HL Deb 13 November 1996 vol 575 cc927-9

Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they are withholding support from the Springvale Campus Project in Belfast (the so-called "Peaceline Campus").

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, the University of Ulster's Springvale university campus proposal is a major proposal involving significant resources. The Government had reached no decision when the University of Ulster decided on 4th October to put the project in its current form on hold.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that somewhat disappointing Answer. Does she agree that with a visionary and key project such as this what she has said is not just in marked contrast to the enthusiasm expressed originally by the Secretary of State but is almost tantamount to rejection? Further, does she agree that it imperils £30 million of non-governmental support which the University of Ulster has identified; frustrates the potential of going to the Millennium Fund for additional money; and, what is most important, withdraws a point of hope and initiative from people in an area when they sorely need both those things?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I refer the noble Lord to my first Answer which says that there is no proposal on the table. It is difficult to make mythical decisions. Much work is being done to bring hope to north and west Belfast. I was pleased to announce this morning that the biggest drop in unemployment in parliamentary constituencies has been in those two areas, which proves that our targeting of social need is working. I know that the University of Ulster and the Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education are together looking at smaller projects which could be regarded as modular moves which would not take away hope. There may be an unsubstantiated promise of £30 million, but that does not tell us where to find the further £60 million or £70 million which is needed.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, if the Government are absolutely determined, as it seems that they are, to withhold support from the Springvale Campus Project since they have dithered for so many months about what they are going to do, will the Minister kindly explain in what ways they plan to increase funding for higher education in Northern Ireland where it is desperately needed?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, waiting for the university to do a feasibility study and then ourselves doing an economic study of its impact is not my definition of dithering. Northern Ireland has the significant achievement of 41 per cent. of its youngsters going to university. I do not believe that we can be criticised over higher education.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, would not a positive decision on this matter be the greatest possible confidence-building measure that the Government could deliver in Northern Ireland? Is the Minister aware that this proposal has the support of both local constituency MPs, coming, as they do, from opposing political traditions?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, many activities in Northern Ireland have the support of all parties. That message may not get out as often as it should. Not everyone is in conflict with everyone else. The project could not happen without other parts of education being affected. Such considerations have to be taken seriously. We wait to see what is brought forward by the University of Ulster in a different format. But there is great hope in these areas and there is great spend in the economic area, including the bringing of jobs, which seems to me is the best inspiration of hope.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this project is not just another campus project but is more of a regeneration project in what is perhaps one of the most divided and difficult communities of our Kingdom? Furthermore, does she agree that, were it successful, the gains in forwarding the peace process could be remarkable?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we encourage the development of innovative proposals, which is important for this area. However, I strike a note of caution as regards his depressing depiction of the scene. A great deal of work is being undertaken and much support is being given to attract new investment to the area. For instance, £15 million-worth of support was given for F.G. Wilson to come into the area, and we are acquiring a new business park. We are beginning to see change and we are encouraging people there to take charge of their lives.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, it would not be proper to pretend that the change should happen at the expense of some of the other admirable projects mentioned by the noble Baroness. However, she referred to the gap in funding between the £13 million identified by the University of Ulster and the £100 million cost of the project. May I urge the Minister to look at the example of the Scottish Office—I hope that she will agree that she should do so—in relation to the Highlands and Islands University, where its positive and active support is part of the case being made for the Millennium Fund?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, we examine everything that is happening in order to learn from it. However, I stress that our first responsibility is to examine the needs of Northern Ireland. Perhaps I may draw attention to the fact that the Scottish Office does not have to find £20 million in compensation for damage done during the summer.

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