Bradford Council is struggling to find up to £1.2 million needed to upgrade school kitchens ahead of a Government shake-up in September.
From the next academic year, free school dinners must be available for all children under seven – but the councillor responsible for education in Bradford says the national changes have left it searching for hundreds of thousands of pounds from its already stretched budget.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced the free school meals plans last year, but it has since emerged that local authorities across the country face bills of millions of pounds to bring school kitchens up to a level to cope with the extra demand. In Bradford, 40 primary schools will need kitchen upgrades at a cost of up to £2.5 million. Earlier this year the Government granted the council £1.3 million to improve kitchens, but with the lowest estimate for the improvements coming in at £1.6 million, there is between £300,000 and £1.2 million to find.
Councillor Ralph Berry, Council executive member for Children and Young People’s Services, said: “This seems to be a national problem. Before the Government made this announcement there was no assessment of kitchen requirements and they have been trying to back work things.
“The latest estimates are that it will cost about £1.9 million which leaves a significant gap. It is a scheme I support, but the way it has been done means we are really having to work hard to make this work.”
Improvements include updating obsolete extraction systems and cook lines and conversions to cooking systems.
Coun Berry said: “We are doing everything we can to work with schools to do our very best but we have an incredibly short time scale. Instead of trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat the government should have had a proper discussion with councils and schools.”
Conservative spokesman for education Coun Roger L’Amie said the problem was not insurmountable and said that because the costs were a ‘one-off’ expense the Council could consider using reserves.
Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Bradford Council, Jeanette Sunderland, said the money could be found if it was not “wasted elsewhere”.
“They’ve just spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on repainting the town hall. There’s new doors, beautiful solid oak doors with brass plates, fitted outside the chief executive’s office,” she said.
No comment was available from the Department for Education.