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Westminster stands firm in face of Pimlico opposition

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Westminster City Council has defended its decision to press ahead with the 'pathfinder' pfi proposal to demolish and rebuild Pimlico School despite a welter of opposition from eminent architects, engineers, parents, the school governors - and now even the pupils.

Around 1000 pupils at the London school walked out of lessons on strike this week following the latest twists in the saga. Although the government education department has said the building is not in sufficiently poor a state of disrepair to warrant a grant, and Westminster says a £10 million refurbishment is 'unviable', it has emerged that the Treasury has approved a notional credit approval of £25 million of government money, to be drip- fed into the project over 35 years as a reward for its 'pathfinder' status.

At a briefing before a planning application is submitted on 27 November, the chairman of Westminster's education and leisure committee, councillor Jenny Bianco, said the redevelopment was necessary for 'the long term', since the current building had 'a great deal of problems which were a major distraction for staff and pupils'. She said, 'We can't do a cosmetic exercise. It wouldn't be fair in my opinion.' But, she added, neither was Westminster on 'some sort of ideological trip' - pfi was the only method to replace the school.

The director of Westminster's education and leisure committee, Deirdre McGrath, said that if all went to plan, the project would go on site next summer, with a major demolition phase in 2000. Refurbishment - recommended by the original architect of the building, John Bancroft - 'would not have resolved the difficulties in terms of new space requirements'. She also claimed that refurbishment would be 'as disruptive and take as long' as demolishing and rebuilding.

At one stage Westminster wanted to decant the pupils from the site until redevelopment was over, or even transfer them to a new site permanently. The project was put on hold for several months during the hunt for a site. According to McGrath, the council looked 'in the city and outside the city' for such a site but was unable to identify an 'appropriate' one. She denied that it could have used the Effra site in Vauxhall, saying it was too small, even though the Effra site is actually 3.2ha, compared with Pimlico's 1.8ha.

Deputy head teacher Peter Jefferies outlined why the school of 1350 pupils needed to expand to 1450 to take advantage of its educational excellence in music, drama and art. Head teacher Philip Barnard, under fire for being in favour of retaining the building, was not present at the meeting.

Jefferies said the building's 'flaws in fabric, design and layout were not easily remedied', and since educational requirements had changed it was very difficult to adapt. Class sizes were limited by the size of the rooms; outside spaces needed to be designed so they were more easily supervised by modern methods such as cctv. He also wanted professionals managing the building to leave teachers more time to teach.

Chief executive of the Costain Group John Armitt said his firm was 'totally committed to pfi as a method of procurement of the social infrastructure we need in Britain'. John Tibbitts, the consortium's bid manager, said two objectives of the scheme were to provide maximum available play space and to provide income, with as little disruption as possible. It plans to erect a 10m-high, 100mm-thick 'environmental barrier' to prevent noise and dust nuisance and will be penalised if it does not do so. Some of the income is envisaged to come from sports and leisure facilities becoming available to the public out of school hours. More will come from Berkeley Homes' creation of over 100 homes on the site. And school printing facilities may also be run as commercial enterprises. The new design is 'educationally driven, not architecturally driven', said Tibbitts.

If it is given planning permission next February, the new school will be 14 per cent larger in floor area, and feature a new 500-seater hall, a cafe, a purpose-designed music area, a new swimming pool, and two new gymnasia. Pimlico nut, however, claims that it would occupy only three- quarters of the present site, with 25 per cent lost to 'high-cost luxury housing'.

Critics of the scheme also point to the fact that home secretary Jack Straw, has stepped down this week from his position as chairman of the governors - merely a coincidence, said Westminster. They also note that the staff have twice voted against the project; and that the governors have not yet approved St George's Square consortium as the preferred bidder. They are not yet satisfied with reassurances over fire safety or about the removal of any asbestos.

Westminster also rebuffed criticisms that the last two bidders on the competition shortlist both contained subsidiaries of Berkeley. The council said it was satisfied with the district auditor's report into the matter and had taken legal advice.

The final bid was thought to be for £34 million - which is £2 million above the public-sector comparison for the scheme and way above the £22 million bid from the other shortlisted team.

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