HC Deb 07 July 1988 vol 136 cc1297-302

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

10.33 pm
Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me the opportunity to raise again so soon the important subject of Cornwall's school building requirements. As you, Sir, will know, I was to have raised this matter some three weeks ago, but unfortunately the day nominated for the debate does not exist in the annals of this House; it was Wednesday 15 June.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his kind attendance this evening, and take this opportunity to thank him publicly for the support that he has given me over the years in respect of schools in Cornwall. He has certainly been as supportive as the restraints imposed by other Government Departments would allow him to be. From a so-called Tory wet to one who is not normally associated with my ilk in the party, that is praise indeed.

My principal reason for asking for the debate is to persuade the Department of Education and Science to recognise Cornwall's need for a meaningful capital allocation which allows the county to sustain a rolling programme of new school building—to accommodate rising numbers—and bring about a replacement and improvement programme for existing school stock. I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot give commitments about the level of future capital funding, but I want him to acknowledge publicly Cornwall's school building requirements over the next five years and assure me that his Department recognises our specific needs.

I wish to concentrate on the primary school sector, but should like first to draw attention to three other specific matters. The first concerns secondary schools, of which there are 33 in Cornwall. Nine, including Liskeard in my constituency, still occupy split sites. Clearly, that is not cost-effective. We are not making maximum use of our scarce financial and human resources. It is a waste of time and of valuable resources.

In 1973, I took a delegation to see Lord Belstead, who was then Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science. We emphasised the need for an integrated secondary school development at Liskeard. Alas, 15 years later, all the problems and frustrations associated with a split site at Liskeard still remain.

My second point is about post-16 education in the county. In recent years, there has been a tremendous expansion, albeit starting from a low base. Over the past six years, there has been significant further education provision in Saltash, the largest town in my constituency. So far, there has been a two-phase programme, with a capital injection of £1.5 million. There is enormous demand, which represents unfulfilled potential. We need developments and extensions of the progress that we have made. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the money for these much-needed projects must come out of the same capital allocation.

My third point relates to the new building regulations, which are to be introduced in 1991, governing school premises. Hitherto such regulations have applied only to new school buildings. After 1991, all schools should comply with the provisions in the regulations. Cornwall's estimate of the cost of implementing the new regulations to bring all existing schools up to standard is between £70 million and £80 million. That shows the scale of the financial requirements.

In 1988–89, Cornwall's capital allocation to the primary school sector was £6.4 million. All parties on the county council, all my parliamentary colleagues who represent Cornwall constituencies and I were pleased with arid grateful for this allocation.

I am reminded that two years ago—I do not want the House to think that I spend all my time taking delegations to see Education Ministers—the late David Penhaligon and I went to see the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Keith Joseph, to emphasise the needs and requirements of Cornwall. We took with us the chairman of the county council, the then chief education officer, and the former chairman of the education committee. I like to think that, on that occasion, the late David Penhaligon and I paved at least some ground and made some headway in emphasising the needs of Cornwall.

I do not wish to be ungracious, but there is a need for the £6.4 milllion not only to be sustained, but also to be improved on if the rolling programme, to which I have referred, is to be achieved.

In 1992, Cornwall's primary school population will exceed 40,000 which will be the highest number in its history. Furthermore, in 1987, the birth rate in Cornwall was the highest since the 1960s. That surely shows that movement into our county is responsible for the increased school population, and that there is also population growth within the county.

Our county chief education officer estimates that there are some 50 projects, of which 50 per cent. can be classified as major—in other words, projects involving more than £200,000-worth of work—that would merit urgent priority if there were sufficient funds. Most of those 50 projects would involve a substantial element of rebuild, replacement and improvement.

I will give two examples in my constituency—Pensilva and the St. Blazey-Biscovey area. Pensilva is a village that has grown significantly over the past decade or so. Five of its six classes have been housed in temporary accommodation since 1980. The old main building of the original school is in a bad state of repair. Cornwall is caught in a chicken and egg situation, because naturally it is reluctant to spend on upkeep and maintenance—although there is a very real need because the buildings are deteriorating—because it hopes that sooner rather than later funds will be available for a new primary school at Pensilva. It is an excellent school. The staff do a superb job in difficult circumstances, and the parents are very supportive.

Another typical example is in the St. Blazey-Biscovey area. The St. Blazey primary school is on a very restricted site, adjacent to a main road, and with very limited playing space, all of which is tarmacadam—indeed, it is the classic 19th-century Victorian school. In another part of the town, there is the Lodge Hill junior school. It is overcrowded. There is no hall or dining space. It also has a hard play area, and the nearest field for play and sport is 15 minutes away. The number of pupils is growing. None the less, it is a well run and happy environment, and all credit is due to the staff and pupils, who are well supported by an active parent-teachers association.

The problems were acknowledged in 1970. The then chief education officer wrote to the then chairman of school governers, "Something must be done," yet relatively little progress has been made. The irony is that we have a new site for a school. If it were built soon, we would realise the valuable assests of the two existing sites, and by building one school serving the St. Blaxey-Biscovey area we would satify the aspirations of two schools which are on the waiting list.

I can only describe the situation in Landrake as a saga. I have had the honour to be the local Member of Parliament for 18 years, and Landrake has featured in my regular mailing list and correspondence files since 1970, and I imagine it was on those of my predecessor. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to say that we are making progress. It is a voluntary-aided school. St. Germans and Stoke Climsland are also in desperate need of a new primary school.

Many requirements arise as a result of the combination of a growing school population and the need to upgrade existing buildings. The problem is especially acute in the Plymouth travel-to-work area. In the three major towns in the easternmost part of my constituency—Saltash, Torpoint and Callington—there will be a need for new schools or major extensions to existing ones in the foreseeable future because of the growth in population.

In the surrounding villages, which we might call the growth villages of the Plymouth travel-to-work area, of Landrake, Stoke Climsland and St. Germans, there is tremendous pressure on existing primary schools. Cornwall has allocated all of them as sites for new primary schools, but unfortunately resources are not available.

The Cornwall education authority faces an almost impossible—some might say invidious—task each year when determining priorities. Naturally, every community believes that its school should be top of the list. I appreciate that the problems are magnified by the fact that, during the 1950s and 1960s, relatively little was spent by a somewhat mean Cornwall county council on improving and extending school buildings—hence the backlog today.

I have not mentioned the 70 primary schools which still have outside toilets. I hope that I have conveyed to my hon. Friend the Minister the need for expenditure, whether it be on new schools or on the remodelling of existing ones. A tremendous task lies before the Cornwall education committee. It is essential that the Department of Education and Science recognises our requirements and provides sufficient resources to enable a meaningful rolling programme to be established in Cornwall.

10.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Bob Dunn)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) on his success in obtaining this Adjournment debate on Cornwall's school building requirements. From his excellent speech, his correspondence to me and the questions that he has put to me over the years I recognise that it is an issue which has stimulated a good deal of local interest, concern and discussion.

I begin by reminding the House that since, 1980, control of local education authority expenditure has been exercised through the block allocation system introduced by the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. Before that legislation, the Department of Education and Science produced lists of individual named projects to be started in a particular year.

My hon. Friend will be aware that allocations are not grants. They represent limits on the capital spending that local education authorities can undertake. They can finance projects from revenue or by borrowing. Such expenditure, including loan charges, is assisted by central Government through the rate support grant mechanism.

Again, the House will be aware that allocations are made for each of six services—education, housing, transport, social services, urban aid and other environmental services. The education allocation covers all sections of education and includes expenditure on furniture, equipment, plant and machinery, land and professional fees, as well as actual construction costs.

Local authorities are, of course, free to apply their allocations as they wish. They may move resources between services, and to a limited extent between years, but may not exceed the total of their allocations except by the application of a specific proportion—30 per cent. in 1988–89—of their accumulated capital receipts, and in a few other special circumstances.

At the same time as allocations are made to local education authorities, allocations are also made for governors' expenditure at aided and special agreement schools. These are also spending limits, but 85 per cent. of governors' expenditure is reimbursed through grant aid by the Department and, except for minor works, the Department lists those projects that can start in a particular year.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are well aware of the particular problems faced by Cornwall—in particular, that it retains a large number of schools housed in aging, pre-1903 buildings. Furthermore, we recognise that the school-age population in Cornwall is beginning generally to increase, especially in towns such as Liskeard and Saltash where large housing developments are planned. Consequently, there are likely to be an increasing number of "basic need" cases in the county, and these projects will, of course, be given the most careful consideration by the Department of Education and Science, along with other school improvement projects in the county, when the capital expenditure allocations for 1989–90 are decided on later this year.

I should also like to indulge myself by mentioning the level of allocations that Cornwall LEA has received in recent years, particularly in respect of "prescribed" expenditure on county and voluntary controlled schools. In 1988–89, for example, the notional schools element of the authority's prescribed allocation—at £6.274 million—is 18 per cent. higher than that of the previous year and represents 78 per cent. of its total plans, compared to a national average of 47 per cent. Furthermore, the national average was exceeded in both the two previous financial years—my hon. Friend was good enough to recognise that. In 1986–87 the authority secured 53 per cent. of its plans compared with 51 per cent. nationally and in 1987–88 it secured 77 per cent. of its plans, compared with a national average of 46 per cent.

I assure my hon. Friend that projects at aided schools will continue to be looked at sympathetically. I know that accommodation problems at the aided school at Landrake are giving rise to much concern locally. Statutory proposals relating to the school were, I understand, published on 10 June. Should those proposals he approved by my right hon. Friend in clue course, the required building work would, of course, automatically receive an allocation, as the promoters would be under a duty to implement them.

My hon. Friend will, I hope, accept my assurances that I have listened carefully to what has been said tonight and that I have fully noted his concerns. The points that he has raised so well will be taken into account, along with any other representations that we may receive, before a decision is reached later this year upon the capital expenditure allocation to be provided for Cornwall in 1989–90.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech and on his determination, at the second attempt, to secure this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.