Repairs backlog threatens schools in schools

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The Independent Online
The number of schools crumbling from disrepair will explode within three to five years because planned spending on renovations is being cancelled in favour of emergency patching and mending, local authority architects warned yesterday.

A survey of 70 councils from shires to cities revealed the shortfall - between the billions authorities say is needed to repair crumbling schools and the cash the Government permits them to spend - has hit a 20-year high. This year, councils say their allocation represents just a fifth of what they need.

The problem is worst in primary schools, where the gap between need and actual spending to repair collapsing roofs, replace leaking mobile classrooms and even clear dangerous asbestos has risen by 40 per cent in the past three years. In secondary schools, the shortfall has increased by 25 per cent.

The Society of Chief Architects in Local Authorities, which carried out the survey, said its research showed councils were cutting back on planned repair projects such as new school roofs to release money for day-to-day maintenance work.

The society's buildings spokesman, Laurence Cooper, said delays to major schemes meant more money spent on patching up.

"Instead of having a new roof you start putting out the buckets, which ultimately means greater cost and more disruption in schools. We appear to be entering a downward spiral towards a crisis in the next three to five years."

Local education authorities were told by the Department for Education and Employment in December that they would be allowed to borrow less than a fifth of what they had asked for to spend on school building and repairs in 1997-98. The total available is almost pounds 700m, but councils had asked for pounds 1.9bn to ease an estimated repairs and maintenance backlog of pounds 3.2bn.

Lancashire county council is among the authorities forced to postpone major repair projects to find the cash for general maintenance.

The authority asked for permission to borrow pounds 34.5m in 1997-98, but was granted approval for just over pounds 5m. The entire sum is allocated for spending on new school places, leaving not a penny towards the pounds 20m the council says is needed for repairs.

Ray Marriott, head of planning and community services, said the cash was needed to replace rotting and leaking Sixties-built school buildings.

He added: "The whole fabric of buildings deteriorates yet at the rate of school replacement we have at the moment some of our schools are going to have to wait 700 years to be renewed."

John Ryan, Labour education chairman of Bradford council, said the authority needed pounds 200m to bring all its schools up to standard. However, the authority had won approval for only an eighth of the pounds 40m repairs money it asked for to replace 149 roofs and remove asbestos from 148 schools, among other projects.

David Whitbread, spokesman for the Association of County Councils, said most authorities saw their capital budgets eaten up on providing new school places and were unable to spend adequately on repairs.

A spokeswoman for the DFEE said the upkeep of buildings was the local authorities' responsibility. If they delayed, buildings would deteriorate and the final cost would increase.