01 December 2000
The vote has given the government some breathing space after a European Commission opinion last summer questioned the entire approach to awarding contracts, using Pimlico as a case in point.
In a letter to Westminster City Council this week, chair of governors Europe Singh criticised the council for issuing a press release before the governing body had a chance to inform officially councillors, parents and staff. However, he was clear that the governors' outstanding concerns remained and they could not accept the deal.
Singh wrote: 'As you are aware, the governing body has never agreed to St George's Square Partnership as preferred bidders, and in 1999 we withdrew support from the rebuilding proposals.
'As long ago as 1997 the board of governors expressed severe reservations concerning the feasibility of delivering education throughout a complex four-year demolition and construction programme. Despite efforts to resolve these concerns, governors remain unable to support this element of the proposals in particular.'
In a statement, the council said it was disappointed with the governors' decision. Director of education John Harris said it was still the view of the council that the new-build PFI option was an effective and immediate solution to the problem.
'Although we are glad that a firm decision has been reached, the governors have rejected a scheme for a school which is educationally superior to the current facilities and one which has funding available for it,' he said. 'The government, the council and the contractor have worked hard to keep this option alive but this appears to be the end of the line.'
The project has been beset with problems from the start because of concerns about whether the school needed to be completely rebuilt or could simply be refurbished.
Initially, the proposal involved a straightforward refurbishment of the 1970s school, which had a £10m backlog of repairs and maintenance. That quickly became a complete rebuild likely to take four years, including selling off one acre of the 4.5 acre site for a lucrative housing development. The issue has always divided the governors, who in 1999 finally withdrew their support for the rebuilding process.
The past year has seen the Department for Education and Employment, Westminster and the governors arguing about how to move the scheme on.
The DfEE, led by schools minister Jacqui Smith, has remained committed to the project, although the EC's 'reasoned opinion' caused great uncertainty. Now the DfEE has conceded that the project is dead.
A spokesman said the decision was 'disappointing'. He added: 'In real terms, the pupils and governors will have to carry on working in a school that is in need of improvement.'
However, the DfEE has ruled out the use of the current PFI credits for a refurbishment. Instead, a new procurement scheme will have to be worked out.
This opinion looks set to cause another round of conflict between the department and the governors.
The governors want to use the current PFI allocation to pay for refurbishment. They cite examples of other projects, which have been allowed to follow this path, including Lillian Baylis school in Lambeth and the Kingsdale school in Southwark.
But the government is still not off the hook with the European Commission. Its opinion questioned the 'negotiated procedures' route favoured by the government in PFI deals. This allows UK deals to have three bidders, but the commission wants to see at least six.
A Treasury spokesman said the government was still in discussion with the commission over the issue.