School buildings scheme massively over budget

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The cost of the Government's secondary school buildings programme has increased by £10bn to £55bn, public spending watchdogs reveal today.

A report by the National Audit Office warns that the programme, under which every secondary school will be rebuilt by 2020, is in jeopardy due to the soaring costs. Ministers would have to increase annual spending by almost 50 per cent – from £2.5bn a year to up to £3.7bn – to complete it in time.

The rise is blamed on an increase in the academies programme, where schools are more likely to be new-built, constructed to "carbon neutral" standards, and because construction costs are rising faster than inflation.

"Ministers have to explain how they have managed to make such a mess of this programme," said David Laws, Liberal Democrat schools spokesman. "This flagship government programme is running two years behind schedule and an estimated £10bn over budget.

"Local authorities were given unrealistic expectations about having all their secondary schools rebuilt. Many are now left wondering if their much-needed new schools will ever be built."

Today's report concludes: "Original expectations of how quickly schools could be built were overly optimistic."

Only 42 new ones were completed in the first tranche by last year – compared with an original target of 200. The cost of building new academies has soared by up to 35 per cent, although some have been completed for the original estimate. The average increase on a £20m academy was 9.5 per cent.

Edward Leigh, the Tory chairman of the Commons Committee of Public Accounts, said: "The Department for Children, Schools and Families set unrealistic targets. It underestimated how long it would take to deliver refurbished or rebuilt schools and how much the programme would cost."

The Schools minister, Jim Knight, said: "The bulk of the overall rise is down to expanding the entire scope of the programme since its inception." He said the Government was still "fully committed" to the programme "so that education standards are transformed".