Strategic thinking

Why has the Cabinet Office published a strategy for its dealings with the construction sector before responding to the IGT report on low carbon construction?

Paul Morrell’s report offered a pretty thorough analysis of the industry’s problems and a set of practical recommendations. The Government is due to publish its response this month and it might have been better to await this before announcing the strategy.

The strategy sets out some important objectives but is less clear on how these will be achieved. On the positive side it acknowledges what report after report has identified as an endemic problem, the fragmentation of the industry and calls for integration. It also aims to bring clarity and a measure of certainty to public procurement of construction.

Unfortunately there is not enough emphasis on the long-term performance of buildings and carbon reduction appears to have been downgraded as cost reduction comes to the fore.

Facilities management is at least acknowledged in the section on operation and asset management and there is little to argue with in the statement that: “Integration of the design and construction of an asset with the operation phase should lead to improved asset performance.” However, the reference to “subsequent arrangements for facilities management” suggests that early consideration of FM is not being seen as necessary to inform design and construction.

By the way, do these reports ever go through a Plain English filter? What on earth does, “the capability required to improve the effectiveness of central challenge functions” mean?

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Last month I promised to offer some insights into the future of schools capital investment; apologies for the delay.

Mike Coleman from Partnerships for Schools (the body charged with delivering the abandoned Building Schools for the Future programme and now to be wound up by next spring) gave a presentation to the CIC’s Economic & Policy Forum in May entitled “School building in an age of austerity”.

It’s no longer about achieving educational transformation through “landmark” school buildings, said Coleman. Fitness for purpose will be the guiding principle. The existing pipeline has been addressed with around 50 local authorities asked to deliver savings (over £350m identified so far) on existing BSF schemes and site assessments underway for 75 “old style” academies but with significantly less new build.

The new approach to capital investment in schools has not been fully defined (we’ll have to await the outcome of the James’ review for that) but the focus will be on the condition of buildings and capacity. A new model will be developed for assessing the condition of school buildings and capital will be allocated accordingly.

Last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review reduced the capital available for school building and maintenance by 60% over the four years until 2014-15.

The focus on condition should also mean a renewed emphasis on maintenance. As Coleman said, it hasn’t always been clear who should be fixing what. Clarifying who is responsible will be vital. A comprehensive condition survey should reveal whether there is a significant maintenance backlog arising from decisions to defer all but essential work in anticipation of new facilities through the BSF programme

Localism notwithstanding, a “central body” is likely to put in place a small number of national procurement contracts and the Department for Education will let national contracts for maintenance and small projects.

All this presents a major opportunity to professionalise schools FM.

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