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Liverpool: Losing central school funding taught us to be bold

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Eight years ago, we picked up the pieces of our bid to have 24 schools in Liverpool rebuilt or renovated as part of the government’s Building Schools for the Future programme.

  • Project: Liverpool Schools Investment Programme
  • Objectives: To refurbish and rebuild schools in need of replacement after cancellation of £350m Building Schools for the Future programme
  • Timescale: 2012-18
  • Cost to authority: £180m: £40m from government as an investment in skills secured as part of the City Deal, £40m of borrowing, £60m capital receipts from the sale of surplus school sites, £30m school’s capital maintenance grant and £10m private and public sector contributions
  • Number of staff working on project: Four
  • Outcomes: 27 new and refurbished schools, with more than 14,000 students and pupils directly benefitting so far. The project created more than 2,000 construction jobs plus 200 apprenticeships. 62% of the investment was spent with Liverpool firms, rising to 74% across the whole of Merseyside. The council receives an annual £650,000 windfall from the lease of buildings, which it will receive for the next 25 years to reinvest in essential services.
  • Officer contact details: Mike Horne, programme manager, Liverpool City Council

The departmental shutters had just been flung down on us. Civil servants we had been dealing with stopped returning our calls. Building Schools for the Future was a juicy £55bn slice of departmental spending that was offered up to the Treasury in the first wave of cuts.

It came at the expense of the children of Liverpool – and those in dozens of other boroughs – who were left in old, dilapidated and in many cases unsafe buildings that had long outlived their purpose.

Our response in Liverpool was to take matters into our own hands. We invited our various education partners to sit around the table and thrash out an alternative, using whatever council funding we could find – and all other government cash we could beg and borrow – to generate our own, localised version of the programme.

The Liverpool Schools Investment Programme was born and over the past decade, £180m has been invested in rebuilding or substantially repairing 24 schools across the city.

It’s been a long road, but around 18,000 pupils in the city now benefit from state of the art classroom facilities, helping ensure our children get the best state education possible.

The programme includes Birtenshaw School, which educates up to 50 children and teenagers with special educational needs and disabilities.

The school caters for students with a range of additional needs, including learning disabilities and autistic spectrum conditions. It supports students with speech, language and communication needs, multi-sensory impairments, challenging behaviours, physical impairments and complex health needs.

The new school’s facilities include a 25-metre hydrotherapy pool with multi-sensory sound and light system. The pool is the largest of its kind in the country. Other features include a rebound therapy room, multi-sensory spaces incorporating immersive technology and a sensory integration room.

For all of us that worked on the programme, it stands as one of our proudest achievements, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The programme didn’t only make a difference for those in the classroom. We set out to make sure that local people would benefit from the 2,000 construction jobs created, and 200 local young people were given the chance to develop their skills and career prospects by becoming apprentices.

In total, 62% of the investment was spent with Liverpool firms (and a further 12% across the rest of Merseyside). Around £45m of funding was generated from the sale of former school sites for housing development, which helped us recoup some outlay.

We also managed to secure an additional £650,000 a year from the lease of buildings that we will be able to reinvest in frontline services for the next 25 years. The programme also created 10 new housing sites with a total of 650 new homes, all of which generated council tax to fund essential services.

What this experience taught us is that councils can be bold in setting the agenda even when Whitehall has stopped listening.

So we have applied the lessons learned from the schools investment programme – the sensible use of our capital borrowing powers – to support a new £200m roads investment programme, again paid for by a mixture of savings and borrowing. This will help us make a step-change in the quality of our roads network.

We have also launched a new municipal housing company Foundations to rebalance the housing market in Liverpool. More than two-thirds of the properties in the city are in band A for council tax, which means for every 1% of council tax, we raise just £1.6m. We need a better housing mix across the city to improve the sustainability of our core finances.

Our plans – although ambitious – are also sensible, with auditors from the Local Government Association recently reporting that we have a prudent level of debt and strong internal procedures for managing our finances.

Like most big local authorities, we have little choice but to be bold and ambitious in finding practical solutions to the problems that an austerity-led agenda has left us with, as we seek to protect the vulnerable and discharge our broader responsibilities.

But our journey began with that fateful decision to scrap Building Schools for the Future.

Mike Horne, capital investment project manager, Liverpool City Council

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