'This has been reported in every national newspaper and has required the consideration of three secretaries of state: Blunkett, Smith, and Prescott, with a fourth, Jack Straw, until recently leading the project. This is by any definition a national issue. Prescott's decision is not worthy of a national government.' Pimlico resident and activist Gareth Gwynne added: 'For Prescott's urban renaissance read, 'Pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap.' This isn't good planning law: this is the law of the jungle.'

Bancroft told the aj he was 'very disappointed' by Prescott's 'very parochial' decision and is now to seek legal advice on a possible judicial review.

And pfi expert at Manchester University Dr Jean Shaoul, who last week delivered a much publicised attack on the government's utilisation of the funding mechanism for hospitals, has analysed the council's documentation justifying the project. She attacked the scheme's high expense and the short-term nature of the deal. 'pfi schemes are very expensive and purport to show value for money by using public-sector comparisons, but under Treasury rules that are conceptually and methodologically flawed. And what'll happen at the end of the 25-year period of the contract? These buildings are going to need refurbishment, and how will that be paid for?'

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