Today, a letter by ex-Isle of Wight council leader, David Pugh, was published in the County Press, which OnTheWight has replicated below.
By way of background – In April, David declined an offer extended to him, to attend a meeting to question him about the problems experiences at Cowes Enterprise College – Ed.
In response to my comments on Cowes Enterprise College, your correspondent Mr Wade suggested that I have a moral responsibility to answer questions on the school changes (letters, 11-04-14). I do accept that, as the former council leader, I bear the ultimate political responsibility for what took place during my time in public office.
I have written previously for these pages on the wider issue of school reorganisation, and in particular the good news of last summer’s results showing a clear direction of upward travel. So let me turn my attention back to Cowes Enterprise College (CEC).
This project is, without doubt, the biggest frustration from my time leading the local authority. It was, of course, supposed to be so different; and I am truly sorry that it has turned out the way it has. My regrets are twofold.
Firstly, I regret the overall approach we took to commissioning the project. The money for this school was awarded under the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative, which was subsequently widely derided for its poor value-for-money and ineffectiveness.
One of the key themes of the BSF initiative was to commission bespoke, modern and supposedly innovative designs to house different styles of learning. We chose to adopt this radical approach, which undoubtedly increased the project’s risks due to its ambitious nature. With hindsight, I wish we had commissioned a conventional, reliable school building that was more focused on its practical educational usage than its bespoke design.
Secondly, I regret the faith we placed in the senior council officers overseeing the project. With the reconfiguration of buildings for the main school reorganisation process having gone so smoothly (including excellent new builds at Haylands and St Francis), we had no reason to believe that the same senior officers could not successfully oversee the full completion of the CEC new build.
During the summer of 2012, it became apparent that the CEC project was going to be partially delayed in its completion. However I took comfort from the reassurances we were given, over the ensuing months – by the then lead officer (Janet Newton) – that it was still being delivered within its allocated contract sum and was scheduled for full occupation by 19th November 2012.
It was on this basis that we did not intervene any further at that stage, as we were strongly advised that the project was entirely on track, albeit on an agreed revised timetable. Furthermore, I understand that a County Press reporter was given a guided tour of the building by Janet Newton during the autumn of 2012, and similarly strong affirmations were given at that briefing.
When these reassurances subsequently turned out to be unrepresentative of the situation on site, we were understandably very concerned and angry – particularly as the use of the building eventually had to be delayed to the following September (2013), such was the scale of the problems which needed addressing prior to its occupation. Thanks to the considerable efforts of other council officers over the ensuing months, significant progress was then made in addressing many of these problems, enabling its eventual occupation almost a year later.
As I said above, I accept ultimate political responsibility for this project; and I consider that Janet Newton (one of the IW Council’s highest paid officers) bore operational responsibility for it, alongside the Chief Executive.
Your readers might ask what relevance this all has now. The relevance is simply this: the Executive meeting held earlier this month agreed that significant additional sums would have to be spent addressing outstanding issues in relation to the building. However the reassurances we were given during the summer of 2012 is that the project had been contained within the agreed contract sum. If it truly had been the case that the project had been contained within the contract sum, the recent Executive meeting would not have been in the position of allocating additional taxpayers’ money to be spent on rectifying construction defects in the building.
Furthermore, I consider that if the officers had provided us with a more frank assessment of the project status during the summer / autumn of 2012, we would certainly have taken steps with a view to ensuring that such defects were fully addressed at that stage of the contract (within the allocated budget). It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the additional funds agreed at the recent Executive meeting for rectification of construction defects could have been avoided or minimised had these problems been flagged up much earlier, when the contract was still active. The serious consequence of this not happening is the incurrence, some 18 months later, of additional costs for such rectification.
This leads to a straightforward question for the Independent administration. In light of the project not being delivered on time and on budget, and the nature of the reassurances given (as detailed above), was it appropriate to both exonerate and use taxpayers’ money to make an undisclosed settlement to the senior officer in charge of this project?