Can the government's BSF programme survive the credit squeeze? Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi squeezed into Partnership's for Schools's packed annual conference to find out.

Any doubts about the level of interest for the Building Schools for the Future programme, were stilled by the turnout for Partnerships for School’s annual conference.

After all, there aren’t many PPP conferences that can boast 450 delegates and a waiting list of 100. Not least an event that falls in the same week that the global economy took perhaps the sharpest knock of the credit crunch.

But the packed conference room had lots to be optimistic about. The government’s £45bn BSF programme delivered 22 new and refurbished secondary schools last month bringing the total completed to 35. A troupe of senior Labour ministers including Ed Balls, Tessa Jowells and Jim Knight had been happily touring the country opening new schools - a welcome relief from the chaos of political plots and collapsing banks.

Operating against this rosy backdrop, the ‘Delivering Sustainable Success through BSF’ conference gave cautious delegates cautious optimism about the programme’s future. PfS chief executive Tim Byles reassured delegates that, "Yes these are challenging times. But there has not been a single project stopped because of financing difficulties." He added that a firm funding commitment from the government meant that the BSF programme offered a sound investment at a time of high economic instability.

But this assurance, coupled with moving tributes to BSF by a student and teachers from Bristol Brunel, failed to convince panel discussion chair BBC journalist John Humprhys. "There are 3,000 schools, you have rebuilt 35. You have an awfully long way to go. You talk the good talk but you haven’t delivered yet," he said during a one-on-one with Byles.

Byles, who had earlier told the conference that the decision to invite Humprhys could be considered "brave" or simply "foolish", hit back. "There is an enormous pipeline," he said. "There are 1,000 schools between design and delivery. It is a huge endeavour."

Gathering speed

Indeed the roll-out for BSF looks set to gain momentum with new procurement guidelines aiming to cut procurement by seven weeks with a shorter dialogue phase resulting in a shortlist of bidders after just 29 weeks rather than the current 44 weeks. Byles said that from 2010 the number schools completed through BSF will rise to more than 200 every year. However he added: "It’s not just about pace its about getting this right and making sure that it does actually do the business."

PricewaterhouseCoopers also released the results of its review of the new Local Education Partnerships (LEP) at the conference, introduced to streamline the BSF process. It found that LEPs could be "operationally successful from the outset" if a specific evaluation process was agreed on between the authority and contractor. PwC set out nine components including value for money exclusivity, the role of national agencies and strategic planning which it advised were key to harnessing LEPs effectiveness.

Humprhys has a reputation for making ministers sweat during interviews but Byles got off lightly at worst being called "suitably vague". But Humprhys wanted to know how such momentum could be kept up with a 50:50 chance there could be a change of government within two years. "This is a Labour project. You don’t know the Tories will stick this policy," he stated. It has been widely reported in recent months that the Tories plan to cut the funding currently being pumped into BSF.

However Byles said that he had been in talks with the Tories who had reiterated their commitment to, "rebuilding and renewing" the country’s secondary schools. "There are issues with affordability and timing but the direction of the Tories is clear. They want to see this scale of change." Byles said the market should be reassured about BSF’s long-term future if there were a change of government. "I don’t expect it will be the same but it won’t be massively different," he said.

Design and build

Delegates were treated to more good news after lunch as schools minister Jim Knight announced a that a "minimum design standard" would be introduced to BSF. This follows concerns from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) that designs for the programme were not up to scratch.

Knight said that teachers, parents and children will work with architects to vet designs before they are implemented. He added that guidance with case studies would be released to, "help local authorities think about different effects of design on learning."

Calling BSF a reformation, he said: "It’s ambitious and critics challenge the scale of that ambition. But we should expect nothing less."

But nagging fears about the credit crunch were not ignored. James Stewart, chief executive for Partnerships UK, bought everyone down to earth with a bump. On the current financial crisis he said: "I have been saying this for the last 12 months, we have not reached the end." Giving his presentation the day after the HBOS buyout and during the week of AIG’s rescue and Lehman Brothers collapse, Stewart admitted rewriting his presentation three times in as many days.

He said: "We have lost the capital markets as a funding source. Banks are reluctant to lend outright." He also mentioned the rise in "clubs" where banks get together at the outset of a project, rather than as happened pre-crunch when one bank would take on the whole debt and sell it off later. "These are more difficult to negotiate," he said.

However Stewart’s remained optimistic. "There is a big but. The PPP market is benefiting from a flight to quality. BSF is faring the best within the PPP market." He put this down to government commitment, the demand for infrastructure and the small value of the BSF deals which makes it easier to raise finance. He added: "The long term nature inspires loyalty among banks. PPP projects do benefit in this type of environment. But the industry must improve and produce the right results."

To much laughter he added quickly, "We are OK. But who knows what will happen next week?"

Despite the doom and gloom of the credit crunch lingering at the back of everyone’s mind, the majority of delegates, both public and private sector, were in the operational stage of a BSF project or in the early stages or trying to get their house in order to enter the programme. Presentations from Bristol Brunel, the Michael Tippett School, Leeds and Salford councils discussed questions around funding shortfalls in local councils, the expense of sustainable solutions, the competitiveness of the market and diffculties of the LEP model were tackled evidence that BSF is not just a bed of roses.

But when Humprhys asked the conference, "Is there anyone here that does not think it’s a genuine partnership (between the public and private sector)?" he was met with silence. BSF is appears to be getting it right and with the government announcing the local authorities in the next set of waves early next year, the BSF gravy train looks set to roll on. Stewart put it succinctly, "Do I see a better future for BSF? Yes."