The Government has made a massive U-turn on a ministerial pledge in order to push through the controversial £50 million Pimlico School project for Westminster City Council.
Former schools minister Charles Clarke approved a letter in July to the key stakeholders in the pfi project, warning them that he required the 'unequivocal support' of the governors before he could rubber-stamp the final pieces in the jigsaw for the project - change of use to include new luxury housing, and a dramatic reduction in play space. In a crunch two-hour meeting this week, the school's governors met to discuss the project and voted by just 10 votes to 9 - the smallest majority possible - to overturn their earlier opposition to the demolition and rebuild scheme. One governor who had previously opposed the scheme was absent. The Department for Education and Employment said it was advising new minister Jacqui Smith on a decision, but Westminster's education committee chairman Simon Milton revealed to the aj that the dfee has already told the council it is happy for the project to go ahead - thereby ruling 10-9 as 'unequivocal.'
'The damn thing is over', said governor Michael Ball, 'unless the DfEE reinvents the meaning of the term 'unequivocal''.
But Westminster is sticking to its guns. It issued a press release headed 'A 'Yes' to Pimlico School Redevelopment', saying it would now go to final contract agreement, quoting chair of the governors Pat Leon, education committee chairman Councillor Simon Milton and developer John Tibbits.
Leon had put the motion to support the scheme at the meeting, which since it had not been put on the agenda a week previously, was declared 'out of order'. This means that the 10-9 decision is illegal and some of the governors are taking legal advice on the issue. But Milton, who has also taken legal advice, told the aj this was untrue. 'That's a load of nonsense,' he said. 'When you lose an argument you try to attack the process'.
Leon, whose child has now left the school, said that the pfi scheme 'safeguards future generations' access to quality state secondary education in the heart of the capital' and that governors wanted to transfer the 'creative liberal ethos' of the school to the new building.
Milton said it was 'very positive news' towards ensuring Pimlico School will have a new school building by 2003 with a contract signed between now and March, whilst Tibbits welcomed the chance to finally make the project 'a reality'.
But architect and school governor Rob Hughes said he was considering resigning over the affair. 'Ten to nine is as equivocal as you can possibly get and reflects very accurately the views of the governing body,' he said. Hughes added that the quality of the Ellis Williams project was considered an 'irrelevancy' at the meeting and that pfi was now taking the place that other 'discredited environmental initiatives' such as comprehensive development and slum clearance had in the past.
Home secretary Jack Straw, a fervent supporter of the need for a new school and for pfi as the method to procure it since day one, was also at the meeting to try and push the project through. He tried unsuccessfully to 'guillotine' the discussion of the 35-year project into just 30 minutes. In 1997, however, things were different. He wrote in his election statement for governor: 'Am I too busy? No, I've always found time for Pimlico.'