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The government’s school building plan – are we on track to hit targets?



By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

As the schools go back after the Summer and the traffic on a morning gets much busier, I’ve been thinking of the government’s plans for school buildings and whether we’re on track to hit the targets set.

Think back to 2015 when the government set aside £23bn to pay for school building and refurbishment programmes up to 2021. They were originally designed to fix the £6.7bn problem of school disrepair and tackle the challenge of creating hundreds of thousands of new pupil places to meet forecast demand. However, we’re now at the half way point and many fear that the pace is slowing and we’re not on plan to hit the target.

The government’s response to claims that they’re not on track was that they’ve already created an additional 825,000 school places and are on target to deliver another million in the next two years. The government had also set the target of 500 free schools in its 2017 manifesto and we’re still waiting on the education secretary, Damian Hinds, to speak about Wave 13 publicly. The old saying goes ‘no news is good news’, but that doesn’t seem to apply here. Silence leads to speculation, which is never a good thing, especially when there is evidence that work is coming forward slower than expected. For example, last year’s government construction and infrastructure pipeline predicted approximately £5bn would be spent in 2017/18 on school’s capital, £1bn more than ultimately was spent therefore supporting the view that spending did not come forward as hoped.

Then there’s the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) covering 537 schools, which should be well into the second phase of delivering 277 schools by 2021. A departmental source said the drop in capital spend last year was due to the winding-down of the first phase of the PSBP, which has now built 237 of the promised 260 schools.  In the PSBP, the industry was doing hundreds of schools a year sometimes, but PSBP2 is much more of a slow burn. At this stage that should equate to about 80 projects a year, but Building Magazine have announced that the figures they have seen are well below that. If phase two is proving slow, what does that mean for plans post 2021? Will there be a phase three?

There are lots of questions left unanswered and given the government’s silence on many things, I suspect many people will be expecting answers in the chancellor’s 2019 Spring Statement. The industry is already nervous pre-Brexit, so I think we deserve some indication from the government on the way things are going.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

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