Page last updated at 01:48 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

College re-building to push ahead

college students
Projects at 330 colleges have already been agreed

The government is set to appoint a troubleshooter to help tackle delays with its re-building plans for schools and colleges in England.

Sir Andrew Foster is expected to start work on a £5bn programme to renovate colleges and sixth-form premises.

Decisions on 20 colleges have been postponed until March by the funding body, the Learning and Skills Council.

The LSC insists there is no freeze on the programme but says some colleges are having trouble raising funds.

Sir Andrew, a former chief executive of the Audit Commission, will push forward a building programme against the background of the economic downturn.

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The Liberal Democrats say the delay to the building programme "rows against" the government's drive to bring forward capital spending.

The Prime Minister Gordon Brown has brought forward funding for capital spending to help stimulate the economy through building projects.

The Learning and Skills Council had been due in December to take decisions on 20 applications for building schemes from colleges.

But shortly before Christmas the colleges were told decisions would not be taken until March.

A spokesman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills says that the government has made the extra money available, but "the LSC is responsible for the delivery of the capital programme".

'Grave risk'

One of the institutions affected is Cirencester College.

Principal Nigel Robbins said it had already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on architects, consultants and engineers.

He told BBC News there was a "grave risk" the project team could break up and the work be wasted.

The LSC says the college rebuilding programme has been "hugely successful", with 700 projects agreed at 330 colleges.

Currently 253 projects are being funded and in fact £110m has been bought forward from future budgets to accelerate spending
Mark Haysom, LSC

It says the growing demand from colleges for funding is one of the reasons for the decisions have been deferred.

Mark Haysom, LSC chief executive said: "There is no freeze on the programme."

Currently 253 projects were being funded - and would not be affected - while £110m had been bought forward from future budgets to accelerate spending.

"However, the pace of demand for funding has increased. This is because the scale of ambition and the government funding they require has grown," Mr Haysom said.

"In addition there are early signs that the ability of colleges to raise their own funds for proposed projects is being affected by the downturn.

"It is for this reason that the LSC, over the next few weeks, is working closely with colleges that have or intend to submit bids to look at the individual current positions before making further funding decisions."

It is understood part of the reason for the delay is that the growing demand from colleges has brought with it a need to prioritise applications, previously dealt with on a "first come, first served" basis.

'Excellent programme'

The Association of Colleges says the delays are making "a complicated process more complex".

Chief executive Martin Doel said colleges wanted greater clarity.

It runs counter to the government's stated aim of bringing forward capital expenditure
Stephen Williams, Lib Dems spokesman

"The programme is a 'victim of its own success' in many ways - as colleges are being so responsive to local needs in their plans - so the demand cannot be reconciled with the available budget in year," he said.

"A review of priorities on this basis is logical and is not unusual for major projects of this kind."

Unlike the programme to re-build England's schools, the college programme does not rely on Private Finance Initiatives (PFI).

Projects are funded by the government, through the LSC, and by colleges raising money themselves.

The Liberal Democrats say the delays are a sign of deep problems in the government's use of private finance for such projects.

Higher education spokesman Stephen Williams said: "It runs counter to the government's stated aim of bringing forward capital expenditure.

"The people meant to be implementing this seem to be rowing in the opposite direction."

On Wednesday, MPs on a Commons committee heard the Construction Industry Council say building firms were struggling to raise the cash needed to take part in the Building Schools for the Future scheme, which does rely on PFI.

A spokesman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills said: "Under this government nearly 700 projects have been agreed by the LSC and all but 42 colleges have had money to make capital improvements.

"As part of the pre-Budget Report some of this funding has been brought forward to accelerate improvements through the downturn."



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