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Education Capital Programmes (Coventry)

Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2011

It is a pleasure, Mr Caton, to initiate a debate under your chairmanship, and I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate. What I have to say will be supplemented by my two colleagues—my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth). They will go into more detail, particularly about the schools in their constituencies.

I start by giving an overview and some background. I am sure that the Minister knows about it, as today is the second time that we have debated Coventry’s capital programme. We obviously have not moved far since then, which was some months ago. It is worth reminding the Chamber that Coventry lost about £300 million of its schools capital programme as a result of changes made by the Government. That, of course, has had an effect on the quality of teaching in our schools and on its buildings; indeed, we should not forget those employed in the construction industry. We should not lose sight of the fact that Coventry’s local economy has lost that £300 million.

We are awaiting the Secretary of State’s response to the James review. Even after he has announced the results of that review, and possibly talked of implementing it, in our view it would still take many months before anything could be done. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, in Coventry, schools are crying out for repairs and, in some cases, rebuilds. We cannot go on like this for much longer.

We also want to hear from the Minister how the money is to be allocated to the various local authorities for their capital programmes. Will it be done on a regional basis? Will it be done by consortia? Exactly how will the money—if there is any—be made available and allocated?

We find it strange that the Government can find money for academies, but they cannot find money for school repairs. Many people in Coventry are asking why the Government can find money for academies but cannot find it for local education authority schools. It is obvious that the Government’s strategy about 12 months down the line will be to talk about profligate local authority spending. I and my colleagues will demonstrate that that is exactly what will happen.

Coventry is considering what it calls prudential borrowing. Following on from that, schools will probably be funding their own capital programmes. We should not lose sight of the fact that that will put an extra burden on them. As we have heard in our previous debates, schools are already finding money very tight, to say the least. The local authority obviously will have to service any debts incurred. Coventry will probably have to borrow about £3 million, and it will cost about £300,000 a year to service that debt. The council taxpayer will have to pay that money in addition to what has to be paid by the national taxpayer. Taxpayers will get a double whammy, yet get less from the Government. People in Coventry and the local authorities there want to know when we might have some information about the James inquiry and some answers to the questions that I have raised.

The late Dick Crossman, a former Leader of the House many years ago, said that the first six months of any Government determines their future. The first six months have certainly determined this Government’s future. They have made a number of U-turns, which shows that they rushed into decisions that, had wiser counsel prevailed, would have taken longer.

The combination of a significant increase in the number of births in the city and some inward migration has placed pressure on school capacity, particularly in the primary sector. Coventry city council proposes to increase pupil places. By 2012, a total of 120 additional places will be required at six schools, at an estimated cost of £9.4 million. I shall refer specifically to a few schools, but I shall touch on them only lightly as they are in the constituencies of my colleagues, and I would not want to tread on their territory. I think, for instance, of the Grange Farm and Sacred Heart schools. The latter demonstrates that capital programmes in the public sector are not the only ones to be affected; there is also what I would call the religious side. There are Roman Catholic schools in Coventry as well as Church of England schools and they, too, will face the same problems as the local authority schools. Furthermore, the local primary care trust’s figures suggest that between 150 to 180 additional reception pupil places will be required for September 2014. Work to identify possible sites for these additional places is under way.

There are, of course, other school funding pressures in addition to the need to provide additional primary places. There is an urgent need to replace two large primary schools because of structural problems. Coventry’s five-year building plan includes the replacement of two primary schools that have major structural problems with their roofs. Engineers have confirmed that these schools need to be replaced in the next four to seven years. The estimated cost of replacing them at today’s prices is approximately £20 million.

A significant amount of ongoing basic maintenance and refurbishment work is required to ensure that schools in Coventry meet the minimum standards. In recent years, schools have used their devolved formula capital to deal with such needs. However, that has been reduced by 80%, and schools will not now have the resources to undertake these essential repairs. The overall financial implications include the pressures of pupil placement and the cost of essential improvements and replacement of buildings, and there is a total funding gap of almost £54 million pounds up to 2015.

I shall highlight the key issues. The time necessary for consultation, designing and building requires projects to be planned some years ahead. Officers have told me that undertaking this work in the context of a one-year allocation of funding is utterly unrealistic. The city council cannot commit to contracts of that value without certainty on future funding levels. The city council has already had to make provision for prudential borrowing so as to fund projects that need to be started immediately in order to provide sufficient places in 2011-12. That still has to be cleared by the school forum. We also have to consider the legal implications.

Further delay in making funding announcements will jeopardise the ability of local authorities to provide sufficient capacity in schools. The delay of the James review means that it is unclear how funding allocations are to be made. That will further complicate how local authorities plan school-based projects. I am concerned that this may be an attempt by the Government to fragment the school system. If the James review takes capital funding for schools out of the control of local authorities, how will the money be allocated? Will it be done on a regional basis or will there be consortia? Exactly how will it be allocated? Although the Government say that they are trying to abolish quangos, will they introduce another one?

I have outlined the problems that we experience in Coventry but, as I said earlier, my two colleagues will elaborate on them. In the interests of the pupils and the people of Coventry and the local authority, we would like some clear-cut answers from the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate, and I thank Mr Speaker for granting it and the officers who preside here today. It is a timely debate for Coventry. It follows an earlier debate, in which we tried to explain the particular difficulties faced by Coventry. I am pleased to see the Minister here today; I know that he is well aware of the situation in Coventry. It was dreadfully compounded by the fact that, for whatever reason—it was not entirely the council’s fault, although it was partly responsible—the city failed to get a single school under Building Schools for the Future. BSF said that much needed to be done, even in the secondary sector. As a result, the overall programme, including that for primary schools, has to be increased if we are to overcome the terrible disadvantage that we incurred.

That was all the sadder because we were on the verge of signing those contracts. If they had been signed, we would be going ahead with three schools, two in my constituency and one in my hon. Friend’s constituency, behind which we could bring on the other schools. As it is, rebuilding in Coventry has come to a virtual halt, leaving schools such as Woodlands in my constituency suffering as a consequence. The central block of the school, which is rather inappropriately known as the Gibraltar block—it is anything but firm or solid—is propped up by scaffolding. Last week, we had to close the block because even the scaffolding had begun to collapse under the wear and tear of the past five years. That really is not good enough. That primary school has produced no fewer than three members of last two Lions rugby football teams. It has a great sporting tradition. That scaffolding around the main block is a great deterrent to a very fine school in a very good part of Coventry.

That problem may be resolved as the school has now chosen to become an academy, and I hope that that will loosen up funds and speed up the repair work. I recognise that that will take money from where it needed elsewhere in the city. It is a pre-emptive strike, but what was it supposed to do? On reflection, it is rather sad that the only way in which it can overcome the sudden chopping by this Government of a rebuilding programme and get something in advance of everyone else is to become an academy. That sole reason has been the driving force behind its decision to become an academy.

Ahead of or along with the James report, may we please have a clear programme for Coventry’s schools, especially its primary schools? That would be very welcome. At the moment, we are in no-man’s land; we cannot go forward and we cannot go back and the situation is deteriorating. I have mentioned two schools in the primary sector in this marvellous debate, but we could talk about all of the schools in the city. We do not have to be parochial about it.

Two schools need to be demolished. The estimated cost to rebuild them is £20 million, so we are looking at £10 million a school under the new regime. I am the first to admit that the old regime was too cumbersome and took too long. I fought with my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), who was Secretary of State at the time, over the matter. I said to him, “Look, this is taking too long. We must get on with this.” None the less, I knew that the work would get done. I did not think that it would come to a grinding halt. It was just taking longer than it should. What the present Government have done is to bring the work to a grinding halt.

We also need two new primary schools. Fortunately, this is a happy period for us in that birth rates are up and migration is in favour of Coventry. Something in the region of 200 places will be needed by 2015. Again, where will we find that money? Time is also a factor. Even under the accelerated programme, of which I am all in favour, it takes engineers and architects three to four years to plan a project. If it is to be done to cost and on time, a good deal of planning is needed. When will we have the certainty that we can go ahead with such a project? When will we have adequate funds to meet the needs of the children who are coming into school? They do not want to go into over-crowded and unsatisfactory buildings.

As a minimum, we require £54 million for our building programme, which will take us through to 2015. Will the Minister tell us when we will be able to access such funds? I would also like the local council to be a lot more active. It has not been the most dynamic council in securing money for such purposes. Nevertheless, it is finding it extremely difficult to deal with the delays. I know that the present Secretary of State wanted to avoid them, but that is what we face.

Remarkably, Coventry council initially took the view that if it did not criticise the Government for cancelling BSF, and behaved responsibly and showed that it understood the difficulties of the Government, it would do better financially. Of course it has not; if anything it has done worse than expected. The leader of the council, John Mutton, now says:

“The antics of this government are appalling. Here we are in June and we still do not have a clue what we are going to have by way of a budget this year.”

Councillor Kelly, who is in charge of the education brief, makes similar remarks about the uncertainty over the Government’s intentions.

The position of Grange Farm school in Allesley is particularly concerning. It is in need of immediate improvement. Children can be scarred for life. Their impressions in primary school are vital. Will the Minister specifically respond to that concern?

In conclusion, the Coventry building programme has been cut to the bone and is full of uncertainty. The number of children is rising and we need new schools. Woodlands school in my constituency needs to be extensively refurbished. Perhaps funds could be released for it alone. It has had scaffolding around it for five years. One year into this present Government and little progress has been made in Coventry.

Mr Ainsworth, I did not receive prior notice that you wished to speak in this debate. I am happy to call you, but I need the Minister’s permission.

On a point of order, Mr Caton. I did tell you that Mr Ainsworth was going to speak in the debate.

I may well have misheard you, Mr Cunningham, because I was trying to chair the meeting at the same time. Neither the Clerk nor I picked up a reference to Mr Ainsworth. We are wasting his time now, so let me call Mr Ainsworth.

I apologise for the misunderstanding, Mr Caton. I thought that the procedure was that we had to make arrangements with the individual who has secured the debate. Thank you for allowing me to speak.

On 15 March, I raised the dilemma of Richard Lee school in Coventry. Over the winter, the condition of the school became quite disgraceful. Children were being taught in corridors because of water egress in classrooms. The sewers are inadequate and spill out on to the playground. The wonderful teaching staff wrestle with those appalling conditions and continue to provide a good education for the children. I said then that I was really worried about whether the school would get through another winter. Sadly, crisis has struck before another winter. Last Thursday, the ceilings came down in one of the corridors. Fortunately, the rain storm was at night. There were no children in the building, and it was a teacher training day the next day, so education was not dreadfully disrupted. None the less, my fears for Richard Lee school have been exacerbated by the latest crisis.

If we are not careful, we will remove all hope. We had a reasonable capital budget that was getting around the schools in Coventry, and Richard Lee was right at the top of the council’s priorities. The council’s capital programme, which was £49 million last year, is now £9 million. It will take £9 million to rebuild Richard Lee alone, leaving no money for the rest of the city. The devolved budget that the school has, which has enabled it to patch and repair, keep the children going and make the environment acceptable, has been cut from £49,000 to £9,000. This is a desperate situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) has said, we need some certainty. We do not know where the funding is coming from. Coventry knows that it has to rebuild Richard Lee school without delay. It is already spending money on survey work, because it knows that that has to be done, but it has no idea from the Government whether it will get the necessary money to rebuild the school.

We badly need certainty, and we need some hope to be restored to those schools that for very good reason had reached the top of the list for a rebuild. Patch and repair at Richard Lee is not feasible, nor is it feasible at Wyken Croft. Those Hills-built schools are structurally damaged. They have come to the end of their useful life and need to be replaced, and I hope that the Minister can give us some hope.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate. Like the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) and the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), he is no stranger to education provision in the Coventry area. He has assiduously raised the difficulties faced by schools in his area through questions and a number of debates in the House, and he and his colleagues met the Secretary of State last July.

I fully understand the difficulties in Coventry both in providing sufficient primary pupil places and in ensuring that repairs and desperately needed capital improvements are carried out in schools such as Richard Lee primary, which is again in the news because of maintenance problems. That school is in not the hon. Gentleman’s constituency but that of the right hon. Member for Coventry North East, who secured a debate on the subject on 15 March this year.

The Government are fully aware of the pressures that many local authorities face in the light of the very tight spending review capital settlement for the Department, but we must not forget why we find ourselves in this difficult position and why we have had to make difficult decisions. Because of the size of the budget deficit and the increasing caution of the capital markets to fund sovereign debt, our top priority in the medium term has to be to reduce the country’s budget deficit, which means that we need to prioritise a diminished level of capital funding for school projects, on the basis of need, primary places and deprivation.

In the context of what we are currently spending on debt interest payments alone, the action that we are taking is essential. Those interest payments could have been used to rebuild or refurbish 10 schools every single day of the year, but despite the difficulties we have been able to secure capital spending of £15.9 billion over the four years of the spending review period. We know only too well that there are schools in desperate need of refurbishment that have missed out on previous Governments’ capital programmes, and we fully appreciate that some people will feel that they have been treated unfairly, particularly if they fall just on the wrong side of the dividing line that had to be drawn. Despite the austerity of the capital programme, we will continue to spend significant capital on the school estate, at an average of almost £4 billion a year.

I know that schools and local authorities will experience difficulty in adjusting to these lower levels of funding. Nevertheless, they are historically high levels and, taking a wider perspective, they are still higher on average that those experienced in the 1997-98 and 2004-05 periods. Even when funding is tight, it is essential that buildings and equipment are properly maintained, to ensure that health and safety standards are met and to prevent an ever-increasing backlog of decaying buildings that will be difficult and more expensive to address in the long term.

By stopping the wasteful and bureaucratic Building Schools for the Future project, which the hon. Member for Coventry North West referred to as cumbersome and taking too long, we have been able to allocate £1.3 billion for capital maintenance for schools, with more than £1 billion being allocated to local authorities to prioritise their local maintenance needs. We have also been able to allocate £195 million directly to schools for their own capital repairs. It is clear that rising birth rates mean increased demand and pressure on primary places, with more parents unhappy with the lack of choice open to them. The education system has rationed places in good schools for too long, which is why our reforms are designed to allow more children to go to the best schools and to drive up standards in the weakest performers.

We are encouraging scores of new free schools to be set up, run by groups of teachers or educational charities, in places where parents want them, particularly in areas that have been failed educationally for generations.

I tried to intervene on the Minister when he mentioned BSF, but unfortunately I did not manage to catch his eye. I directly criticised BSF myself to the then Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood. One thing that happens whenever a big programme of that kind gets into the hands of civil servants and others who want to control it to the nth degree is criticism, which is fair enough. However, nobody recommended bringing BSF to a screeching halt, which has been to the great detriment of Coventry. We have two schools at the moment where there are problems. We have Woodlands school, where the scaffolding itself is falling down and there is a danger that it will bring the whole building down with it. We also have Richard Lee school. The Minister must have seen reports on that school. There are gaping holes in that school that people might fall through. These are urgent matters. What will he do about them?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a good point, which I am about to come on to. We have allocated £800 million of basic need funding for 2011-12, which is actually twice the previous annual level of funding, to support the provision of increased places, particularly in primary schools, as a result of the increasing birth rate. In addition, we expect similar levels of funding to be allocated from 2012-13 until 2014-15, which will address some of the concerns that he has raised.

How much of that £800 million will actually be allocated to Coventry? That is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West were getting at when they talked about the two schools.

The capital allocation for 2011-12 for Coventry city council and its schools was announced on 13 December last year, and it was in excess of £13 million. It is now for the council to prioritise how it will spend the available funding, taking into account the building needs of its schools and its own responsibilities to fulfil its statutory duties.

The Minister has said that it is important for schools to maintain their buildings, even if they are in need of a rebuild. How on earth can Richard Lee school do that with a devolved capital programme of £9,000? How does a school maintain an ageing building with that size of devolved capital programme?

We took a decision about how we allocate scarce resources to schools and local authorities. It was our judgment that, because of the cut in the capital budget, it is better to allocate the bulk of the capital to local authorities for them to decide where the greatest need exists in their area, rather than to allocate more of that money down to the school level, because there are many schools that do not have the same need as Richard Lee school. It is better to divert that money to the local authority, which can allocate it to those schools, such as Richard Lee school, that are in greatest need.

I will now turn directly to the difficulties encountered by the Richard Lee primary school.

This issue is not about the devolution of the budget, which is entirely up to the Government. The point is that £9,000 will not go anywhere, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East has said.

I understand that, but £13 million, which is the amount of capital allocated to Coventry, is a very significant sum. It is not as high as we would like it to be, or indeed as high as it has been in recent years, but it is high historically compared with spending in other Parliaments in recent times. We face a difficult budget deficit, and we want to ensure that any capital available is spent where the greatest need exists. That applies to schools such as Richard Lee primary school in Coventry. That case is a classic example of how we are trying to target the funding at the schools that need it most.

What the Minister is actually doing is asking the local authority to use the wisdom of Solomon, when it needs just more than £40 million to properly resource its schools. He is putting the local authority in a terrible position, so it is no good blaming the local authority.

I am not blaming the local authority. What I am saying is that we took a decision that it was better to give the bulk of the funds available for capital spending to local authorities to decide how to allocate them rather than to maintain the levels of the devolved grant formula to schools in this spending review period in which we are encountering these very difficult decisions on the budget deficit. That is because local authorities, rather than the man or woman in Whitehall, are best placed to decide which schools in their area have the greatest need for capital to be spent on them, and that applies to Coventry. That is the decision that we took.

Officials at the Department have been working—

Sitting suspended.