Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)
Although this is not the sort of thing one must declare, I declare an interest as I am proud to be a former pupil of Falmouth school. It must be the only school in the country to have a former hospital in the centre of its campus. Budock hospital was for people with psychiatric care needs or significant learning difficulties. The top half of the former hospital site houses the buildings, and the lower slopes—known locally as Trelawney’s field—were originally jointly managed by the school with NHS social services and a farm project for young people with learning difficulties. I have fond memories of volunteering for that project as a sixth-form student.
The current head teacher has been in place for 12 years or more. Throughout that time, Cornwall council has had various conversations with the NHS to try to secure the lower part of the site for educational purposes, facilitating access to the playing fields on the far side of the hospital. The hospital was demolished, and the whole site was reclaimed and fenced off by the NHS in 2008. The school has had an overgrown and derelict site at its centre for five years, which presents significant safeguarding concerns for the school.
The NHS had several schemes to relocate health services to the site, but they have never materialised. The schools, local sports groups and the wider community in the town have no access to floodlit all-weather sports facilities—groups must travel to Penryn, Truro and Redruth to access such facilities when there are available slots.
On 8 February 2012, the head teacher wrote to NHS Cornwall to register an interest in purchasing the hospital site if and when it goes on the market. At a subsequent meeting, a Mr Wakeham said he would take the school’s interest to the NHS board. Despite follow-up calls, no decision was made.
In April 2012, the school appointed a land agent to negotiate with the NHS on its behalf to try to secure the purchase of the site. The agent had numerous discussions with the NHS, but no resolution was secured. In May 2013, after several letters from me, the school managed to meet representatives of the newly formed NHS Property Services company and its agents, BNP Paribas, Origin 3 planning consultants and Cyril Sweett quantity surveyors. It was made clear at the meeting that the NHS and its agents felt bound by Government requirements to secure the highest price for the site on the open market without consideration of community benefit. We know that that contravenes the Government’s policy and guidelines. The school presented the proposed plans for development and the local planning officers explained the local planning framework progress and emerging needs for the town. Those points seemed to be of little interest to the agents, who reinforced the fact that their clients were interested only in securing the best price for the land.
On 24 May, BNP Paribas released the site to the market with “residential potential”. That would make Falmouth school probably the only school in the country with a housing estate right in the middle of its campus. The council, as landowners, has advised that the local planning framework has earmarked the site for educational purposes. The school is prepared to pay educational land value for the site.
Falmouth school’s current site is fragmented. The aim is to consolidate it and make significant improvements to benefit the whole community. One satellite field of the school at Union corner is inaccessible for curriculum use owing to its location across a busy main road into the town. The school is proposing to sell that field to raise the funds to buy the hospital site and install a full-size, 3G all-weather pitch for school and wider community use. The two sites—Union corner and Budock hospital—are similar sizes.
The architect confirms that approximately 90 to 100 houses—a mixture of terraced, semi-detached and detached, and the appropriate number of affordable housing—could be built on the Union corner site. Approximate valuations from the council suggest that the school’s estimate of £2 million as a receipt for the site is realistic.
The local planning framework proposes approximately 3,200 new homes in the immediate area of Falmouth and the school, and there will be a need for a further 400 secondary school places in the medium term. Consolidation of the site and improved sports facilities represents best value for the taxpayer, because it will allow the existing school to meet the needs of more students —there are currently just over 1,000 on the roll. If the project does not go ahead, the school will not be able to grow, and the council could be forced into a building a new school, or parents and council might have to pay for transport to schools some distance from Falmouth.
There is also the implication of the essential road junction improvement at Union corner, which needs this land. The infrastructure is essential for delivering wider growth for the town. The road scheme has secured essential and substantial part-funding towards its delivery. The road will become the main artery, making access to the school’s satellite field even more difficult. The scheme submitted to the Department for Transport totalled £2.23 million, and it has secured just under £1.6 million through pinch-point funding—we were delighted to receive that news two weeks ago. It is also included in a bid for £500,000 of round 4 of the regional growth fund. Cornwall council is currently waiting for approval, which is expected in mid-July. The remainder funds have already been allocated from the council’s local transport funds.
Cornwall council will still seek to claw back funding from future developments given their impact on this junction, but the funding will be used to deliver the wider improvements identified in the Falmouth and Penryn strategy. The published local plan document highlights the hospital site as being required for development. Cornwall council’s draft infrastructure development plan emphasised the need for the sports facility. It described it as essential as Falmouth continues to grow.
The school has consulted the Education Funding Agency regarding the sale of the Union corner site to acquire the former Budock hospital site. As the school will meet all the conditions in section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, it will achieve this consent. The council suggests that the educational value of the Budock hospital site is approximately £750,000. A full-sized, 3G all-weather pitch costs about £800,000, although there may be some unknown ground works to contend with.
The school has consulted the newly elected local Cornwall council members, and all support the project, as do the newly elected town councillor for the ward, the mayor of Falmouth and the town centre manager. A public meeting was held on 16 May 2013 and all present supported the scheme. Falmouth university supports the project. Sports groups pledging their support include: Cornwall Squash and Rackets Association, Cornwall football association, Falmouth hockey club, Falmouth Road Runners, Falmouth Town football club, Falmouth United football club, Falmouth cricket club and Falmouth rugby club—we have a thriving sporting community in Falmouth.
The school council has been consulted and the wider school population has been advised, and all are excited about the prospects. Today I received a letter from the Minister saying that the former hospital site will be taken off the market. I cannot thank the Minister enough for his intervention. The headmistress and the whole school community wanted me to pass on their thanks for his helpful intervention to help us find a resolution to this situation. I am very pleased that it has been taken off the market, so that we can have another meeting and get around the table with the NHS property company, the district valuer, the whole council and myself. This is welcome news.
I was, however, slightly concerned by something in the letter. The NHS property company is advocating the original offer from some time ago, of a land swap option to resolve the issue. This is no longer the best outcome. Let me explain why. Approximately 15 months ago, the primary care trust and the school were in talks regarding a straightforward land swap, as the size and value of the two sites were relatively similar. However, because of the changes to the planning framework, which I have already outlined, the hospital site is designated as educational, while the Union corner playing field is now clearly designated as residential. This changes the value of the two sites. As a result, the land swap would not be the best use of public money or of these two sites. I am grateful that NHS Property Services has signalled that it is prepared to get around the table—this recent change of attitude is very welcome. Although I do not think the swap is the best way forward, I am sure that, with the Minister’s support, we can find a sensible solution that works for the NHS—hard-pressed as it is and in need of every penny to invest in front-line services, as we all appreciate—for Falmouth school, for Cornwall council and for the wider community.
In conclusion, this is an immensely important scheme for Falmouth. It will be an Olympic legacy in terms of improved sports facilities for the whole community. It will put the school on a secure footing for generations to come and contribute to the economic redevelopment of this part of Falmouth, bringing much-needed affordable homes and supporting exciting new and growing companies in the area. Having received the Minister’s support in his letter today, I now seek an assurance that the land swap will not be the only option. If following the meeting on 21 June with all the parties concerned, which I am chairing, we can make a sensible case for giving significant funds to the NHS while enabling us to realise this important project, we will be very content indeed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this debate and on her ongoing tremendous advocacy on behalf of her constituents. She talked eloquently of her own knowledge of the school—“care farm” is the expression I would use in my constituency—and the relationship between the school and the old hospital. She highlighted the importance when looking for value in NHS land of doing as much as possible to maximise the land receipt and put that money back into the NHS, but of course NHS land is community land, and it is important that, wherever possible, we work with surrounding communities to support them in local activities that benefit the population.
My hon. Friend also outlined eloquently the challenges faced by more rural parts of the country, and Cornwall in particular. We know that community resources and facilities are much scarcer in rural areas, as she highlighted in her speech. When we look at the affordability of local homes and the provision of community facilities, rurality is an important consideration and one that we always bear in mind in the NHS.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s interest in the Budock hospital site and support her concern that best use be made of public sector land not only in releasing its monetary value, but regarding the availability of affordable homes for local people to live in. I understand that NHS Property Services has intervened to begin the process of facilitating a mutually beneficial resolution of the issues previously hindering the sale of this land to the local school. Those issues predate the transfer of ownership to NHS Property Services, and were between the former Cornwall and Isles of Scilly primary care trust and Falmouth school. Thanks to swift action since NHS Property Services took over control of the NHS estate, the issues are well on their way to being unlocked. NHS Property Services inherited a portfolio of 4,000 other properties from 161 disparate previous NHS organisations on 1 April, and a win-win resolution is now in sight.
I am sure we will have other debates on similar matters, so it is worth outlining to the House the role of NHS Property Services and some early successes that have occurred. On 1 April, NHS Property Services inherited about 4,000 NHS assets, including health centres, office accommodation, care homes and hospital buildings. It houses about 12,000 tenants and is valued at more than £3 billion. It also inherited more than 3,000 members of staff from former PCTs and strategic health authorities throughout England. This brand new organisation is already doing tremendous work in the face of this huge challenge to create efficient, fit-for-purpose facilities and services for the benefit of patients and the public. All too often in the past, there was an unacceptable variability in estates management—not just in this case, but throughout the NHS—by PCTs and SHAs. The advantage of having estate management under one central roof has already paid dividends throughout the NHS. The creation of NHS Property Services has generated an opportunity to explore options to bring together a fragmented system—
Order. May I just gently remind the Minister that this is a very tight debate? We are talking about one site; we should be dealing with Falmouth and nowhere else. There may be a good story to tell but we can save that for another day.
Indeed. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for bringing me back to the task in hand. There are many good stories to tell from other constituencies but you are quite right; we should focus on how successes in Ludlow and South Suffolk can be translated into success at the Budock hospital site.
The focus of NHS Property Services is about resolving some local planning concerns where PCTs have had difficulties in the past, which is what we are going to concentrate on. I understand that Falmouth school’s plans to purchase the Budock site pre-date the transfer of land to NHS Property Services on 1 April 2013. The school and the former Cornwall and Isles of Scilly primary care trust had previously agreed to enter into a land swap to release the school’s playing fields—which were difficult to access—for the hospital site. The NHS was then to dispose of the playing fields for housing land.
I understand that differences in the size and estimated value of the sites, and planning permission issues, had prevented both parties from reaching agreement to progress this proposal, which commenced some time ago in 2011.
The Government’s priority for easing the shortage of land for housing development is to see development take place in sustainable locations; the predominantly brownfield sites of some of the old NHS estate no longer used for clinical purposes can help bring forward land for affordable homes to be built for local families. The Budock site is brownfield land and is located in a settlement that is forecast to experience significant growth over the coming years, as my hon. Friend outlined.
The site was assessed under the Cornwall strategic housing land availability assessment and found to be suitable for approximately 100 dwellings. My hon. Friend will also be aware that Treasury guidelines on managing public money state that public sector organisations may transfer assets among themselves without placing the property on the open market, provided they do so at market prices. They also state that the organisations should work collaboratively on the transfer to agree a price, and that it is good practice to commission a single independent valuation to settle the price to be paid. My hon. Friend said that is the plan in this case.
I am pleased to report that NHS Property Services and the school have agreed that the original proposal can be revisited, with a planned joint instruction to the district valuer from both parties. NHS Property Services has agreed with Falmouth school that it will take the Budock hospital site off the market while reviewing the original land swap option. To enable both the school and NHS Property Services to deliver these proposals, support will be required from the local planning authority to ensure that a clear planning brief is available for both sites. I am sure my hon. Friend will be helpful in facilitating that accord. This will ensure that both organisations and the district valuer can understand and agree an estimated value for both sites.
This value can be demonstrated in land value and in wider community benefits such as housing, health and well-being, and education and leisure use. My hon. Friend eloquently outlined the many local sports and leisure groups that are hugely supportive of this project, and rightly so. The project will be for the sake of the local community and would be beneficial as well to the NHS through the profits from the land, which could be distributed elsewhere to support local NHS projects.
The potential outcome from this approach is a win-win situation for the local community, the school and the NHS. NHS Property Services will be able to maximise receipts from the sale of the current school playing fields for reinvestment in front-line NHS services. Falmouth school and the wider community will benefit from improved access to leisure facilities on the former hospital site, and much needed housing development in the Falmouth area will be brought one step closer. I understand that an initial report setting out the context and options for the proposed transaction can be delivered within six weeks. That will require the co-operation of the school, NHS Property Services and, importantly, the local planning authority. The report should set out a programme to include a target of three to six months for initial agreement, in the form of a contract to be reached for the transaction. This could take a number of forms, subject to the advice that both parties receive from the district valuer—contract for sale and option agreement.
This evening my hon. Friend has eloquently outlined the case for why the project should go ahead. I will of course be monitoring progress on the ground. The door is always open for her to come and see me if there are further problems or concerns. I am sure that her tremendous advocacy on behalf of her constituents will continue to unlock the potential of these proposals and make them a reality.
Question put and agreed to.