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The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing the debate. Changes in educational provision in an area, particularly when they involve some of the very difficult planning issues that he has outlined, are clearly of great interest to local people, and it is absolutely right that the local Member of Parliament should be involved. Despite his relatively short time in the House, it is clear that my hon. Friend takes his responsibilities to his constituents extremely seriously and is asking foreven if he does not always getprecisely the information that his constituents deserve.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, on 6 September we formalised access to information with respect to educational reorganisations by revising the statutory guidance to local authorities to include local MPs in the lists of those whom the Secretary of State considers should be consulted about changes to schools. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) is in the Chamber, and it was not least because of representations that she made about how she had been treated by her local authority in a similar situation that we made those changes and made very clear the need for local MPs to be consulted about changes to schools. If consultation has started, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish that it is frankly not on that he has not been consulted. He should have been.
I welcome my hon. Friend's recognition of the Government's record investment in education. That will, of course, be continued under the "Building schools for the future" programme and our new primary investment programme. In England, the Government are supporting £5.5 billion-worth of capital investment in schools this year, rising to £6.3 billion-worth in 200708. That is a sixfold increase in real terms since 1997, when the figure was under £700 million.
Stockport's local authority and its schools have been allocated nearly £34 million of capital support over the next three years. Overall, Government support for investment in the primary estate alone should rise to an estimated £1.8 billion in 200708. I am therefore pleased that the benefits are being felt in the Denton and Reddish constituency, as well as across the country. As my hon. Friend has outlined, his constituency will benefit from new primary schools at Audenshaw and there is a possibility of a new school at Dukenfield.
I am sorry and concerned to hear about the problems with the proposed new school in Reddish. I am sureI hope and expectthat Stockport council will take note of the very important points raised by my hon. Friend and the north Reddish action group. The calling-in of the executive decision by the scrutiny panel is an important sign, but it is clear from what my hon. Friend said that considerable additional questions need to be answered. However, I have to say that the organisation of schools in an area is essentially a matter for local decision. It is the local authority that has the statutory responsibility for planning school places and for proposing to close schools and to open new ones.
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It may be helpful if I say something now about the current arrangements under which the proposals for changes in Reddish have been published. Before the Government took office in 1997, proposals for changes to schools often came to the Secretary of State for decision. We considered that such matters were best decided locally, and a new system was put in place by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. That is still the basic legislation today, and the relevant provisions in the case that has been raised by my hon. Friend include the provision that before a local authority may close a school or open a new one, it must first consult in the local area. Among those whom we advise should be consulted are any schools affected by the proposals, and parents and teachers in the area. The guidance was revised in September, when local MPs were added to the list, as were local district and parish councils where the schools are situated. Although the consultation is not a referendum, and the authority is not bound by the results, it is required to take the results of the consultation into account in deciding whether or not to proceed with its proposals.
If the authority decides to proceed, it is required to publish its proposals in a newspaper circulating in the area, and the notice must give details of how people may object to the proposals or comment on them. Anyone may make representations in response to the notice, whether or not they are directly affected by the proposals. If there are no objections, authorities may decide their own proposals themselves, but if there are objections the proposals go to the local school organisation committee to decide.It is then for the committee to approve or reject the proposals. It may also modify them, after consulting interested parties, but not to the extent that they are effectively new proposals. Modifications are usually to the implementation date, at the request of those bringing forward the proposals.
The committee may approve proposals only if it is satisfied that any capital necessary to implement them has been secured. As my hon. Friend pointed out, in the case of this project the authority has been allocated £2.2 million in targeted capital funding to build a new school, which is the total amount for which the authority bidso the Government have played their role in ensuring that new provision in the area is properly funded. Separate funding is also available for a children's centre. The total cost of the project is expected to be some £5.5 million, with the authority providing the balance. While the facilities to be provided are a matter for the local authority, we encourage the provision of enhanced facilities, suitable for the 21st century and a range of uses. It is in order to develop such facilities that we are investing record amounts in school capital and ensuring that developments are linked with extended service provision for children and child care.
I shall continue with the process. If the committee cannot agree unanimously, the proposals are referred to the independent schools adjudicator for decision. The adjudicator's decision is final, subject to the normal operation of the law, for example, as regards judicial review. Since September 1999, Ministers have not been involved in such decisions. The proposals in Reddish will be decided under that system.
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The local authority cannot just close the schools in Reddish and build a new one. I understand that the consultation took place in the summer and that statutory proposals have been published in respect of the changes. I believe that the representation period will end in mid-November and that the school organisation committee is planned to meet to decide the proposals in December. I hear the concerns of my hon. Friend about the extent to which he has been involved in that consultation, and he has clearly shown his ability to represent his constituents. It is crucial that he and other members of the public are fully involved in the consultation on the proposals.
In deciding the proposals, the committee will be required to decide the issue on its merits, taking into account all relevant factors and the Secretary of State's statutory guidance on proposals to open and close schools. Among the factors that the committee will need to consider are whether the proposals will improve the standards, quality, range and/or diversity of educational provision in the area; whether the proposals represent a cost-effective use of public funds; whether the sale proceeds of redundant sites are to be made available and whether the Secretary of State's consent has been obtained where necessary; the views of parents and other local residents, including those who may be particularly affected by the proposals or who have a particular interest in them; the length and nature of the journey to the alternative provision; the extent to which the proposals take account of the needs of families and the wider community and promote community cohesion; and the overall effect of a closure on the local community.
My hon. Friend has made it clear that views about these proposals are mixed, to put it mildly. He has also made clear his concerns about the safety of the landfill site and about the scale of the capital receipts from the sale of the Fir Tree site. Although those are not matters for which I have policy responsibility as a Minister in the Department for Education and Skills, they are nevertheless very important in the consideration of the proposals, as he pointed out. If a school is to be built on a landfill site, that site must have a planning use class order that permits educational use. That is a local planning authority responsibility, but it is obviously very important, as my hon. Friend has spelled out, that suitable consultation has taken place with the public and other relevant agencies and that there is certainty and reassurance for his constituents that the site is appropriate. I welcome his information that further investigations may take placeit certainty sounds as though that would be importantand I am sure that he will continue to seek local reassurance about the nature of that site or any other site for the provision of a new school for his constituents.
On capital receipts, the value of land is, of course, very much dependent on whether it can be developed, but my hon. Friend has drawn on some important evidence about the value of similar pieces of land in surrounding areas. It is true that an acre of land with planning consent for housing development can fetch up to £1 million. Again, although I have no direct ministerial responsibility for such matters, I understand that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sets very strict rules to ensure that local authorities only sell land for the full market valueif local authorities want to sell below
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that value, they need the ODPM's consent. Of course, I share my hon. Friend's concern that, notwithstanding the considerable increases in school capital, value for money in asset sales must also be an important consideration for Stockport in developing such proposals. Hon. Members will also be aware that the Secretary of State's permission would be required for the disposal of any land used as school playing fields.
Let me return to the procedures for the statutory proposals to close North Reddish infant and junior schools and Fir Tree school and build a new school on the Harcourt street site. As I said, if the school organisation committee cannot decide on the proposals unanimously, they will go to the adjudicator for a decision. The adjudicator would consider the proposals afresh, but would also be required to take into account the result of the consultation, any objections or comments made and the Secretary of State's statutory guidance on the factors that must be taken into account.
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As I have spelled out, those factors include the views of local people and the cost-effectiveness of the proposals. My hon. Friend raised concerns about those matters in his speech.
Although I know that I have not been able to satisfy all my hon. Friend's concerns, I hope that I have spelled out the process in which I strongly anticipate that he will be involved. I expect that he will be able to represent his constituents' views throughout the local decision-making process. Given his record up to now, I have no doubt that he will continue his important work to ensure not only that his constituents continue to benefit from increased school investment, but that local plans are carried forward in a way that both involves and reassures his constituents.
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