Funding row confirms what industry feared all along

It comes as no surprise to me — or probably anyone else in the catering equipment supply chain for that matter — that local authorities have been complaining that the government’s £150m war-chest to finance primary school kitchen upgrades is not stretching far enough.

Suppliers raised concerns that the kitchen upgrade aspect of the Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) programme was under-funded from the start and some of the stories that have emerged recently would suggest they were spot on.

The boss of one large catering equipment distributor said it was always going to be the case that more funds would be needed to ensure school kitchens are ready for the September scheme.

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“We are finding the funds that Central Government has 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.”

Other dealers cite instances where they have visited schools to discover that not only do they not have a kitchen but there is no room for one either. That presents an additional challenge as the budget available will unlikely be enough to provide the right solution or any solution at all.

Kent County Council is one of the authorities that has been in the spotlight after it was revealed that the pot of cash it has been awarded is being spread exceptionally thin. According to local news reports, it has been allocated £2.7m to implement the scheme, which includes extending existing or building new kitchens. That, however, still leaves it with a £4.3m shortfall in government funding for the project.

A spokesperson for Kent County Council told one regional news site: “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.”

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, 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 to cover the project.

As critics have been quick to point out, it really is a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other.

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