Skip to main content

Brixworth School, Northamptonshire

Volume 81: debated on Tuesday 25 June 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

11.51 pm

After that most exhausting series of Questions which the Chair has put to the House, perhaps the remaining minutes of today's proceedings will be allowed some respite. I thank the Under-Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) for attending the debate. I know that the hour is late, and the Minister's courtesy and interest in Brixworth school and the whole subject of capital expenditure allocations is much appreciated by myself and all my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Northamptonshire. It is also appreciated by the local education authority.

This is a debate about capital expenditure, but I should like to refer to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today at Question Time about the teaching profession. To the best of my recollection, my right hon. Friend said that most teachers are effective and hard working and do an enormously difficult task. He also said that most teachers welcomed the new initiatives introduced in education. I associate myself with those remarks, which are most appropriate to the county of Northamptonshire and the teaching profession in my own constituency. Those teachers are doing a difficult job very well, and I commend the teaching profession for its dedication and hard work in all the schools in my constituency.

In Northamptonshire there are falling school rolls, especially in the secondary schools. It is also a county which has recently grown because of the new towns, the enterprise zones and the new estates in my own constituency such as Brixworth, Rothwell and Desborough. These dormitory towns serve the growing and expanding markets and industrial centres of the east midlands. Therefore, within a county that has falling school rolls, specific towns and villages are rapidly expanding. That is the problem to which I wish to allude, with specific reference to Brixworth.

If the A1-M1 link is built, as I hope it will be, that will only add to the growth of some towns and villages in central Northamptonshire, including some of the towns that I have mentioned. There is an inevitable strain on resources, which I accept are limited. Capital expenditure allocations are not infinite, and I support the Government's policy on the control of public expenditure.

In a county with falling school rolls, it is difficult to close part of a school, sell the assets and move them to the towns and villages where the population is growing and where the number of children entering infant and junior schools is increasing. We cannot move schools like building blocks. Therefore, scarce resources must be devoted to the most important cases of new school building or additions to existing schools. Havelock school in Desborough is in the same position as is Brixworth school, but for different reasons. I shall not develop arguments about Havelock school tonight, because I do not have enough time. There are many examples not only in my constituency but in all constituencies where scarce resources must be carefully devoted to the most pressing needs.

Brixworth has a population of about 3,400. It has an active parent-teacher association, and I pay tribute to Mr. Wilson, the current secretary of the PTA, to Mr. Leeming, the former PTA chairman, and to Mr. Woodcock, who is one of the governors. They have been most helpful to me, and I admire the spirit in the PTA and its attitude towards the school and the local education authority. It has always been most supportive and constructive, and I pledge its members and the PTAs in all the schools in my constituency that I shall work with them to the benefit of their schools and the benefit of their children.

Brixworth school, which caters for four to 11-year-olds, was built about 14 years ago to accommodate six classes and about 180 pupils. That number has grown to 390 pupils. Part of the increase is accounted for by the policy of the county council—I agree with the policy—to take into education the rising five-year-olds. Clearly, that has meant some pressure on resources that was not expected 14 years ago. A new block for five infant classes was built about three years ago. The school population is expected to increase to 400 in September, and the result of the rapid expansion has been three mobile classrooms. The important point that I wish to draw to my hon. Friend's attention is that, during the next four years, we expect the school population to increase to about 600. The rapid increase has been caused by the rapid development of the housing estate.

There are three solutions to the problem. The first is to have more mobile classrooms—something which I and the Minister would not wish to be a permanent solution to the problem, with all the shortcomings that mobile classrooms have. Secondly, we could build a new school in a different part of the village. Thirdly, we could add to the existing buildings, as was done three or four years ago. I cannot say what is the correct solution, because that is the job of the local education authority. I recognise its problems in controlling the allocation of scarce resources. Indeed, I pay tribute to Mr. Michael Hemley, the chief education officer of the local education authority in Northamptonshire, for doing a difficult job extremely well. It is not my job tonight to comment on whether there should be a new school, if resources are available, or an extension of the existing one.

I make three suggestions to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State which I offer in a helpful and constructive way. They are based upon discussions with the parent-teacher association in Brixworth and the local education authority. The first concerns long-term planning. At present, central Government say to the local education authority, "We will give you a certain capital expenditure allocation only 12 months ahead." That is not a cash grant but permission to borrow. I should like the LEA to be given a three-year plan, perhaps with allocations in the second and third years as a declining proportion of the allocation in the first year. Incidentally, this system applies to the HIP allocation for district councils. To the best of my knowledge, this three-year planning horizon does not apply to the county council for school capital expenditure.

It would be a great advantage if the Treasury accepted this proposal. Admittedly, the suggestion would cramp its style a little, because it means that, looking out to year two and year three, there is less room for manoeuvre in controlling the level of capital expenditure in the counties. Nevertheless, the proposal would have two great advantages. It would enable the LEA to plan more sensibly in terms of design and the order in which problems could be tackled. It would also enable the LEA to announce publicly to parents when their school was likely to be extended or a new school was likely to be built. That would give parents a great deal of comfort and would alleviate much concern—for example, at Brixworth.

My second suggestion concerns percentage limits. Under the present rules, district councils can spend in the current year only 20 per cent. of the proceeds from the sale of council houses, but county councils, being responsible for education, can spend 30 per cent. Obviously, the county councils can spend the other 70 per cent. in succeeding years. In Northamptonshire, the necessary capital expenditure plan is met from not only the approved allocation from central Government but what is called "virement" from the other departments—for example, if the transport department has spare capital allocation money that it does not need in the current year, it can give it or lend it to another department within the county council. That is one way in which Northamptonshire has been spending above the capital expenditure allocation to meet its plan.

I suggest that a threshold for each county council should be set and that we should say, "This is the target that we would like you to achieve in the sale of surplus land and assets. If you reach that threshold, you can spend only 30 per cent. in the current year but, if you do better than the absolute figure that we have given you, you can spend 100 per cent." I submit to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, although this is a matter not for him but for the Treasury, that such an arrangement would not increase the PSBR but would provide an incentive to the LEAs to sell more surplus land and assets. The LEAs would know that they could spend 100 per cent. of their surplus sales in the current year.

My third suggestion concerns the problem that Brixworth has encountered during the past few years. Perhaps this suggestion comes too late to benefit Brixworth, but it may benefit other towns and villages. I believe that we have to improve liaison between the housebuilders and planners and the LEA. How is it that in Brixworth the housebuilders built within two years an estate that was planned to be developed over 10 years? The local authority could have provided adequate buildings within that time, and avoided the present school places crisis.

If there were a requirement that the county structure plan should include a reference to education needs and a requirement for housebuilders and developers fully to consult the local education authority, we might avoid circumstances similar to those in Brixworth.

I again thank my hon. Friend for his kindness in attending the debate and I invite him, on behalf of my colleagues who represent Northamptonshire, to visit us again. We have much appreciated his past visits. When he comes again, I hope that he will visit Brixworth.

12.5 am

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) on obtaining this Adjournment debate on the expansion of Brixworth school. I am pleased to be able to reply to him. I note his interesting suggestions, some of which, as he said, are not for decision by the Department of Education and Science.

My hon. Friend has spoken tonight about a matter which is of immediate interest in his constituency—the important matter of school provision when there is a growth of new housing in the area and the school population is likely to rise. This raises issues of national as well as local interest, since it relates to the Government's policies in relation to capital expenditure. In raising these issues my hon. Friend has demonstrated the active and diligent way in which he represents his constituents' interests.

My hon. Friend spoke about the position at Brixworth school. I shall come to that in a moment, but before I do so there are a number of relevant issues of national policy that need to be set out because they form the background to a full understanding of the local position.

Each year, local education authorities are invited to send to the Department details of their plans for capital expenditure in the following year. In aggregate, these plans inevitably exceed what the country can afford. We are therefore faced with having to decide between conflicting priorities when distributing the limited resources available for capital works. In doing so our priority has been to meet expenditure required for commitments on on-going projects which previous allocations have allowed for. This accounts for a large part of the resources available. We also take account of local education authorities' legal obligations to make sufficient provision for the children in their area. Where the area is one of population growth which leads to a demand for new places in an authority's schools, a high priority is given for a capital allocation to meet this demand, whether by building new schools or extensions to existing schools. In recent years we have always been able to meet local education authorities' bids for such projects. In addition, where authorities have published statutory proposals to remove surplus places, which have been approved by my right hon. Friend, and where these include a capital building project, which is related to the proposals, we have generally been able to provide a capital allocation so that the work can go ahead. This is to enable the authority to implement the proposals, which it has a legal duty to do.

Before the introduction in April 1981 of the present system for controlling local authority capital expenditure by means of annual prescribed expenditure allocations for each of the five service blocks — housing, transport, education, personal social services and other Government services—the Department operated a system of annual building programmes under which each local education authority received an allocation of the total value of building work that it could start in a given year. This allocation carried with it a borrowing approval, and local authority borrowing was controlled by this means rather than as now by control of expenditure.

Up to and including 1974–75, the allocation of building programme resources was by individual named projects based on DES consideration of annual LEA bids related to priority. A sum for minor works was added by the Department. This was an unnecessarily burdensome system, leaving LEAs with virtually no room for manoeuvre. With effect from 1975–76, in line with the then Government's desire to leave more decisions about the use of educational building programmes to LEAs, a three-stage rolling programme was reintroduced to promote the systematic processing of work, and authorities were given firm lump sum authorisations of starts based on their own priorities, leaving them free to start projects which they thought essential. As I have said, this system, wherein a rolling programme gave a useful facility to authorities for forward planning, came to an end in 1981.

Since that time, under the arrangements introduced by the Local Government. Planning and Land Act 1980, LEAs have each year indicated to the Department the level of capital expenditure which they would wish to undertake. Priority in making the prescribed expenditure allocations within the resources available for schools is given, on the basis of the expected deficiency of places assessed by LEAs, to the need to provide additional school places in areas of population growth—that is, roofs over heads without which pupils would be out of school, and then to work for the removal of surplus places and other improvement and replacement projects. Once allocations are made, authorities are free to use them how they wish and can transfer between the service blocks at will if they decide to do so.

Clearly, under a system of expenditure control, it is for an authority to determine its own priorities and to formulate its capital programmes, and in doing so it could well quite reasonably adopt a system of rolling programmes if it wished to do so. Indeed, we are aware that many authorities already have such a system, which enables them to plan ahead in a sensible and logical way, with sufficient flexibility to cope with unexpected eventualities. Given that the Department no longer manages a building programme, we must rely on local authorities, which are, after all, better placed, to assess their needs and priorities and, within the resources available to them, to establish the best and most efficient way of managing their capital programmes.

As regards the disposal of surplus assets, it is our policy to encourage local authorities to identify these and, where no alternative educational or community use can be found for them, to sell them wherever possible. Authorities are well aware of the benefits, both educational and financial, to be obtained from seeking to rationalise their educational provision and the removal of surplus places and realising assets found to be surplus. Since 1982–83 we have positively helped in this direction by providing in the prescribed expenditure allocations the capital resources for building work necessary to release surplus schools for closure and disposal.

There is no doubt that the sale of education assets has been increasing over recent years. In 1980–81 receipts from such sales were £23 million. They rose to around £46 million in each of the years 1981–82 to 1983–84, and, on the basis of local authority returns to the Department of the Environment, are expected to be around £80 million in 1984–85. This increase is in line with the higher number of schools approved for closure by my right hon. Friend in each of the years since 1980.

The system of capital expenditure control allows authorities to increase the limit of their capital spending in any given year by a proportion of their actual capital receipts. This proportion, prescribed by regulation, is currently 30 per cent. for non-housing receipts, including those realised from the sale of surplus school and other educational buildings and land. It is very much in the interests of authorities to rationalise their school provision at a time of falling school rolls. Such rationalisation schemes result in better deployment of teachers and improved educational provision for the pupils concerned. At the same time, where whole schools or parts of them can be closed, there are valuable savings on recurrent expenditure to be achieved in addition to the capital receipt from the sale of redundant buildings and land.

The prescribed proportions of capital receipts were reduced for 1985–86 in order to restrict authorities' access to their accumulated receipts. These are estimated to be about £5 billion in total and unrestricted access to them posed a serious threat to the national cash limit for local authority capital expenditure set by the Government. Nevertheless, the more capital receipts an authority can generate in a particular year, the further it can increase its spending power in that year. Furthermore, an authority is under no restriction on the use of its capital receipts for non-prescribed expenditure and for redeeming outstanding loans with benefits in terms of reduced debt charges, which will be a further saving in recurrent expenditure. These are very real advantages which provide a worthwhile incentive to the realisation of surplus assets.

Turning at last to the question of Brixworth school, I understand that Northamptonshire LEA has indicated that there may be a deficiency of 200 primary school places in the area by 1988–89. I have to tell my hon. Friend that very shortly the Department will be asking LEAs for details of their plans for capital expenditure in the next few years. Provided that Northamptonshire can satisfy us that a capital project is necessary to cater for that additional demand, and that it meets the parameters that I mentioned earlier, I can assure my hon. Friend that it will receive careful consideration. He will realise, and I know that he will appreciate, that I cannot give him any assurances at this stage. What we are able to allocate to individual LEAs will depend upon the amount which is available to us nationally, and this in turn, will depend on what the country can afford.

I conclude as I began, by congratulating my hon. Friend on firmly placing before the House the interests and needs of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Twelve o' clock.