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School Buildings

Volume 174: debated on Tuesday 12 June 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations he has received concerning the repair and improvement of school buildings.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Alan Howarth)

I believe that it may be in order to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the position of education spokesman for the Social and Liberal Democrats. We shal take a cordial interest in seeing how quickly the hon. Gentleman proceeds along the cursus honorum trodden by his predecessor in office, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown).

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, my right hon. Friend has received a number of letters and other representations from local education authorities, hon. Members, diocesan bodies and others about the repair and improvement of school buildings.

I thank the Minister for his kind comments. How does he envisage following the lead set by his predecessors who, in 1981, laid down minimum standards for school buildings, to be reached by 1991? It is clear in my county and in other parts of the country that schools will not reach those standards. Does the hon. Gentleman intend to put in extra money to allow them to reach those standards, or does he—to echo the words of the Minister of State to me in an Adjournment debate—intend to review those standards, presumably to cut them?

We shall continue to make the excellent progress that we have made over the past 10 years in making money available to improve school buildings. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the capital expenditure per pupil in our schools has increased by 13 per cent. since 1978–79, the last year of the previous Labour Government, when Labour was supported in office by the hon. Gentleman's party, or its predecessor. Of course, I recognise that there is a considerable backlog of work. We must look at the needs sensitively and practically. We are examining the implications of the 1981 building regulations.

Do not those concerns have their roots in the maladministration of some local authorities? If they do not make rational, sensible analyses of their surplus school places, clearly there is not enough money to maintain the places that they really want. That problem must be addressed.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our best estimate from Her Majesty's inspectorate and the Audit Commission is that there are still more than 1 million surplus school places in the system. Authorities that are not willing to grasp that nettle are guilty of tying up resources that are lying unproductive in the system, instead of making that money available for the benefit of children's education.

Is the Minister aware that in the county of Northumberland there is a repair bill of £1·5 million for all schools? Will he do something about that problem, or is he just going to stand there and let off bags of wind?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not able to join the all-party deputation from his county, which recently came to see me and the Department. We had a useful discussion about the problems of school buildings in Northumberland. I am pleased to be able to say that my officials are involved in a close dialogue with officers of the authority. I hope that we can assist the authority in formulating reasonable proposals for the next round of allocations, so that Northumberland can make the further progress that is necessary to deal with the pressing problems of repairing some of its village schools.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, as opposed to capital spending, if extra revenue were made available through the grant system, there would be no guarantee that it would be spent on school maintenance? Does my hon. Friend recall, for example, that when the Government made additional money available to local authorities for spending on road maintenance, only a tiny minority of it ended up being spent on roads?

My hon. Friend, who is knowledgeable about these matters, has put his finger on a real issue. I am hopeful that local management of schools will make an impact on that problem. Local education authorities are obliged to devolve a significant proportion of their schools' budgets to school level. In that way, we can at least ensure that school governors, head teachers and their colleagues in the schools will have a proper say about the allocation of resources within the system.