For those not familiar with the ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme, it’s going to be pretty hard to explain the significance of the decision by education minister Michael Gove to scrap the scheme. I’m not sure what the consequences of this policy will be, but you can be pretty sure that it will be very painful and lead to significant job losses in the wider construction industry.
To confuse matters, I would begin by suggesting that many professionals who would have complained pretty bitterly about the BSF process a few months ago, will now be wailing and thumping the ground with anguish, at it’s demise. Me for one.
I’ve been working on BSF projects since 2004 and could write at length about the problems that I have encountered: driven by financial, rather than practical considerations; a process that precludes smaller companies and favours bigger, more expensive consultancies; endless bidding that leads to wasted efforts and squeezes designers on costs; too influenced by facilities management; key design elements are often lost in ‘value engineering’; problems of design and build model; not enough meaningful input from the schools themselves - all to name just a few of my complaints. Finally, there has often been too much emphasis on creating groundbreaking pieces of architecture, rather producing functional schools. It is a profoundly flawed process (Edit: Charles Holland of Fat architects has written a blog post on just this subject, which outlines the issues much better than I have).
However, I would suggest that right now there are a number of compelling reasons why stopping the programme altogether is a bad thing. Firstly, the state of many of our schools is simply shocking. These schools provide miserable accommodation for pupils and teachers and should have been demolished decades ago . Sub-standard facilities demonstrate the worth (or lack of) that our society attributes to those using them. Poor exterior facilities in particular, are way behind the best international schools. In addition to this, the operating and maintenance costs of dilapidated schools, far exceeds the cost of good quality modern facilities.
Secondly, and this is the one currently occupying my thoughts, that the industry has literally nothing else to do now. Since the recession first began to bite a couple of years ago, private sector has slowed to the mearest trickle. While a few companies are able to get by on long running jobs, schools building is pretty much the last area of significant work about now. Many companies (my own included), have put enormous effort into bringing in BSF work.
Finally, there’s no plan for an alternative.
So while it’s been clear that the Conservatives have had intended to do away with BSF, the implementation of this cut has been shockingly brutal. I can’t think of another single decision that will have had a greater impact on the industry than this one. It had been expected by most people that starting at the Autumn spending review, BSF projects would naturally be phased out. No-one seemed to be expecting that they would simply stop. There must be literally hundreds of projects, all but complete and following massive amounts of work from architects, landscape architects, engineers, teachers, governers and pupils, which will now be lost. Given the abundance of figures that have been waved about today, I would really to know the value of work which will have been wasted by today’s cut? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s billions. I also wonder what the loss of income tax revenue will be from putting whole professions out of work?
I dare say there will be much written about BSF in the coming days and weeks, which will probably look at the issues much more closely than I have. While I can see problems inherant in the BSF programme, it seems to me that it’s demise will have long lasting and profoundly damaging effects on both the education and construction sectors. The sad thing is that whatever replaces BSF probably won’t be much better - it’ll still be a design and build/PFI model. It’s been a long and troubling day, and it will likely be a longer and more troubling week. Right now I should probably be in bed, put my head is buzzing with questions: Where next for schools? Where next for the profession? Where next for me?