Tell Sid! How to solve the school places crisis

By Tim Byles | 28 January 2015

Earlier this month, the Local Government Association issued a warning to Government that over the next decade nearly one million new places will be needed in our education system, and that the continued squeeze on places could lead to a 'tipping point' where this is neither the money nor the space to expand existing schools further.

By its own reckoning, the LGA believes this will cost in the region of £12bn to create enough places to go around.

Local government is of course right to highlight the extent of the problem, and of course the timing is no mere coincidence as each of the political parties limbers up for the forthcoming election. And given the extent of the problem, whichever party or parties finds itself in power post 7 May, the fact of the matter is that the school places crisis will be very high up the list of urgent priorities to deal with.
But, simply calling for Government to step in and increase the amount of money set aside for school places - or basic need as it is known - is not the answer. Whilst the different parties will make different choices on public spending, the fact remains that Government hand-outs will not of themselves make a big enough dent in the numbers needed.
 
The good news though is that there is an alternative, more innovative way to skin this particular cat; a method that means local government need not rely on the largesse or otherwise of whoever is the next Secretary of State for Education. For it is already in councils' gift to tackle this issue head-on.
 
Last week, Cheshunt School in Hertfordshire signed a deal which would see surplus land that the school owned (as a foundation school) developed for housing units, with the upside used to fund a significant refurbishment of the school.
 
This model exemplifies an innovative approach developed by Cornerstone that sees the creation of value through under-used local assets, and is entirely replicable across the country. Whilst the Cheshunt scheme has focused on creating some fantastic new facilities for existing students, the same logic applies when extending oversubscribed schools and building entirely new provision as well.
 
Helpfully, a new framework designed to package such deals for councils is now coming to market. Led by NPS Property Consultants, the Social Infrastructure Development (SID) framework is being set up in such a way that any public body or charity can access it to deliver projects that span the public sector. Its genesis is the combined challenge of creaking public services on the one hand, and a growth in surplus assets (that are extremely expensive to maintain) on the other.
 
Taking education specifically, a school or council that has surplus land (for individual schools this is likely to be a Foundation School as they own their own land) would approach SID and receive support to "work up" the plan - this might be through a broker such as Cornerstone, or indeed any other professional adviser in the market.
 
The broker then establishes precisely what the surplus land could be developed for - e.g. housing - and what works or new build would be delivered to the school. Once the plan is finalised, the framework contractors would compete for the project, with the winning contractor taking the scheme forward.
 
The SID framework will provide an excellent route for councils across the country to look again at their estate and leverage the latent value to create much needed new school places.
 
Even before the framework goes live (expected to be sometime in the spring), there is a considerable and growing pipeline of interest from public bodies who recognize the value of such an approach and who want a practical route that enables them to make the best use of their surplus assets. SID enables them to do just that - faster and more cost effectively than previous routes which involved OJEU.
 
I have always been a passionate believer that local government comes into its own when circumstances necessitate innovation. The SID framework will support local government in what it does best - being innovative and agile in providing the services and facilities that local communities want and need.
 
Tim Byles is CEO of Cornerstone Property Assets
 
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Finance Asset management Education Schools Infrastructure Innovation
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