Political storm brews over £95m boost to Fen schools
By JOHN ELWORTHY A POLITICAL storm has erupted over the proposed £95 million boost to Fenland schools after Lib Dem and Labour councillors questioned how the scheme was to be funded. Councillor Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem leader on the county council, sai
By JOHN ELWORTHY
A POLITICAL storm has erupted over the proposed £95 million boost to Fenland schools after Lib Dem and Labour councillors questioned how the scheme was to be funded.
Councillor Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem leader on the county council, said the Private Finance Initiative suggested to raise the cash was no more than using "an expensive credit card."
He said: "We do not want a disaster like the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Many PFI deals are proving to be not in the long-term interest of taxpayers."
Cllr Huppert has won support from 15 Lib Dem and Labour councillors to 'call-in' the decision by the ruling Tory group and it now means the proposals will go before a scrutiny committee.
However their response has left Councillor Shona Johnstone, Cabinet Member for Children and Young People's Services, fuming.
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"I am staggered at this call in" she said. "This scheme would massively benefit children and young people in Fenland, with new buildings and new opportunities for learning.
She said all Cabinet had approved "was to seek entry into the latest wave of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative.
"Contracts cannot be signed for at least two years, during which time our proposals will be subject to several external reviews and considerable opportunity for scrutiny. We are a long way from an irrevocable decision and are well aware of the need for to develop strong and robust contracts.
"£95m would provide enormous opportunities for improving outcomes for young people in Fenland. It is an opportunity we should grasp with both hands, and I am disgusted that the Liberal Democrats and Labour do not share this commitment to our young people."
However opposition councillors claim the Conservative controlled Cabinet has not properly considered the long-term financial implications of the move to accept PFI schools in Cambridgeshire.
Cllr Huppert said: "Proper public scrutiny is essential when we are talking about a £95 million project which will cost a further £2 to 3 million just to set up.
"It is not yet clear where this money is going to come from.
"The public needs to be confident that the financial consequences for the County Council have been considered and that alternative options have been thoroughly investigated."
Councillor Martin Ballard, Leader of the Labour Group on Cambridgeshire County Council, said: "This PFI project carries huge financial risk alongside potential benefits.
"The Cabinet has voted to invest an initial £3 million of residents' money without any debate on the financial implications or an examination of why other councils are finding it impossible to get similar schemes off the ground."
* Under the proposals the £95 would be split between five Fenland schools: Neale-Wade Community College, March, £29.89 million, Sir Harry Smith School, Whittlesey, £18.05 million, Cromwell Community College, Chatteris, £17.53 million, Queen's School, Wisbech, £23.02 million and Meadowgate special school £6.26.