Council deficit compounds kitchen cash fears

Local authorities are complaining that the government’s £150m war-chest to finance primary school kitchen upgrades is not stretching far enough, confirming suppliers’ fears that the project was under-funded from the start.

There are just six weeks to go until the Universal Infant Free School Meals programme is introduced, but Kent County Council today became the latest body to reveal that the pot of cash it has been given will be spread exceptionally thin.

It is understood that Kent faces a £4.3m shortfall in government funding for the project. It has reportedly been allocated £2.7m to implement the scheme, including extending existing or building new kitchens.

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There have already been stories of headteachers in other parts of the country, such as Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, cutting back budgeted spend on other areas, such as IT equipment, in order to afford catering equipment.

In Bradford it was reported that the council faced difficulty finding the estimated £1.2m shortfall needed to upgrade equipment at 40 schools. The work may cost as much as £2.5m, but it has only been allocated £1.3m from central funds.

The boss of one large catering equipment distributor told Catering Insight it was not surprising to hear that more cash was needed to get schools ready for the September scheme.

“We are finding the funds that Central Government have made available to implement the initiative are only helping to bring some kitchens up to the required standard and providing just a ‘sticking plaster’ solution. I would suggest that if future governments plan to continue free school meals they will need to set aside significantly more than the £150m currently available.”

A Kent County Council spokesman told regional news website Kent Online: “KCC intends to use the £2.7 million government funding for kitchen improvements. We hope to put in approximately 10 new kitchens, improve facilities and ventilation in approximately 10 schools and put additional equipment into 160 sites. A more realistic level of capital funding would be £7m.”

The Conservative councillor in charge of education at KCC, Roger Gough, was quoted as saying: “The funding provided for free school meals falls well short of what is needed and schools are having to use the money creatively. There are certainly a number of schools that are having to make difficult decisions.”

But Clair Hawkins, Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Dover & Deal, hit back: “This is really worrying and shows a poorly planned policy that doesn’t have the funding in place to make it a success. The shortfall in Kent is eye-watering and we need to know what’s being done to fix this problem.

“It really is a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other, the money has to come from somewhere and that means other services will suffer. The coalition wants the headlines for a big idea but then leaves councils to pick up the pieces.”

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