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12.6 am

Mr. Paul Murphy: It is easy to attack civil servants, who cannot answer back. It is important to realise that had the party of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) taken part in the agreement, he might well have been able to influence the matters that he does not appear to like. It is also important to understand that nearly 1 million people are entitled to vote in Northern Ireland, so the expenditure to which the hon. Gentleman refers is hardly elaborate. When it is borne in mind that the parties that were members of the talks process represent 80 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland, it seems fair that they should have 80 per cent. of the expenditure for leaflet distribution--four to one, because they were in the talks and because they represent 80 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for North Antrim accused me of being wrong earlier, but he was wrong about several matters. He was wrong about decommissioning: the agreement makes it absolutely clear that decommissioning is to happen within two years. He was wrong about the RUC and wrong about how the assembly works--in fact, he is generally wrong and one of the reasons he is wrong is that he did not stay in the talks and argue his corner. The only point on which I do agree with him is that we should let the people decide. Let us hope that, on 22 May, they give the settlement and the agreement a resounding yes.

Question put and agreed to.



    That the draft Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Act 1996 (Cessation of Section 3) Order 1998, which was laid before this House on 20th April, be approved.--[Mr. Dowd.]

22 Apr 1998 : Column 941

Secondary Schools (North Wiltshire)

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

12.8 am

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the burning issues relating to secondary education in my constituency and to alert the Minister to a crisis that may occur soon unless urgent action is taken.

Despite its image, my constituency is not primarily a rural area. More than half of my constituents live in the four towns of Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett, Corsham and Chippenham. Those are fast-progressing, fast-expanding towns--more akin to the other towns along the M4 corridor than are the more rural parts of north Wiltshire. That can be seen in the growth of the primary schools. In Chippenham alone, three new primary schools have been opened in the past eight years, and soon another will need to be opened to cater for the very many children in the town.

The primary school sector needs significant new investment, but, unquestionably, the area where investment is really needed in north Wiltshire is secondary schools, which have not kept pace with the rapid population growth in the area. That failure to keep pace prompted my request for this Adjournment debate.

Of the three local education authority secondary schools, only Corsham is roughly the size that it should be, although even there it is projected that, by the year 2000, there will be a shortfall of about 80 places, growing thereafter until, by 2003, we shall have a shortage of a couple of hundred in Corsham. However, it is in the other three towns--Chippenham, Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett--that especially urgent action is needed if we are to avoid a crisis of under-provision in the area.

The trouble appears to be that Wiltshire's strategic education planning has never addressed projected growth in student numbers until after the pupils are in place. The reason given by the local education authority for that failure to plan strategically is that it is central Government's fault. The director of education says:

That, of course, is true. The population in the area is growing so fast that allowing the local authority to plan only three years ahead is inadequate. The Minister might like to ponder whether "predict and provide" may have a useful role to play in a place such as north Wiltshire, where predictions are exceptionally clear.

It may be useful if I briefly lay out the problem in each of the three main towns, and then suggest a few possible solutions to those problems.

It is predicted that, in Chippenham, there will be a shortfall in secondary school places of some 130 by the year 2000, of some 360 by 2001, and of an increasing number thereafter. There are two absolutely excellent grant-maintained secondary schools in Chippenham--the Sheldon school and Hardenhuish school, both of which are already full to capacity. The head and chairman of governors are very worried that they may have to put up

22 Apr 1998 : Column 942

with many mobile classrooms from the local authority between the year 2000 and 2001, if plans to build a third school in Chippenham are not implemented.

The curious thing about mobile classrooms is that they appear to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once one has a mobile classroom on one's site, it seems to remain for ever and become a permanent classroom--and, curiously, the number of children seems to expand to fill the mobile classrooms available. Hardly surprisingly, therefore, Hardenhuish and Sheldon are very reluctant to have mobile classrooms on their sites.

In any case, both those secondary schools are at the north of the town, and most of the expansion is in the Pewsham estate, in the south of the town, which is where the local authority had been planning the third secondary school. The people of Chippenham rejoiced to hear local authority plans to open a 450-place secondary school in September 2000. That was promised by the local authority in November and December 1997--not least at a public meeting in Chippenham, which I attended.

However, by about Christmas time, the Lib-Lab pact that currently runs Wiltshire county council suddenly became enamoured of the Thatcherite principles behind the public-private partnership initiative--or the private finance initiative, as I still, in my old-fashioned way, tend to think of it. Naturally, we were delighted that they were so pleased to take up that Thatcherite principle. We were also pleased to hear that, last week, the Government announced £100,000 to help the council with that PPP bid.

I was glad that the consultants appointed by the county council advised that using the PPP for the new school for Chippenham was perfectly possible, but I was slightly astonished to hear from the county council, when I met some councillors last week, that they advised that such a PPP project was likely to provide a higher quality of school than traditional funding methods would.

I find it hard to imagine a Labour Government being content that private funding for a state school would provide a higher-quality school than a state-funded project. Perhaps the Minister will reassure us that, if a school were to be built using traditional funding methods, the quality of the school would be as high as it would be if private funding were used.

The county also concluded that the capital works needed in the other two towns, Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett--about which I shall say more in a moment--were more likely to attract a suitable PPP partner if they were bundled up with Chippenham. The upshot of that decision was the announcement last week or the week before that the much-needed new school for Chippenham would not be ready in September 2000, and that 2001 was the earliest date at which the PPP package could be in place.

Perhaps the Minister will consider whether the PPP package could be hastened, so that the school can open by September 2000. If not, some 130 pupils will be bussed around Wiltshire in the interim year. They may go to Corsham--although the county seems to have ignored the fact that its school will be full by 2000--or perhaps to Calne, some five or 10 miles away from Chippenham. The county might even close a local special school, Allington--which has a current roll of only 40 or so boys--and put the 130 school-less secondary children there.

22 Apr 1998 : Column 943

It is hardly surprising that the rejoicing about the school's opening in September 2000 has rapidly turned to sincere anger on the part of parents in Chippenham. They have brought significant pressure to bear on me, and I am pleased to raise the matter with the Minister in this Adjournment debate. It is unacceptable in this great modern age--the education, education, education age--to be bussing children from a progressive town such as Chippenham to neighbouring market towns, or putting them up temporarily in a disused special school.

The county has a site available--despite the fact that two "fat boy" bombs were discovered on it just before Christmas. They have been cleared successfully and the site is now available for the school. Until Christmas, the county was confident that traditional methods of finance were in place to pay for the school by 2000. It should be possible to find a way of ensuring that the school opens by then.

The only strong argument in favour of the PPP bid is that the other two portions of it, Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett, may stand a better chance of being brought forward in time. Their need is very great--although perhaps not quite so urgent as that of Chippenham. The Malmesbury school is presently located on two sites situated a mile or two apart. The lower school is found on the Filands site, and the upper school is situated on the Corngastons site. That is a wholly unacceptable situation these days, which cannot possibly be cost effective.

There is an overwhelming argument in favour of bringing the school together, probably on the Corngastons site--there have been representations recently that perhaps Filands would be better, but that matter will be decided in due course--and selling the other site for housing, which north Wiltshire badly needs. However, I plead that the land not be sold for the construction of an out-of-town shopping centre of any kind, which would ruin the vibrant high street in Malmesbury. If the school is located on one site and the other site is sold for housing, the project should be more or less self-financing.

Wootton Bassett is also convincing proof of the LEA's lack of strategic planning for school numbers. Bassett is close to Swindon, and has grown exponentially in recent years. It already has 22 mobile classrooms, many of which are more than 20 years old. I have visited them, and many are falling to pieces. There are currently 1,370 pupils at the school, of whom only 1,000 are in permanent classrooms. The county is projecting a further shortfall of 40 places by 2000 and 130 by 2003. Thereafter, it is predicting that the school will grow to house 1,800 children on that one site. Some urgent capital action is definitely needed to ensure that they can be housed appropriately.

The picture that I have painted depicts an imminent crisis in Chippenham--with secondary children being bussed around--and, although the problems in Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett are less acute, they are none the less just as pressing in reality. It seems to me to be wrong to lump the third school in Chippenham with the projects at Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett. The need in Chippenham is more urgent.

I suggest to the Minister and to Wiltshire county council education authority that the Chippenham school should proceed with all due dispatch using traditional funding methods, and that they should stick to their publicly expressed intention to complete the school by

22 Apr 1998 : Column 944

September 2000. The funding of the project may require assistance from central Government, and I hope that the Minister will be able to comment--either tonight or during further discussions between his officials and the county, which I will happily help to arrange or participate in if that would be useful--on the likelihood of that assistance being forthcoming.

I understand that the capital borrowing permission for 1998-99 was in place last December, but that a surprise cut of 30 per cent. by the Government in 1997-98 levels was a contributory factor in the LEA's decision to delay the project and to fund it as a PPP. Will the Minister please consider reinstating the 30 per cent. that the Government cut from the basic needs borrowing permission, so that the project may proceed to the original time scale?

Will the Minister further confirm that there need be no lowering of standards among buildings financed by the traditional method, compared with those financed by the PPP?

If the third school in Chippenham goes ahead at an early date using traditional funding methods, that would leave the Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett part of the PPP bid, which would still probably amount to some £10 million--surely large enough to attract suitable private funding.

If that were too small on its own, other urgent projects in the primary school sector, such as the Kings Lodge and Charter primary schools in Chippenham, perhaps the Malmesbury primary school, the Lydiard Millicent primary school which is on a site split by a road, or the Ashton Keynes primary school, where two thirds of the children are in mobiles, could be added to it. Perhaps the Minister will comment on the likelihood of success of such a mixed secondary-primary PPP bid, which I believe would be a first in the nation.

The county is grateful for the £900,000 help for Wiltshire under the new deal announced last week. Crudwell and Christian Malford primary schools will benefit from it. However, the sum is a drop in the ocean compared with the £3 million that the county demanded, and is £100,000 less than it achieved last year. The new deal is not a particularly great help for the county.

I am concerned that the PPP bid may not succeed, however it is configured. The Minister may want to give some thought to that, and tell us the likelihood of traditional finance being available, especially for the Chippenham school but also for the other two, if we are unable to find a PPP partner.

It would not be possible to leave a debate on education in north Wiltshire without referring to this year's settlement. The Minister will not be surprised if I do so. No doubt I have that in common with most of the local authority representatives who have spoken to him over the past few months.

In Wiltshire, school budgets have been cut by 2 per cent. in real terms. An increase of 0.8 per cent. was needed to pay for the full-year effect of the 1997-98 pay award, and a further 2.6 per cent. to meet the 1998-99 pay awards and inflation. A total cash increase of 3.4 per cent. was required. Only 1.4 per cent. was forthcoming, which means real and damaging cuts in the standard of education offered in Wiltshire.

Many schools are operating a deficit budget already. There will be redundancies in the county. IT will be curtailed. There is no repairs or decoration budget at all.

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Money for books and equipment is frozen or falling. The Minister constantly speaks of a 5.2 per cent. increase for Wiltshire, but that is a wholly misleading use of statistics. The reality is a cash cut, as I have described.

North Wiltshire is a prosperous and fast expanding area. I am not alone in the county in sensing a looming crisis in the provision of secondary education in the area. I hope that the Minister, together with Wiltshire county council, will take urgent action after this evening's debate avoid such a crisis.

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