The promised land?

At full Council yesterday the City Council approved plans to allocate £10.5 million extra in capital investment for schools and nurseries.  Green Education spokesperson Cllr Melaine Main explains why she backed the programme, but with misgivings.

In the February budget the Council approved borrowing powers for an extra £25 million of capital investment over the next two years. Of that, £10.5 million is for schools and nurseries.  In our own budget, the Greens pledged to increase the amount to £12 million plus £500,000 for a Playground Improvement Fund, by switching £2 million from the roads budget.  In general, however, there was support for increased investment in our schools and nurseries.

But on what? Until this week, the list of possible projects has been quite a bit larger than the available funding, even with the extra £10.5 million.  At the special meeting of Finance and Budget Committee on 30 January the list of possible investment projects totalled £24.1 million plus another £3.5 million or so for young people’s centres.  The projects ranged from new capacity to deal with rising school rolls, new school gyms, new nursery provision and a new school for south Edinburgh.

And that is in advance of the publication of long-awaited school condition surveys which will certainly show the need for additional investment in existing school buildings.

The process of prioritising this list of projects is an important one.  Since the budget was passed on 7 February there has been no further opportunity to interrogate plans to use the £10.5 million agreed.  The first time a programme has been seen is 3 months later, at full Council on 2 May, with no chance to question officials.  Had it gone to either Education or Finance Committees in the meantime, there would have been proper opportunity for questions and arguments to be heard in favour of one set of priorities over another.     

Into the vacuum of scrutiny floods press coverage.  I rather fear that the Capital Coalition has over-played its hand by appearing to promise that projects will happen for which there is no allocated funding.  For example, the Edinburgh Evening News on 2 February reported a £40 million bonanza of spending on schools and nurseries, including replacing 3 school gyms.  However, as we now know, parents at Blackhall Primary will be delighted that their school is to get a new gym but those at East Craigs and Clermiston will be equally disappointed not to have made the cut.  More recently, on 26 April, the Evening News also splashed on its front page “Capital gets first new primary school in 30 years” when, in fact, no source of funding or even a site has yet been identified for a new school in south Edinburgh. Parents are going to be frustrated when they find out how long it is still going to take. The Capital Coalition will claim (in fact has claimed) that it cannot be held responsible for every headline that is written but it does highlight what a risky game it is to develop spending programmes through media briefings rather through proper scrutiny.  

As it happens, the lion’s share (£7.8 million) of the £10.5 million is going to projects which enhance capacity of primary schools in light of rising rolls in the next 6 years (the previous Administration having closed seven primary schools in the last 5 years…).  To be honest, I don’t yet know if that is the right balance of priorities, given the absence of opportunities for scrutiny, which is why the Greens were unable to support a Liberal Democrat amendment to allocate specific funding for school gyms at East Craigs and Clermiston, even though I have every sympathy for the frustration that Lib Dem Councillor, Robert Aldridge must feel.  But I do know that there will be a large list of other investment needs in our existing schools that will remain unaddressed.  The school condition surveys need to be made available and we need a proper debate about the right balance of priorities for investment over the next 3-5 years.

Without that scrutiny, that debate, without that attempt to reach consensus and set out a long term strategy, the danger is that investment in schools and nurseries will appear to look directionless and prey to changes in the wind.