Alarm bell rung over state of Cumbria’s ageing school buildings

Date: Friday 22nd March 2019

THE alarm bell has been rung over the state of Cumbria’s schools following a £2 million funding cut for maintenance.

Government cash to Cumbria County Council for repairs to the ageing school estate has fallen from £6.7 million to £4.7 million in five years, the authority’s cabinet was told.

In future, some schools could be forced to close or seal off areas to pupils unless more funding is forthcoming, warned senior county councillors.

The county council is responsible for 186 schools — 169 primaries, 10 secondaries, four special needs schools and three pupil referral units.

A meeting of the Labour and Liberal Democrat-run cabinet heard how the council had borrowed millions to top up the shortfall in maintenance. However, a sum of £16.4 million has not been enough to provide pupils with a 21st Century learning environment, councillors complained.

They now plan to meet with the county’s six MPs to ramp up the pressure on the Government. David Southward (Lab, Egremont), who is in charge of property at the council, said schools faced challenges now and in the future to make them safe, windproof and watertight. “Over the next few years, this challenge is set to increase as we anticipate further reductions in central government funding for schools maintenance,” he said.

“As we continue to grapple with an ageing estate in the context of government austerity, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the county council to find the money to top up the underfunding from central government.

“I regret to say that unless there are changes in the funding available, there exists a very real risk that schools may have to close due to a lack of basic maintenance necessary to keep our children safe.”

Council leader Stewart Young (Lab, Upperby) said it was “not scaremongering” but “telling it how it is”.

Mr Young said: “The only source of funding available to us is selling other assets, although we have been doing that for a number of years and we have sold off a lot. We also have a lot of requirements to maintain other buildings, whether that’s our care homes, our fire stations or our roads.

“We could borrow the money but we have to find the revenue to repay it. We are running out of options and it is unsustainable.”

Liberal Democrat cabinet members Peter Thornton (Kendal Strickland and Fell) and Patricia Bell (Penrith East) described the scale of cuts as “staggering and disgraceful”.

Mr Thornton said: “A new roof costs a certain amount to fix. Buildings cost a certain amount to maintain. All the digital transformation in the world does not affect those costs. What are we meant to do? Let our buildings go tatty and fall down and then they cost more to fix?”

The cabinet agreed to approach the county’s MPs to lobby the Government on the council’s behalf to make the case for more funding.