Five Ways Primary School, Cannock

– in the House of Commons at 2:10 pm on 26th November 1993.

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

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright , Cannock and Burntwood 2:30 pm, 26th November 1993

One of the minor glories of the House is that it enables Back Benchers, if they are lucky in the raffle, to bring Ministers—sometimes in the early hours of the morning, sometimes on a Friday afternoon—to listen to the grievances of constituents. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Like many other hon. Members, I had an American student working for me in the early part of the year. He came to my constituency for the weekend and attended a meeting at a school. After he went back, he wrote to me describing his experiences. He said that the most interesting and important event that he had attended during his stay was that meeting at the school. His letter even said—we should allow for youthful hyperbole—that it had restored his faith in democracy because he had found a school, staff and parents actively engaged in large numbers in talking about their future.

I need to explain a little of the background. The community to which the student referred is Heath Hayes in my Staffordshire constituency. The district is a former mining area, which in recent years has been massively extended. The area of extension is known as Hawks Green. The other day, I read an article in the then local newspaper, the Cannock Advertiser and Courier, on 2 March 1974. The headline read: Hawk's Green: Design for a New Town". The article said: During the next 15 years, a multi-million pound plan to change the face of Cannock Chase will create a completely new town. The aim is to transform nearly 1,000 acres… to build a new community of 14,000. It continues: Nearly 100 acres will be set aside for schools within the Hawks Green complex and within the field of education there is likely to be an integration of the new and existing communities. Therefore, we are talking about something of enormous significance in terms of development and population.

I shall fill out the headline with some figures. The ward has doubled in size in the past 10 years. In 1981, it contained 5,605 people; in 1991, the figure was 9,304. If we examine the census figures more closely, we see exactly what is happening. In 1981, the nought to four age group accounted for 225 children; by 1991, that had increased to 909. The five to nine age group numbered 392 in 1981 and 762 in 1991. Moving on to what we might call the reproductive classes, we find that the 25 to 29 age group numbered 707 in 1981; by 1991, it was 1,119. In 1981, the 30 to 34 age group accounted for 628 people; by 1991, they numbered 1,114. Those figures are important to explain the context.

We have a draft local plan which proposes further developments to take account of about 625 more dwellings. That is why the development was described as a new town. It is a significant development, with all the associated infrastructural issues.

With a development of this size in prospect, in the 1970s the planners originally proposed three schools. One of them, Gorsemoor primary school, opened in 1983. It is now bursting at the seams; eight temporary classrooms are being used and numbers need to be reduced.

The second proposed school failed to materialise for a range of planning and purchase reasons involving the county council and British Coal, so a fallback plan was devised—not part of the original plan at all. It involved the extension of an existing school on the periphery of the development: Five Ways primary school. It was a 1950s school of unsatisfactory prefabricated metal construction, but it had space and places. It therefore seemed sensible, at least to the county council, to extend that site to begin to meet the developing needs of the area.

The plan was to extend the school in two stages by about 420 places: in the first stage, by 180 places, and in the second, by about 240 places. The first stage went ahead. It was approved and completed in 1992, and it takes the form of a truly splendid infant block. The second stage application was included in the basic needs capital bid for 1993–94, to begin this year, with the roll numbers at the school expected to rise to 599 or more by 1995-96 from an existing capacity of 413.

Now we get to the heart of the issue. The bombshell came when this capital bid application was turned down for 1993–94. That caused massive bewilderment and anger among the parents, staff and governors associated with the school. They wondered how anyone could not see the need for what was proposed. Was there not a commitment on the table to go on extending under phase 2? How was it possible for anyone to produce half a plan and not complete it? Was it conceivable that an infant block could be approved but a junior block turned down, when the numbers clearly showed that the capacity would have to increase to accommodate the increasing numbers of pupils coming to the school?

This was all especially difficult to understand because it was in any case a second-best proposal for the area, involving the use of surplus capacity and surplus places to extend an existing school to meet the area's needs. This way forward commended itself to Staffordshire county council at the time, if only by dint of necessity. It did not commend itself to the local community or to parents, however. Nevertheless, the plan went ahead and was working. As I have said, a splendid new school was arising from an old one, although the draft local plan contains provision for further schools in some areas.

The anger and bewilderment of local parents were compounded when the reasons for the decision emerged. It seems that someone in London who did not know the area at all, as it turned out, had drawn on a map a two-mile circle for primary schools and had discovered that there were some surplus places in schools in that circle, albeit only just.

It is important to remove surplus places and I am in favour of that, but in this case the argument is absurd, especially as the essence of this scheme was a proposal to use existing surplus places. Heath Hayes is a village and Hawks Green is a physically bounded community: the area is surrounded by two main roads, the A460 and the A5190 and the new eastern bypass at Cannock.

It was clear to everyone concerned that pedestrian movements out of that area were dangerous, if not impossible. There is a catalogue of no footpaths, narrow footpaths, busy junctions, dangerous crossings, blind bridges and ponds. There is now even a massive opencast mine that is akin to a lunar landscape in the direction of one of the schools that is said to have surplus places.

Only two schools are available to the parents in the area. Gorsemoor is already bursting at the seams and the number of pupils needs to be reduced. The other school is Five Ways and the next nearest, Heath Hayes primary, is already full. The Department for Education told us that it wanted more details to enable it to look at the scheme again. The parents gave it more details. I pay tribute to the parents and to everyone associated with the school for the way in which, over the past few months, they have made a case and taken it to everyone who is prepared to listen.

It was gratifying for those people to have a letter from the Secretary of State for Education earlier this year. The letter states that he was impressed by the perseverance with which Five Ways primary school was pressing its case, and he applauds the parents' concern for their school. We have submitted an enormous petition and visited the Department to explain the case in detail. We have extended an invitation to the Secretary of State, but unfortunately he could not take it up.

The parents have documented in fine detail all the proposed routes to other schools with surplus places; we have photographic evidence; and we have even had video evidence. I have a video tape, which I shall give to the Minister, that shows precisely the consequences for children's safety if this decision is not reversed. We are able to support that with devastating evidence from the local police, who have stated: any decision made which may force young children to walk long distances along busy roads in the locality will seriously increase the risk of them being involved in road accidents.The additional dangers and temptations to children of the Bleak House Open Cast site, which the children will also have to pass when going to and from the schools should also be considered. There can be no desire for more detail. The Minister has the new bid for 1994–95. In terms of the criteria, there is evidently a most basic need. In the spirit of back to basics, this is one of the most basic needs and, also in the context of the criteria, there is a commitment arising from a previous project approval. The case is understood and supported by all concerned and is the leading bid by Staffordshire county council for the current year.

The school is only half extended. It is an excellent school with a fast-growing reputation and tremendous parental involvement and support. It serves a natural and fast-expanding community and is an essential part of the infrastructure of that community. On the ground of parental choice alone, the case for completion of the school should be compelling. However, the case is even stronger than that—and it arises out of an existing commitment and in quite distinctive circumstances. There can be no doubt that a terrible injustice has been done, if only through misunderstanding. Fortunately, there is still time to put that right.

I am grateful to the Minister for listening to me. I shall be even more grateful, on behalf of everyone associated with Five Ways primary school, when the good news arrives that the school is to be allowed to complete its development in the service of the whole community of Heath Hayes.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch 2:45 pm, 26th November 1993

In the light of the way in which the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) began his speech, I shall begin mine by assuring him that although I would invariably be ready to respond to future Adjournment debates when he is so fortunate as to obtain them, I should be even happier if they are at this time on a Friday rather than late at night or even, as the hon. Gentleman implied, early in the morning.

I have listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about the history of the development in his constituency. He explained to the House why parents of children living in the vicinity of Five Ways primary school consider that the school should be extended. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised—although he may be disappointed—to hear me say that I cannot announce any decision today. It may be helpful if I explain to the House the background against which our decisions have to be made.

Staffordshire local education authority published on 16 September statutory proposals for the enlargement of Five Ways primary school. There followed a two-month period during which any 10 or more local government electors could lodge objections. That period expired on 15 November—last week—and my right hon. Friend hopes to reach a decision on the proposals as soon as possible. Because of his role in these matters, I cannot comment on the proposals because that might prejudice his decision. In the meantime, my right hon. Friend is also considering a capital bid from the LEA for appropriate basic need on the basis of agreed criteria.

As Staffordshire's capital bid is still under consideration, I shall not be able to comment in detail on the Five Ways project or pre-empt conclusions on it. I can say that my right hon. Friend will announce before Christmas the 1994-95 annual capital guidelines for each LEA together with its voluntary school capital allocation. The hon. Gentleman may find it helpful if I explain how the ACGs will be calculated and, in particular, how we will assess the merits of cases where authorities have made bids for capital funding for projects such as the enlargement of Five Ways primary school.

First, however, I am bound to remind the House of the considerable capital resources that the Government have made available to maintained schools in recent years. In 1993–94, total central Government support for LEA, grant-maintained and aided schools will be £598 million. Of this, LEAs' ACGs for county and voluntary-controlled schools will total £444 million. That is a significant proportion of the £598 million. These are substantial sums and come on top of the considerable resources we have provided in recent years, when capital spending per pupil increased by 19 per cent. in real terms between 1978–79 and 1990–91.

Staffordshire itself has done particularly well. In each of the last three years, its ACG has represented á considerably larger proportion of its bid than the national average. For this year, Staffordshire's ACG amounted to just over £6 million, which represented 34 per cent. of the authority's plans, in a year when 27 per cent. of cash plans were met nationally. With an ACG of £7·8 million in 1992–93 and £8·6 million in the year before, that amounted to 70 per cent. of the authority's plans when 37 per cent. of plans were being met nationally. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we have dealt very reasonably with Staffordshire on the basis of those figures. In saying that, I am, of course, in no way prejudicing decisions in future years.

As well as our support for local authorities' capital spending on schools, it remains the case that LEAs themselves have the opportunity to top up their ACGs from their own capital receipts and other income, including their revenue budget. Central Government allocations, which take account of a proportion of LEAs' self-financed expenditure, will total £660 million, an increase of 33 per cent. in real terms during the five years to 1993–94. Up until the end of next month, authorities will also have been able to take advantage of the temporary flexibilities on the use of capital receipts that were announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last year.

Since the introduction of ACGs in 1990–91 with the new local authority capital system, LEAs have been told in detail how their ACGs have been calculated. Councils' understanding of the priorities and criteria that are applied has shown in the quality and range of their bids. In line with our long-standing agreements with the local authority associations, we shall continue to give priority to, first, meeting commitments from work supported in previous years, secondly, providing for new school places in areas of rising demand—known as basic need, as the hon. Gentleman referred to it throughout—and, thirdly, projects to remove surplus places.

Within the limits of available resources, we then seek to support other high-priority expenditure, such as LEA liability on projects at voluntary-aided schools and urgent work to meet the needs of pupils with special needs. The remaining resources are then distributed by formula to contribute towards the cost of improvement and replacement projects and all other schools' capital work.

I believe that those national criteria properly reflect authorities' statutory and contractual liabilities. They also reflect the importance that the Government attach to balancing the provision of new school places to meet population growth and migration, against the pressing need to remove surplus places which waste money and undermine educational standards. I was grateful, in passing, to hear that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance, in policy terms, of proceeding further with the removal of surplus places throughout the country. I do not in any way seek to link that with the rest of his speech. The method of allocating resources provides a strong incentive for LEAs to provide new places and to remove those surplus places as cost-effectively as possible.

Let me emphasise that my ministerial colleagues and I remain fully aware of our responsibility to help authorities meet their section 8 duty to provide sufficient school places, especially in areas of rising population or growing demand. That is why we give such a high priority to basic need in our capital procedures.

Where there is such growth, our decisions on LEA capital expenditure on schools will reflect that, but, inevitably, there is a limit to the resources that are available for distribution. Strict criteria are therefore necessary to determine those cases that most need and deserve support. Not all bids will be successful, but the Department' s criteria are fair and LEAs are well aware of the way in which bids will be assessed. My Department sets out in full, in the annual capital bidding letter, precisely how bids in the basic need category will be considered. LEAs should be in no doubt then about whether their bids are likely to meet our requirements.

Along with basic need, we also give high priority, as I mentioned, to the removal of costly and wasteful surplus places. With the priority in mind, it is clear that there cannot be a justification for providing resources to accommodate population expansion when an area already has surplus places that will adequatley accommodate the anticipated future growth. We simply cannot afford—given the many urgent calls on the available resources—to fund the provision of new school places when there are already sufficient places in the area. Our capital procedures therefore make it clear that, in assessing any basic need bid, we shall take account of all existing places in maintained schools within three miles for secondary schools and two miles for primary schools. Those geographical limits tie in with the statutory walking distances for free transport for five to 16-year-olds.

That said, our procedures also make it clear that, in certain circumstances, support for basic need in an area with surplus places may be justified; for example, where the physical circumstances of an area mean that pupils cannot be expected to travel to alternative schools, surplus places in those schools could be disregarded. I noted the hon. Gentleman's comments about moon walking.

Our published procedures make it clear that such geographical exceptions will be limited to schools cut off by motorways, rivers and railways, where there are no realistic crossing points. We do not believe that we can extend that further. I appreciate that there are other circumstances that make travel to schools up to two or three miles away difficult or unwelcome. If we attempted to allow for some, let alone all, where would we draw the line? In practice, the result would be that allocations in the basic need category would be very much higher, leaving much less for the lower priority categories, particularly improvement work. Those LEAs that do not have a growing population would lose out, possibly severely.

I believe that LEAs have themselves looked at those issues and have, in the main, accepted that our approach is consistent and fair, but questions of difficulty or dangers of travel must be local ones. LEAs have the flexibility to use the resources available to them to respond in ways that they think most appropriate. I mention that because Staffordshire's bid for Five Ways primary school makes a case on physical grounds for discounting some surplus places. It will be looked at, on its merits, in the light of the clear criteria that my right hon. Friend has set for the determination of whether physical factors constitute a special case.

The major factor that helps to determine my right hon. Friend's decisions remains the availability of resources. There is always pressure on resources and this year will clearly be no different. Last year, the total amount of basic need cover amounted to over £125 million, spread over three years, to provide for 30,000 new school places. Our criteria are strict, but they have to be so. Even with those, LEAs have bid for support to provide more than 95,000 new school places, and that bid is 15,000 places more than last year. Many of those require statutory proposals. It is clear that the resources available are under still greater presssure in this capital round from LEAs' building plans to meet basic need.

Our criteria and methods of assessment of bids for basic need support are aimed at ensuring that resources are distributed on the basis of real need. We ensure that they are consistently and fairly applied, but retain sufficient flexibility to ensure that special cases are rewarded. If Five Ways school is such a case, Staffordshire's ACG will reflect that.

Each year, we undertake a review to determine whether the procedures should be amended, in the light of changes in the organisation of schools and of comments from local authorities and other interested bodies. Hon. Members can be assured that my right hon. Friend will consider carefully any representations for changes in the national criteria. It remains, however, the responsibility of LEAs to determine their capital expenditure priorities between services and, further to those decisions, between individual schools. It is for LEAs to make best use of the resources available to them. We shall continue to play our part by ensuring that the role of central Government in the determination of capital spending on schools remains supportive, fair, consistent and as generous as possible in the current economic climate.

Finally, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that both sets of proposals will be carefully considered and will take account of all the relevant factors. As I said earlier, decisions on these matters can be expected before too long.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock.