Building Schools for the Future – is it all the EU’s fault?

I met a lady from a large supplier ( a mix of consulting and some more 'delivery' type services) to Government today. She's just taken up her new position; what was she doing before? "I was in charge of our Building Schools for the Future (BSF) consulting work" she said.  I sympathised given the recent curtailment of the programme. "That's not all", she added. "My other responsibility was to lead our work with BECTA!"  (Abolished last month...)

Her bad luck aside, we got talking about Michael Gove (Education Minister) and Tim Byles (Chie Exec of BSF) and their recent comments on the programme.  Byles has been spreading the word that it is all the fault of the EU regulations that the programme was so late and expensive (some 2 to 3 times the benchmark according to Gove himself).

""Much of the regulation is completely out of our control – it is European regulations," Byles told the Commons Education Select Committee.

And Gove  seems to have at least partly bought this line, saying, “it is certainly the case that EU procurement rules add delay and cost to the process of procuring schools,”  he said.

I don't understand Gove's reason for saying this as, whoever should take some blame, it isn't him, and you might have thought it was a good chance to heap the responsibility onto his Labour predecessors. Byles I suppose has more of a vested interest in passing the buck, although to be fair I don't believe he was in that role when the process was originally devised.  Anyway, I don't often feel like presenting a whole hearted defence of the EU regs but I think we should point out that the EU regs had nothing to do with the following aspects of the BSF process:

  • making every local authority run their own BSF procurement process
  • insisting they formed a complicated LEP (local education partnership) to do so
  • forcing bidders (pre -preferred bidder) to come up with multiple school designs, potentially different every time, and with no standard national designs
  • stipulating that complex consortia had to be constructed, including multiple sub-contractors
  • developing contracts that had very complex specifications linked to them, and were highly punitive on the prime contractor, so they passed on risk to the sub-contractors and everyone in the process spent an absolute fortune with lawyers
  • 'ring fencing' IT funding available as part of the process and forcing sub-competitions for the IT element within the wider competition
  • using the pretty untested 'competitive dialogue' process for the competitions, leading to huge consultancy bills to go with the huge legal bills.

Frankly, if a committee of civil servants, lawyers and consultants had sat down to develop the most complex, expensive procurement process you could possibly think of...you would congratulate them on this outcome.

If we imagine the EU regs as a small (let's say) Belgian gentleman, (I have David Suchet playing Hercule Poirot in mind) he is sitting in the corner of the bar saying, "Zis was nothing to do with me.  All I said was you need an advertisement for the work- and I would like it very much if you would run a fair process.  That is all.  Beyond that, mes amis, this is all your work."

And he's right.  The regulations are not to blame here.  Michael Gove is my MP, so I would be happy to tell him how I (or any decent procurement person to be honest), with a bit of technology and legal support, could run a fully EU compliant procurement process for a school for a fraction of the cost of BSF and in 6 months start to finish.  Just give us a call.

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