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BSF scrapping unlawful, councils tell High Court

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Councils have accused the government of “unfairly and unlawfully” scrapping school building projects around the country.

The axe fell in July when Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was drastically curtailed after the coalition government took power.

Every secondary school in England was due to be rebuilt or refurbished over a 15-20 year period at an estimated cost of £55bn.

But it was among the first education schemes to be cut back by the coalition’s education secretary Michael Gove, left, who said the programme had been beset by “massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy”.

The cuts led to the cancellation of projects at more than 700 schools, provoking uproar from councils, unions and Labour politicians, who warned it was a tragedy and would have a catastrophic effect on pupils.

Six councils in England came to London’s High Court, arguing the stopping of building, re-building and refurbishing projects in their areas was arbitrary and legally flawed.

They asked Mr Justice Holman to order Mr Gove to reconsider individual schemes, properly taking account of their merits.

The applications for judicial review involve Waltham Forest LBC, Luton BC, Nottingham City Council, Sandwell MBC, Kent CC and Newham LBC and the hearing is expected to last a week.

Lawyers for the councils say the education secretary failed to consult properly, did not give adequate reasons before stopping projects and breached legitimate expectations that they would be funded.

Mr Gove argues that his decisions were not made lightly and are not open to legal challenge.

His lawyers say in written statements before the court that the coalition had inherited “the largest budget deficit in peacetime history”, and spending cuts had to be made “quickly and significantly”.

Substantial cuts “inescapably” had to be made to bring BSF spending down to manageable levels, and there was no obvious or reasonable alternative.

A set of general principles was applied to decide which projects were cancelled, but Mr Gove did not consider it “practicable or appropriate” for him to arbitrate between the merits and claims of a large number of different authorities, or an even larger number of individual schools.

Government lawyers say the six councils seeking judicial review will in any event receive in total “well in excess of £1bn in BSF funding”, and the case was about “whether they must get even more”.

Urging the judge to dismiss the challenge, they argue the decisions made by Mr Gove involved “value judgments and invidious choices” which were essentially political in nature and were not amenable to judicial review.

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