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12.23 am

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing this debate to consider the situation affecting schools in his constituency. He has drawn to the attention of the House his concerns about the potential difficulties facing a new secondary school in the southern part of Chippenham and raised issues related to revenue funding and the 5.2 per cent. increase that the Government have made available to schools in Wiltshire for the current financial year.

I shall comment briefly on the revenue settlement. The 5.2 per cent. is for the first time a real-terms increase that Wiltshire county council has received. An Adjournment debate at this time of the evening is not a good time to make party-political points, but I must say that the Government have done their part by providing that real-terms increase. If the hon. Gentleman and schools in Wiltshire are concerned that the money has not found its way into schools, it is right that the issue should be taken up with the county council. If the county council reconsiders its decisions in the next few weeks, it may feel able to allocate more funding to schools. Certainly the Government have made the money available, and it is our intention that it should find its way into schools in Wiltshire generally, and in north Wiltshire in particular--the schools represented by the hon. Gentleman.

The thrust of the hon. Gentleman's speech concerned the capital situation; that is the issue which I shall take up in particular. Before I do, I wish to compliment the schools in north Wiltshire on the good standards that they are already achieving. One of the benefits of a debate of this sort is that it provides a Minister with an opportunity to examine in some detail the schools in a certain area. That has been possible given the briefing that I have received from my officials. Over the past few days, I have had the opportunity to note the relative performance of schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

As the Minister for School Standards, it is appropriate for me to compliment the majority of schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which are doing well and providing the standards that the Government want. I pass on my congratulations and best wishes to head teachers, governors and parents with pupils attending the schools, given the excellent work that is clearly being done.

The hon. Gentleman raised particular concerns about the need for a new secondary school in Chippenham and the need for changes in both Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett. I shall refer to those three proposals.

I need to say clearly that any proposal for a new secondary school in Chippenham will have to come to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for approval.

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There is a statutory process that has to be followed. Nothing that I say this evening in any way prejudges or prejudices the decision that will eventually be taken by the Secretary of State if an application is made for a new secondary school in Chippenham. The application will require the approval of the Secretary of State, and if objections are made during the relevant two-month period, it will be for my right hon. Friend to come to a determination one way or the other. It would be wholly inappropriate to prejudge the situation before the Secretary of State has had the opportunity to consider any objections. There may be no objections, but if there are my right hon. Friend will need to consider them in an unbiased way.

I need to make clear that when the Government consider the needs of a growing population, that is reflected in our capital allocation process. We do not consider the factor in terms of what is happening now; the Government plan ahead, and effectively we have a four-year horizon, during which we shall consider the need for new places in an area. We have done that in respect of Wiltshire.

We have considered growth, as outlined by the hon. Gentleman. It is clear that this is a part of the country where, over the next few years, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman outlined, there will be population growth and an increase in pupil numbers. We need to plan ahead to ensure that the potential difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman referred do not occur. That is exactly what the Government intend to do.

We do not intend to stand to one side and watch a crisis develop in the Chippenham area where at the beginning of the new century children will have to be bussed to secondary schools. We must consider carefully the steps that can be taken now and in the near future to ensure that that does not happen.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about temporary accommodation. He is absolutely right. Temporary accommodation often becomes permanent. Those of us who visit schools, either in our constituencies or in other parts of the country, are well aware of temporary buildings that remain in place after many years--indeed, many decades--of use.

I was particularly pleased when it came to round two of our new deal for schools. We were able to make some capital allocations to ensure that temporary accommodation would be replaced by high-quality alternative accommodation. We shall continue to pursue that policy as we enter subsequent rounds of the new deal for schools. Over the life of this Parliament, about £2 billion extra will be used to improve school building stock.

We give local education authorities the flexibility to decide exactly how to allocate our annual capital guidelines. We do not tie the guidelines to specific school projects, although when an LEA applies for funding we expect it to tell the Department exactly how it will make best use of the money. It is important for local democracy to allow LEAs the freedom to determine their own priorities, and we do that within the annual capital guidelines. We have adopted a different approach in the new deal, in that we fund specific school project applications by LEAs.

A specific concern about Chippenham's proposed third secondary school close to the Pewsham estate relates to the two "fat boy" bombs that were discovered just before

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Christmas. People were worried that the cost of removing the bombs would have to be met from the original pathfinder budget for the new school.

I am sure that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will welcome the fact that my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have told Wiltshire that it will consider meeting the cost of disposing of the bombs through the Bellwin scheme, which was introduced many years ago by Lord Bellwin to deal with emergencies affecting local authority expenditure. My colleagues at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will carefully consider the adoption of an equivalent to the Bellwin scheme to cover the additional costs arising from the finding of those two unexploded bombs.

The main issue raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire is the possible delay on the Chippenham school as a result of its becoming part of a public-private partnership. I fully understand his concerns. The Government's desire to promote such partnerships, to which we are committed as an alternative source of funding for our schools stock, should not in any way delay Chippenham's third secondary school. We appreciate the need for the school and we want to ensure that nothing delays its development if it is approved by the Secretary of State.

We note Wiltshire's recent decision to bundle the Chippenham secondary school with proposals affecting Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett. I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's concerns. He correctly said that we have reserved £100,000 to help Wiltshire develop the project under the second round of the new deal initiative.

Many local education authorities do not have the in-house expertise to pursue public-private partnerships, and that is one of the reasons for the setting up in my Department of the schools private finance team. It consists of a group of people with expertise in private finance, and I am more than willing to offer that expertise to Wiltshire to support and assist the county in developing a new private-public partnership.

Because time is of the essence, my team will contact Wiltshire before the end of this week to arrange a meeting, within days rather than weeks, to discuss with the county council how urgent progress can be made in developing the public-private partnership arrangements to cover Chippenham, Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett.

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I believe that progress can be made and that this project can become an exciting example of the public-private partnership approach that we want to be developed.

The hon. Gentleman compared the quality of buildings funded under the traditional annual capital guidelines with those funded through public-private partnerships. I must make it clear that, whatever the source of funding, the Government want high-quality school buildings. We have been concerned about the quality of school buildings and we need to take steps to ensure that when we spend public money we get value for the taxpayer. We are looking critically at the way in which local education authorities spend the capital that is given to them by central Government. All too often--perhaps due to lack of experience--they do not secure value for money. Any pound that is mis-spent or spent inefficiently is a pound less for raising standards in our schools.

The Government have a good deal of sympathy for the case made by the hon. Gentleman. We are keen to develop public-private partnerships and we support Wiltshire's public-private proposals, which is why we have reserved £100,000 to help fund the development costs of the project. We commend Wiltshire's enterprise and want to give all possible assistance to ensure that the project is successfully concluded. I am, therefore, more than willing to offer the support and guidance of the Department's private finance team to help Wiltshire achieve its objectives.

Our endeavours to promote public-private partnerships must not be at the expense of the third secondary school in Chippenham. It would clearly be unacceptable to delay that school by a year. We shall give Wiltshire all the support that we can to develop that public-private partnership quickly, but we are not wedded to dogma, so if insufficient progress is made within the timetable we shall consider alternative proposals. We shall need to look into traditional methods of funding to ensure that the school in Chippenham opens in September 2000.

The Government intend to discharge their responsibilities to the children of north Wiltshire, to raise standards and to provide high-quality education. We want to do that for the children in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and for children across the country. I hope that, in responding positively to the debate, I have been able to show the Government's commitment to providing high standards and a good quality of education for all our children.

Question put and agreed to.

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