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Public-private school building initiative hits opposition

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Anne Tolley
Anne Tolley

By Chris Ormond of NZPA

Wellington, July 21 NZPA - The Government has taken another step towards public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the building and maintenance of schools, but Labour and an education union say the only winners will be the companies involved.

The Government announced late last year it was investigating such arrangements, and Infrastructure Minister Bill English and Education Minister Anne Tolley announced today it was taking the proposal to the next stage, which involved getting a detailed business case done and making decisions on individual schools.

The initiative would involve private sector operators financing, building and maintaining schools for a set term, with government retaining ownership of the land and schools and boards of trustees being left to concentrate on their day-to-day running.

Infrastructure Minister Bill English said such a system would take the onus off governments in events such as the leaky building debacle and allow boards of trustees and principals to drop property management obligations and concentrate on education. Similar initiatives had worked in Australia and Britain, he said.

However, education union NZEI is not so keen on such partnerships, saying there are no financial or educational benefits for New Zealanders.

Spokesman Ian Leckie said overseas experience showed PPPs could result in poorly maintained buildings and jeopardise school and community access to facilities.

"They raise the threat of foreign ownership of New Zealand education and open up education to the advertising or branding of private investment," he said.

Mr English said the attraction for private companies entering into such agreements was in doing business with the Crown. "The Crown always pays its bills, and in the property development area that is a bit unusual these days."

The profit margins would be in more efficient construction with a view to easier maintenance over the life of the asset, and there would be big incentives to make sound construction decisions. National envisaged modest savings in the early stages of such partnerships.

Labour Party education spokesman Trevor Mallard labelled it a "short-term gain for long-term pain" proposal.

He said an Audit Commission report in Britain found new PPP schools were no cheaper, better or quicker to build than those established with public money. It said traditional funding would have built on average better schools and there was no evidence to suggest private financing was leading to innovation in design or delivering cheaper or quicker.

"The Crown can borrow more cheaply than the private sector so this does not make financial sense," he said.

Mrs Tolley said the PPPs would apply to school building projects which were currently on the horizon and if Cabinet approved the business case a tender process could start early next year.

Contracts would need to be negotiated to ensure potential problems which could be presented in the future would not impact on the taxpayer or the schools involved.

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