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Why we must learn the lessons of BSF

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme made itself an easy target for government spending cuts by being a colossal waste of money.

At an eye-watering £55 billion, it should have been able to do a lot better than 35 new secondary schools (from an original target of 200) with just 13 more refurbished. Around £30 million was spent on the bureaucracy created by Partnership for Schools, and £60m on consultants.

The flawed procurement process meant that few of the contractors who initially bid for BSF work actually ended up on the projects. Once the work was won, the builders would go back to their bad old habits and indulge in the usual round of Dutch auctions, cutting out many of the specialist firms who had come up with the ideas originally.

The BSF obsession with major ‘signature’ projects obscured the fact that smaller refurbishments of thousands of run-down school buildings should have been the priority.

Furthermore, the original scheme missed a huge opportunity to cut carbon. A combined heat and power unit in every school would have gone a long way towards our carbon reduction targets. But the education and environment departments didn’t talk to each other, so renewables were regularly ‘value engineered’ out of the specification before construction began.

However, the government now has an opportunity to create a public sector procurement template that can deliver more for less.

By focusing on the thousands of small, essential refurbishments that school managers are desperate for, we can create a slimmer, leaner and more effective scheme that keeps smaller local specialist contractors on board and retains their expertise.

A revised scheme could also bolster Competent Persons schemes. If this rule was embedded in all government specifications, it would avoid the unseemly row about why local authorities are failing to enforce the requirements of the Building Regulations.

Martin Burton runs the commercial contracting division of Delron Services (DSL) and is HVCA president for 2010/11