HC Deb 22 May 1997 vol 294 cc828-9
7. Mr. Baker

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what steps he intends to take to allow local authorities greater freedom to tackle the backlog of repairs to school buildings. [196]

Mr. Blunkett

We greatly sympathise with the position in which schools and colleges throughout the country find themselves, with a legacy of more than £3 billion of disrepair. Shortly we shall make proposals for a public-private partnership, based on a consortium of local education authorities, schools and financial institutions, which will free the money to tackle that backlog and ensure that our teachers and pupils have an environment fit to work in.

Mr. Baker

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Is he aware that he has inherited a terrible situation from the previous, Conservative, Government, in that one in five secondary schools and one in seven primary schools have substandard accommodation? In my constituency, Lewes, at Wivelsfield primary school, more than 60 per cent. of children are in so-called temporary buildings—ramshackle buildings that have been up for more than 10 years. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that reliance on public-private projects alone will not necessarily produce the answer? Can he estimate the likely value of private finance initiative projects to repair crumbling buildings in the next 12 months?

Mr. Blunkett

I agree with the first part of the question. There is a chronic situation in schools throughout the country, with leaking roofs, window frames that do not fit, temporary classrooms that have been temporary for the best part of 40 or 50 years and remaining outside toilets. We are determined to tackle that backlog and that legacy. We shall have a considered programme, which we shall want to discuss with the local authorities and the financial institutions. I of course accept that that will not be the sole answer to the question; we must apply existing capital resources and permission to borrow sensitively and carefully, to ensure that, together, the partnership and the borrowing requirement enable us to tackle that backlog during the present Parliament.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the second part of his answer today—PFI plus borrowing requirement—is an essential part of the attempt to solve that problem? It is a particular problem for flat-top schools built in the 1960s and 1970s and it is a considerable problem for schools in the voluntary sector. Will he ensure that representatives of the voluntary sector are included in any decisions?

Mr. Blunkett

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The flat roofs that exist throughout the country are a bit like the flat earth policy of the Conservative party—it has many leaks in it and consequently requires urgent repair. The need for repair exists regardless of the status of school or its category in terms of aid, and we shall discuss, with the Churches and others, ways in which they might join the partnership and work with us to tackle that backlog of disrepair.

Sir Patrick Cormack

How does the right hon. Gentleman propose to tackle authorities like Islington, which, whatever the date of their buildings, provide a lamentable education?

Mr. Blunkett

After 18 years of Conservative rule—[Interruption.] After 18 years of Conservative rule at national level, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in the first three weeks in government, we have acted decisively where failure exists to ensure that every child in every school—in Islington and elsewhere—receives the standard and quality of education that we would expect for our own children.