HC Deb 18 March 1969 vol 780 cc371-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Miller.]

12.5 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The purpose of this Adjournment debate is to try to scrutinise the Scottish Education Department's rôle in the provision of school playing fields. If I start with the particular case of St. Columba's Roman Catholic Primary School at Bathgate, it is not so much to try to identify how an unsatisfactory situation has come about as to ask what can be done to ensure that it does not repeat itself.

The facts are now familiar to my hon. Friend. St. Columba's opened in February, 1967, and at that time it was thought that the playing fields, which were not ready when the school opened, would soon be ready. It now looks as though they will not be ready until at least August, 1969. On 26th February I put a Written Question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, asking …what advice his Department gives local authorities to encourage them to have playing fields for new schools available to coincide with the opening of the school. My right hon. Friend replied: This is so obviously desirable that I do not think education authorities require advice about it. Obvious or not, my impression, and a rather informed impression, is that, whereas the situation is by no means typical, that of St. Columba's at least does show that playing fields are not ready at the time new buildings are completed.

I also asked my right hon. Friend …if he will give details of the information regarding costs made available by West Lothian County Council to his Department of the playing fields of St. Columba's Roman Catholic Primary School, Bathgate. He replied: The estimated cost of the playing field submitted in 1964 was £3,092. In 1967, after the school had been opened, it became clear that additional work would be needed because of difficult conditions encountered in part of the playing field. I understand that this work was later undertaken at a cost of about £1,800. This escalation in costs is of the percentage that we normally associate with the aircraft industry and not with school building.

I also asked my right hon. Friend …what advice he has given to local authorities in relation to the inclusion of penalty clauses in agreements between local authorities and contractors in the provision of school playing fields. He replied: Authorities have been recommended to include in building contracts generally a liquidated damages clause providing for the reimbursement of identifiable losses if delay occurs. I should like to know how often the liquidated damages clause has been used and whether, on reflection, my hon. Friends think that this form of penalty works satisfactorily.

Again, on this point, I asked my right hon. Friend …if he will outline his cost control system for the construction of school playing fields. He replied: The School Building Code requires education authorities to submit the estimated costs and plans of school playing fields for approval."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1969; Vol. 778, c. 309, 308, 309–10.] What progress-chasing does the Department do once approval has been given?

I am also bothered about the whole question of the rôle of the inspectorate and about what is called its "readily available technical advice ". I was told by the Minister Largely through the Inspectorate, problems such as this can be dealt with on a day-to-day basis by discussions between the education authority and the Inspectorate and also formally in discussions between the authority and the Department as a Department. I do not think that there is any difficulty in the procedure, whether formal or informal, for dealing with a matter of this sort."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, First Scottish Standing Committee, 4th February, 1969; c. 99.] I have been informed, however, that only once since the opening of this school, on 20th February, 1968, has an inspector visited the school. Mr. Burnett, of the architects Alison & Hutchison, has told me that the Department … will simply not come out. Whose fault has this been? Was it the fault of the Scottish Education Department, the West Lothian County Council, Alison & Hutchison, or the sub-contracting architect, Collett from Lonehead? Did the fault lie with Harrisons, the main contractors, or was it a combination of faults on behalf of two or more of these parties? It is clear that the buck in this kind of situation must stop somewhere, for there was no correct grading and investigation into the problems of top soil.

Having mentioned that case, of which I have given the Department much notice in recent weeks, certain conclusions must be drawn, and I do this in question form. Should not my hon. Friend reflect on his relations with contractors? Would it not be sensible to talk in terms of a round-table conference with big contractors since perhaps the laying down of playing fields, which requires much expertise, can be done only by really big firms? If this is the case, might not it be wise for the Government to select two, three or four of the major Scottish contractors by which such work would be done?

On 26th February I put another Written Question to the Minister and asked my right hon. Friend: …what discussions have taken place between his Department's technical officers and large contractors on the general problems of laying out playing fields in the last 12 months; and if he will name the contractors. The Secretary of State replied: None, but the Department's technical officers have at times discussed specific cases with contractors. Detailed advice about the laying out of playing fields is available to contractors in the Department of Education and Science Building Bulletin No. 28, and this is thought to cover most of the problems that experience suggests are likely to arise. If that was not a complacent Answer, perhaps it was a bit self-satisfied. I want the Department to play a more positive rôle in this respect.

On the subject of school playing fields, more attention should be given to both indoor facilities—I appreciate the expense involved—and all-weather pitches, and I am not naive about the expense involved in these, either, particularly since in Questions I recently drew this matter to the attention of the Minister responsible for sport.

Again, on 26th February, I put a Question to the Secretary of State asking …if he will give details of the improvements in the design of playing fields in the last five years initiated by central government"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1969; Vol. 778 c. 309.] Again, reference was made to the Department of Education and Science Bulletin, 1966, on playing fields and hard surface areas providing guidance based on developments since the previous decision of 1955. A great deal more can be done to find some standardised all-weather pitch at reasonable cost. Again I emphasise that this involves cooperation by big contractors, rather than the contrary point of view held by many of my hon. Friends that there should be some sort of national playing fields corporation. I do not favour that proposition.

My hon. Friend has previously argued that it might not be an ideal situation to tie youth clubs to schools in order to save expense because those who have left school perhaps do not want to return there. Both on financial grounds and on the proposition that the situation and the whole attitude to school has rather changed in the last 10 years, I invite him to reconsider this judgment and to bear in mind that there is a strong feeling now that it is quite legitimate to attach youth facilities to schools.

My hon. Friend should perhaps reflect, certainly when the Royal Commission on Local Government Report is published, whether small authorities have the cost control mechanism necessary for the provision of sports facilities, both indoor and outdoor. Perhaps one of the main purposes of this debate is to ask him to review his own control of cost machinery inside his Department, because although the Scottish Education Department does many things extremely well and is a Department to be proud of, I have yet to be convinced that the cost control machinery is all that it might be. I understand that this raises the whole question of the relationship between central and local government.

On a previous occasion my hon. Friends have been asked what study they have made of international experience in this sphere. Part of my dissatisfaction arises from having taken football teams abroad and having seen, seven or eight years ago, what can be done, for example, in Western Germany and other parts of Europe. There is a feeling that many countries do things so much better than we do in the provision of sports facilities. I think it worth using the time of the House to draw attention to this matter.

12.17 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has on other occasions recently raised some of the matters that he has been talking about. I am glad to go over some of them again. Perhaps I may deal with what he said in the reverse order to that which he used because if I explain the general background coherently what happened in the particular case of St. Columba's, Bathgate, will become rather clearer.

Perhaps I may start by explaining the general system of school building control at central government level. The general system I describe applies in the way I shall outline to the construction of playing fields. In 1967 the Secretary of State made new regulations, the School Premises (General Requirements and Standards) (Scotland) Regulations, to govern the general requirements and standards to be applied to schools. At the same time he published the new School Building Code setting out in some detail the forms to be submitted and the procedures to be followed by education authorities to obtain his approval to their proposals.

The aim of these new regulations and code was to replace the detailed over- Sight previously maintained by the Department by a more flexible system which would give authorities greater freedom—and, therefore, greater responsibility—in designing their schools to meet the needs of a period of experiment and advance in educational methods and practices. At the same time, however, it was obviously necessary for the Secretary of State to retain certain controls at key points in individual projects. It will make the position clearer if I describe what these control points are.

First, there is the approval in principle stage, at which the Secretary of State approves the need for a school and the size and type to be provided. At this point the Secretary of State also approves any proposals to include social and recreational facilities of the kind my hon. Friend has mentioned.

The second approval stage is at the site stage, at which the Secretary of State ensures that the site for a school meets the "minimum area" requirements of the regulations. The third stage is the approval of sketch plans and estimated costs, at which the Secretary of State satisfies himself that the plans conform to the requirements of the regulations and that the estimated costs are acceptable. The fourth stage is the approval of tenders. This is a stage which comes into operation where tenders are in excess of the approved estimated costs. In that case, the Secretary of State's approval is required.

Even that brief outline of the procedure demonstrates that the Secretary of State, through his Department, is interested at a number of points in the control of projects, and particularly in the actual cost concerned. Therefore, there is not any question of the Secretary of State under the new procedure giving up completely his former responsibilities and taking no interest in these very important matters. What is new in the present procedure is that a good deal more flexibility and responsibility is allowed to the education authority.

The Secretary of State's rôle in providing advice and guidance in the design and planning of schools through Her Majesty's Inspectors, architects and quantity surveyors becomes even more important. Perhaps I should make it clear that if architects, quantity surveyors or professional staff of that type are required we have the resources of the Scottish Development Department. It is not a question of the Scottish Education Department doing this separately. We have the full resources of the Scottish Development Department in this matter.

Advice and guidance in the design and planning of schools is also provided through a number of formal documents, such as the Educational Building Notes produced by the Scottish Education Department and, in the case of playing fields particularly, through Bulletin No. 28 issued by the Department of Education and Science. This bulletin is not a brief document which does not go into any of the detailed proposals which can be involved in the provision of playing fields. It is a very detailed document running to 84 pages and containing a tremendous amount of detail. I believe that this document covers the range of problems which are likely to be met, at least in normal circumstances and in some abnormal circumstances as well, in the provision of playing fields. I could not guarantee that every circumstance is covered there, but the document gives a fairly comprehensive cover of the type of problems which are likely to be met.

Apart from that, guidance is available in design matters generally to education authorities at any time. Circular No. 654 issued in August, 1967, with the new School Premises Regulations and School Building Code, has a section on design guidance making that point particularly clear. I quote a short passage from it, because it demonstrates the kind of relationship between the central Department, on the one hand, and the education authority, on the other: It is the Department's aim to reduce the amount of architectural effort taken up by oversight of the planning of individual projects so that more effort may be devoted to the production of design guidance available to all. Authorities will be free to continue, where appropriate, to consult the District Inspector and the Department's architect for advice on the preparation of a schedule of accommodation, architect's brief and sketch plans… The various documents which are provided for in the School Building Code are normally channelled through the local Her Majesly's Inspectors, so that on the spot we have the opportunity of having the inspector's advice on the proposals as they come up to the tender stage.

Now so far as playing fields specifically are concerned, the School Building Code requires education authorities at the sketch plan and estimated cost stage, the third stage I mentioned earlier, to provide details of the type and number of pitches and other facilities provided, and also to submit a contoured plan showing the layout of the playing field, details of the costs of construction, layout and planting, levelling, excavation and filling and drainage works, as well as specifying the buildings to be erected and their cost. These are examined by the Department's specialist advisers before approval to ensure that the proposals are reasonable and the estimated costs acceptable.

But the responsibility for seeing that the plans are implemented—and this is the point which I think my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about—and that the costs are kept under control is that of the authority. This has always been so, even under the previous more detailed procedure. So, so far as the control of the project is concerned, once final approval has been given, the responsibility is the authority's. That is where the buck stops, in the phrase which my hon. Friend used.

There is no doubt about this, and the education authorities accept that responsibility. It is for them to progress chase, as my hon. Friend said. It is for them to see that the work is carried out satisfactorily by the architects, the surveyors, and the contractors they employ, whether they are employing their own architects or whether, as in the case of St. Columba's, they have gone to an outside firm. I have no evidence generally that authorities are not vigilant in seeing that this oversight of projects is carried on during the whole process of the project, and, of course, it is very much in the interests of the education authorities that they should do so. I think we must allow a certain degree of trust at least to them, as responsible bodies, and accept that if they are left to do a job they will do the job adequately, as in my experience they do.

That is why the Department as such does not have these relations with contractors which my hon. Friend mentioned. Neither individually nor generally do we have relations with contractors because the contractual relationships are essentially between the education authority and the contractors rather than with the Department in matters of this sort. But all the advice is available to contractors as well as to architects, and we make a point of ensuring that the Building Notes of the Department are made known to the people responsible for carrying out school building projects.

So far as St. Columba's is concerned, when the sketch plans and estimated costs were submitted in 1964 approval was given to the cost of £3,092 for the playing field. Tenders for the school as a whole, including the playing field, were approved in October, 1965. In August, 1967, which was five months after the school was opened, the Director of Education wrote to the Department to say he had been informed by the architects for the school that extremely difficult conditions had been encountered at the south-west corner of the grass playing pitch which made it impossible for the area to be cultivated as proposed.

He put three proposals to the Department for putting matters right, and asked which the Department would be prepared to approve: (1) to tarmac the area at an estimated cost of £8,600; (2) to provide extra drainage and form a blaes playing area at an estimated cost of £6,700; and (3) to install further field drainage to enable special machinery to be put on to lightly cultivate the area and sow grass at an estimated cost of £250.

The choice was between quite expensive projects on the one hand and a very cheap one on the other. After consulting our technical advisers, we informed the authority that for the time being remedial measures should be restricted to alternative (3) to see whether that would work. In the event, that was not successful, and the playing field, as my hon. Friend said, was not ready when the school opened. Grass seed was first sown in the summer of 1967, and the difficulties due to the peat in the south-west corner came to light, as I have said. Subsequently, the authority called in two experts to advise it. One was from the East of Scotland College of Agriculture, one of the regular advisers to the county council, and the other was an expert on peat.

It is worth making the point that, apart from the advice which is available from the Department directly, the Departmental advisers themselves can draw on outside sources for advice. It is open to an authority as well to take in any kind of outside advice which it thinks may be relevant in the particular case. Many authorities do this, calling on the S.C.P.R., the Sports Council, or whoever it may be. There is advice available outside Government circles as well, and it is perfectly appropriate for an authority to take it.

The two experts to whom I have referred recommended that the peat should be dug up and a blaes surface used for the effective part of the playing field. This was done in the summer of 1968, at a cost of about £1,800. I understand that the headmaster of the school is now said to be reasonably satisfied with the playing field. Although there are other areas around the school where conditions are still unsatisfactory, I do not think they are of direct relevance to the point which my hon. Friend has raised.

It is a little unfair to say that the £1,800 is an increase in costs over the original figure of £3,092 which I mentioned. It is not an escalation of costs in the normal sense; it is putting right a defect which was not expected at the time when the original estimates of cost were submitted. It is not always profitable in a case of this sort to look, as my hon. Friend did, at the question of whose fault it was that things did not go as well as they might have done. Inevitably in operations of this sort there are occasions when problems come to light which were not expected at the beginning of the project, and I do not believe that any system of relationships between the Department, on the one hand, and education authorities, on the other, can ever obviate circumstances like that arising.

Although what has happened in this case is, plainly, not the most fortunate of circumstances, I certainly would not call it in aid as any sort of criticism of the arrangements, and it does not invalidate the general philosophy of the relationship between the central Government and the education authorities which I described earlier.

Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend has given me a detailed and courteous answer. May he not reflect—I do not ask for an immediate—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Press will wish to hear what is said. Will the hon. Gentleman please speak up?

Mr. Dalyell

May my hon. Friend not reflect that, had there been three or four contractors who had the expertise, these problems would have been anticipated?

Mr. Millan

I do not believe that that is a practical proposition, and I should regard it as undesirable, too, that we should adopt my hon. Friend's suggestion that only a few contractors in Scotland ought to carry out this kind of work. Our experience of playing field construction is not such as could lead me to believe that anything like that is necessary. In any case, I do not think that even doing that would necessarily avoid the sort of problem which we had at St. Columba's.

Turning to the other matters which my hon. Friend mentioned, I agreed with several of the points he made, for example, about indoor facilities. He will be aware of the games hall programme, a new development in 1968, which will help to increase indoor facilities for games in a way which the conventional gymnasium to which we are accustomed in schools cannot do. I am glad to say that authorities generally are interested in the games hall concept, and I hope to see a considerable development of it in new schools and extensions to existing schools in the years to come.

I do not take a dogmatic view about youth facilities attached to schools. The important need is that we increase the number of youth facilities and the extent of them as rapidly as we can. I am glad to say that a good deal of progress has been made to that end in the last year or two.

Next, my hon. Friend referred to the need for all-weather surfaces. Obviously, there is a considerable case for these in Scotland, with our weather conditions. However, as my hon. Friend knows from correspondence and other contact that he has had with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Education and Science, one of the difficulties here is that some of the all-weather surfaces are extremely expensive compared with the conventional grass surface, and they could not be adopted on anything like a wide scale without involving us in expense which would, I think, be unjustified.

The debate having continued for half an hour, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Mr. SPEAKER suspended the sitting of the House at twenty-five minutes to One o'clock till Ten o'clock this day, pursuant to Standing Order.