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Further Education Colleges

Volume 491: debated on Thursday 30 April 2009

4. How much capital expenditure on further education colleges is planned in (a) East Devon constituency and (b) England in 2009-10. (271879)

While East Devon college has received capital support in the past, there are currently no capital projects under way at either East Devon college or Bicton college. Therefore, there is currently no planned expenditure on approved capital projects in the East Devon constituency in 2009-10.

Budget 2009 announced additional capital funds of more than £300 million for this spending review period—2009-10 and 2010-11—and the total further education capital budget for 2009-10 is £827.6 million. That budget will cover expenditure on projects which have already been approved as well as on new projects.

I was hoping to get the Secretary of State rather than the twitterer. The Secretary of State, who is a good east Devon boy, will have heard, if not from the excellent chairman of Uplyme parish council, about the continuing discrimination against schooling and funding for schools in east Devon.

The Minister’s reply was very telling inasmuch as he said that there were no plans for capital expenditure in east Devon, which just goes to underline what I have just said. However, he will possibly be aware of plans to secure the Rolle college campus site in Exmouth following the vacation by the university of Plymouth. We are making strident moves to achieve that. Will he instruct the Learning and Skills Council—or have a discussion with it on this subject—to prioritise that plan, should we be successful?

I am happy to speak to the Learning and Skills Council about the hon. Gentleman’s project. I certainly was not saying that there would never be any capital expenditure in east Devon, but simply that, as I understand it, there are no plans for FE college capital expenditure at the moment.

The news of the £3 million capital will be most welcome for Hereward college in Coventry. I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that that college is also a national college for people with learning difficulties and various disabilities. That situation contrasts with the years when the Opposition were in Government, when they never properly funded capital programmes for colleges.

As ever, my hon. Friend speaks wisely and convincingly on behalf of his constituents. He makes the unerring and fundamental point that the college capital building programme budget under the Conservatives in their last year in government was precisely nil, whereas we have invested £2.3 million in the current period and are committed to investing as we go forward.

The Government and the LSC have said that the programme will go ahead on the basis of those schemes that deliver the biggest return on capital in terms of the enhancement of skills. Will he ensure that the criteria are drawn so that colleges with well-developed programmes that serve predominantly rural areas, which tend to be heavily dependent on a handful of relatively low-paying industries, compete on a level playing field? The move of Craven college from 11 sites to a new site is part of the regeneration programme for Craven as a whole. The upgrading of skills is desperately needed and the college has an extremely good track record in delivering that.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The importance of skills in the rural areas is absolutely understood, as are the different requirements and conditions there. I have been made aware of that in the meetings that I have had on this matter, and partly through meeting hon. Members from rural constituencies who, like the right hon. Gentleman, have raised the issue. It is something about which I am talking to the LSC, as it and the Association of Colleges put together their open and transparent process to prioritise which colleges get the go-ahead.

I fully understand the need to speed up those projects and colleges to which a financial commitment has been made, but Loughborough is well down the track in terms of planning and development. Will my hon. Friend ensure that colleges such as Loughborough are not precluded from the process? More importantly—and this ties in with the industrial strategy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned earlier—will he ensure that the smaller capital projects that would probably involve colleges such as Loughborough do not get lost in the morass of existing problems and difficulties? Loughborough has a close proximity to the university and is developing many advanced manufacturing technologies. Many good but smaller projects can have a significant impact and they should not be lost in the big picture.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point on behalf of his college in Loughborough, as one would expect. No college is precluded from the process: the LSC, in partnership with the Association of Colleges, is prioritising the most urgent and highest priority cases, but all colleges will be part of the process. The LSC is considering its decisions on this matter, and its criteria will include value for money, education and skills and the impact of investment, but I would have thought that it is also bound to take into account the potential benefit of being able to fund relatively small projects. Being small will certainly not be a bar to being considered in the future.

The West Herts college is a fantastic facility that looks after students in Watford and Hemel Hempstead. The capital programme that has been going on for some time has finished in Watford, but now the LSC has said that the final part of the project—the part for Hemel Hempstead—is to be regarded as a new project. The LSC has moved the goalposts halfway through the capital project, so will the Minister meet me and the college’s principal, Elizabeth Rushton, to explain exactly how it was able to do that? Coming halfway through the programme, the change will have a devastating effect on the town centre redevelopment that the college is part of.

The hon. Gentleman puts the case for his college very well. He would not expect me to comment on the individual case, but I would be more than happy to meet him and his college principal. I have met more than 40 hon. Members and their college—

The hon. Gentleman can be the 41st. There are more than a dozen in the diary, and I should be very glad to add him to the list and to see his college principal.

The £300 million announced in the Budget is not nearly enough to fund the approvals in detail or the approvals in principle that are already with the LSC. Clearly, that means that a rationing exercise will have to take place, and that an awful lot of college schemes simply will not proceed. We need some certainty for colleges and students, and for the building contractors and architects whose jobs are at stake. When will the Minister or the LSC be able to tell the colleges that the plans that they have already worked up and spent resources on will not be able to proceed any further?

Nobody is claiming or pretending that the £300 million of new cash that we got in the Budget to spend on building new projects this year is enough to solve a problem that clearly will not go away overnight. The process will remain difficult and will continue to take some time, but we will be able to bring certainty to urgent and high-priority cases within a few weeks. Colleges that are not able to move at that speed know that we have £750 million available to spend on new college building programmes, going forward. Over the course of the next period we will be able to prioritise, so that, relatively soon, colleges can begin to have a sense of where they stand, and of roughly when they can begin to build.

It is quite clear that our colleges were driven by the Government to spend a fortune on new building plans. Owing to economic mismanagement, the Government now say that they do not have the cash to deliver on their side of the bargain. As a result, hard-pressed colleges up and down the country have lost huge sums of their own money. I recently visited a victim of the crisis, Matthew Boulton college in Birmingham, Erdington, and it stands to lose tens of millions of pounds. So, Mr. Speaker, I would like to offer the Minister, who is the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, the opportunity to come to the Dispatch Box now and apologise to the students, his college and his constituents. The offer is an open offer. Will he take the opportunity?

I hate to point out to the hon. Gentleman that he does not know what he is talking about, but Matthew Boulton college is not in Birmingham, Erdington. Everything else that he said was wrong, too. We will be spending £827 million on college building projects this year, £300 million of which is new money. The LSC mismanaged this project, but it is being resolved and we are bringing clarity and certainty to colleges, which is much needed and in good order.