Never far from controversy the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, was the biggest single Government investment in improving school buildings for over 50 years. A raft of new developments is still ongoing in Manchester including the specialist Grange School for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
Manchester has a combined BSF and Academies programme with £509m capital investment to rebuild or refurbish 33 schools, seven of which are specialist academies. The building programme began in 2006 and is due to be completed by 2013. Work began earlier this year on the foundations of a £14 million school that will be a centre of excellence for children and young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Grange School, will move to brand new facilities in Gorton in early 2012. Manchester City Council’s ambition is that it will lead the way in the education of children and young people with ASD with the creation of a pioneering purpose built school and facilities.
The new school, for pupils aged 4 to 19, will almost double its admission numbers from the current 80 to 150 and will include nursery, primary, secondary and post 16 provision. The school will also have separate facilities for higher ability pupils.
Two houses are also being built on the same site but away from the school and will offer much needed residential provision for children and young people with ASD and their families. One house will offer 10 long term residential places, while the other will provide overnight short break provision for up to 10 children and young people – a first for Manchester.
The school will incorporate conference, training rationalisation of depots and stores, the introduction of home working for support staff and the adoption of handheld and tablet PCs, which have allowed operatives to receive and record work orders in the field.
Furthermore, the commission’s report said Berneslai Homes had “maximised” value for money in its repair service.
On the surface, planned repairs accounted for only 40% of work funded through the revenue budget. However, it noted, Construction Services carried out many jobs that would typically be included in preventative maintenance schemes, like replacing gutters, as part of its residual capital improvement programme. Once this work was taken into account, the planned repairs figure rose to 74%.
As a result, emergency and urgent repairs, which can be expensive because they have to be done at short notice, were kept to a minimum and in the first three quarters of 2008-09, accounted for just 10% of maintenance work.
These successes are down in no small part to the adoption of the “customer-focused” approach commonplace among the best private contractors – but the modernisation of DLOs has not just been about cherry-picking best practice from commercial firms.
In-house contractors have always offered some important benefits, both direct and indirect, back to the private sector.
Derwentside, for example, works with a core of trusted local sub-contractors and specialists in areas like asbestos removal, which provides businesses in a fairly deprived area with much-needed work.
“I think we’re a real benefit to local contractors,” says Gowland.
“They know there’s a fairly steady stream of work and we’re not asking for blood; we’ll pay a fair rate for a fair job.”
With worries about skills shortages never far away, local contractors can also benefit from apprenticeship programmes run by DLOs.
Both Derwentside and Berneslai have long-established training schemes and Gowland says apprenticeships are first and foremost “massively important” for the DLO itself. Trainees account for 10% of Derwentside’s workforce and it has even picked up the training for budding builders who, through no fault of their own, lost apprenticeship places elsewhere because of the economic downturn.
“I think there’s nothing better our tenants like to see than the local lads coming and knocking on their door [when] they’ve had an opportunity to come and learn a trade,” he says.
Berneslai Homes, meanwhile, has a contractual agreement with its maintenance partner Kier that guarantees one apprenticeship place for every £1 million of turnover. Berneslai has 14 trainees at any one time, while Kier has seven.
In an ideal world, DLOs would be able to guarantee a job for their trainees, but with decent homes programmes winding down and budgets under pressure, that is not always possible. Nevertheless, many in-house contractors try to ensure they deliver quality training that will give youngsters the best possible chance of landing a post elsewhere.
“We work with our other partners, our sub-contractors and the council in trying to find appointments for the apprentices that we may not be able to take on,” says Williams.
“I’ve always looked at it as what we’re doing is feeding the industry and in local authorities, i think we always have done. i think it’s good that we do because if we didn’t, it wouldn’t happen.”
Private sector partners can also get direct benefi ts from working with DLOs. Derwentside offers shared training and
assistance with getting gas maintenance accreditation to local sub-contractors, which helps to control costs.
But the public-private relationship was not always so good.
“When i first arrived, there was a definite [feeling of] ‘we don’t like the private sector and they don’t like us’,” Williams recalls.
It took a lot of hard work to break down these attitudes but he believes it has been worthwhile. Berneslai Homes and Kier now compare each other’s progress against KPIs, which Williams says has created some “healthy competition”.
“We started to improve, which meant they started to improve as well, so it lifted the bar,” he adds.
Ultimately, Williams says, the aim is to create a service where, although tradesmen may have different uniforms or drive different vans, they treat tenants the same way and deliver the same high standard of work.
Of course, it’s not a bed of roses for DLOs. some have seen repair services contracted out to private firms and, like everyone else, they face an extremely tough economic outlook.
In order to maintain their workloads and generate additional revenue, many are now looking at branching out. There have been some notable successes – Chester & District Housing Trust’s DLO Trustworks has won work for other housing associations and even took on the refurbishment of a restaurant.
Berneslai Homes has also committed to competing forexternal work and Williams says it has been “very successful” in getting shortlisted for projects through the strength of its prequalification questionnaires.
He is satisfied that in terms of quality of work alone, the DLO can compete in the open market, but in the current ultra-competitive tendering environment, it can only go so far in cutting its prices to win work.
This may not be such a bad thing, given that a number of private contractors have landed contracts with razor-thin margins only to find they could not deliver or, worse still, sustain their business at the rates quoted. So where do DLOs go from
Williams says that while they need to keep working on their competitiveness, efficiency and management, in-house contractors have proved their value and have done much to dispel the old myths.
“I think – and this last winter really brought it home to us – an in-house provider can bring so many benefits,” he says. When severe weather resulted in burst pipes and other problems, Berneslai was able to call in operatives and management on Christmas Day and Boxing Day to respond.
“If we hadn’t had an in-house provider, we’d have struggled,” Williams says.
Gowland also thinks DLOs are in a “far better position” now after being knocked into shape over the past couple of decades and many tenants value them highly – in Derwentside, retaining the DLO was one of the key promises made to residents prior to the housing stock transfer in 2006.
Some in-house contractors are now taking on the private sector at their own game, bidding for – and winning – tenders on the open market; others stick to their own repair and capital works.
Others still, like Berneslai Homes, split maintenance with a private partner and Williams believes this could be the “best mix” for the future.
“You’ve got to get it right for whatever area you’re working in. The two-thirds, one-third we have in Barnsley might not work in Sheffield, for example, but i do think it is a top model. if you can get that right, you can go from strength to strength.”
For more information visit www.manchester.gov.uk