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College plans in ruins

PUBLISHED: 10:15 20 March 2009 | UPDATED: 13:24 03 July 2010

FURIOUS college bosses rounded on the government last night, claiming plans for more than £500m of buildings across the region had been “shot to pieces” by a national funding shortage.

FURIOUS college bosses rounded on the government last night, claiming plans for more than £500m of buildings across the region had been “shot to pieces” by a national funding shortage.

The future skills of hundreds of thousands of young people depend on the new facilities which are in doubt because of a “catalogue of incompetence” by the government quango, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

Every college in the region was set for a big scheme - from new blocks to a complete rebuild - as part of a multi-billion-pound nationwide overhaul of further education facilities.

Now ministers have admitted the money has run out - forcing colleges to disappoint current and future students by putting their projects back by up to three years, or even longer.

The institutions have already spent millions of pounds on architects' designs, planning applications and consultation, having been encouraged by the LSC to “think big”.

Now ministers have admitted the promised spending cannot be funded, leaving colleges to face months or even years of uncertainty as they sit in a tailback of hundreds of other institutions.

And, with new criteria set to be drawn up in the coming months, they will have to go toe-to-toe with their neighbours in the fight for a share of the dwindling pot of money.

Having waited patiently for the results of a review of the Building Colleges for the Future programme, college principals admitted last night they were “completely fed up”.

David Pomfret is principal and chief executive of the College of West Anglia (CoWA) at King's Lynn, which has planned a £150m-£170m two-pronged scheme to move Isle College from Wisbech to March and to relocate the main college from the town centre to the outskirts of Lynn.

He said: “We are hugely disappointed. We would've been starting to build in March in the next few weeks, but that timescale has been shot to pieces. The same goes for the relocation of the college at King's Lynn, which we were hoping to begin in 2010.

“There's no clarity. As each month goes by we have to reassess the impact. Our community deserves this project and if funding is not forthcoming, it will have an impact on how much we can kick forward on skills development for 14-19s and the working age population.”

City College Norwich was hoping to start work this year on phase one of a £173m-plus total rebuild of its Ipswich Road campus.

Principal Dick Palmer said: “The colleges are completely fed up. We've had enough of trying to be civil and understanding, which hasn't brought any resolution of the problem. I'm really angry and if there's not enough money, the government can expect legal action.

“Phase one was going to be finished by 2012, but it will be put back by at least a year now, maybe even two years. It means more time for students in cramped facilities that are not suitable for the 21st century.

“If we cannot give Norfolk people top-notch facilities and equipment, they will be disadvantaged in the jobs market.”

The two are among 144 projects across England that will have to wait for news because of the cash crisis.

It has sparked fears that colleges which have already started work may be forced to write off millions of pounds and, in some cases, go into technical insolvency.

Further education minister Sion Simon said the situation was “not acceptable” and said the former head of the Audit Commission, Sir Andrew Foster, was continuing to investigate what went wrong.

Mr Simon said: “We are quite clear as ministers that this is not acceptable. We shouldn't be in this position. This programme has not been managed properly.”

He said the government expected the LSC to ensure that any colleges facing financial difficulties would not be allowed to go into insolvency.

Shadow universities and skills secretary David Willetts said: “These projects are needed because they're supposed to be providing training for people during the recession, but now they are all at a standstill because of this mismanagement.

“It is a quite extraordinary catalogue of incompetence. They were being actively encouraged by ministers and by the LSC to go ahead with these programmes.”

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