Cllr David Hodge is the Leader of Surrey County Council.
Here’s an eye-watering figure to starkly illustrate the financial strain of meeting surging demand for school places: £600 million. That sum represents the cost of borrowing – at a rate of £15m annually over 40 years – to cover the £215m funding gap we face to guarantee every Surrey child gets a place at a local school.
Of course we hope that won’t be needed, not least because together with the excellent support of county MPs we’ve raised the issue of adequate funding for this extraordinary pressure with the government. This isn’t funding for Surrey County Council, it’s funding for the children of Surrey, whose residents face having to pick up the financial burden if it isn’t met.
But the truth is it is getting harder and harder for us to find the money ourselves for the 13,000 places Surrey requires to tackle demand. The birth rate is rising more quickly than at any time since the 1950s.
It also comes at a time when a huge strain is being placed on our finances by other council services. We face a £200 million pressure from spiralling demand for elderly care together with new responsibilities placed on us by the Care Act, and we need to spend £132 million on our roads over the next five years when funding is due to fall short by around £60 million.
And it’s not as if we haven’t already been taking the financial strain on school places. In 2008, just 435 extra places were required but this September we had to pull out all the stops to build 4,130 additional places.
That took the number of extra places created in just seven years to almost 11,300 – enough to fill 375 new classrooms or 27 brand new two-form entry primary schools.
At the same time as demand started ballooning we teamed up with Hampshire County Council and other neighbouring authorities to use our collective purchasing power to cut the cost of providing places by 40 per cent.
But driving down prices was never going to be enough, given the sheer scale of the task we face and escalating construction costs in Surrey.
A year ago it cost £14,000 to buy the 40,000 bricks needed to build the Trinity Oaks School in Horley, which recently opened. By this summer those bricks cost £20,000 – representing a hike of almost 43 per cent.
All this means that the £98 million the Department for Education is expected to contribute towards desperately needed school places in Surrey, welcome though it is, falls well short of the £313 million we require to provide them.
And when the impact of house building is taken into account that £215 million funding shortfall could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Currently around 30,000 new homes are earmarked for Surrey over the next decade by planners, a figure that is only going to rise as pent-up demand from the downturn years is met.
That could lead to up to 12,000 more pupils wanting places at our high-quality schools, which would need to find some 400 extra classrooms to fit them in. At today’s prices building those places would cost around £250 million.
Given the fact that we’re not going to see any let-up in the unprecedented rise in demand for places any time soon, and Surrey’s residents contribute £6 billion annually to the national Exchequer (and get back less than £1 billion for services), it would be unfair to ask them to foot the bill any further.