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The hon. Member for Meriden was right to raise this issue. I have some sympathy with her in this regard, and I am happy to reassure her that this issue is being taken into account. Policies, practices and programmes are in place that require public bodies to consider the redevelopment potential of land for housing and other purposes.

Clause 3 seeks to prevent direction being given to local authorities on housing density issues. We agree that local authorities should have flexibility in setting density policies—the issue is dealt with in PPS3—to reflect local circumstances, but it is unnecessary to include such a measure in primary legislation, as the Bill seeks to do. The Bill does not take account of the changes that we have made through PPS3, which was published in November 2006. For those reasons, it is not necessary to have additional legislation.

Greg Clark: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela E. Smith: I want to address the points made. If time remains, I shall be happy to take a further intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but he should appreciate the fact that his contribution took longer than the time that I have in which to respond. It is important that I deal with hon. Members’ contributions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) welcomed PPS3 because it gave greater clarity, but he still wanted more. He specifically asked whether I or my colleagues would write a letter to local planning officers to tell them that they do not have to accept every planning application they receive. I do not need to write a letter, but I can give an assurance from the Dispatch Box that of course it is not incumbent on planning authorities to accept every planning application they receive.

My hon. Friend was worried and asked the Government to have stricter guidelines to tell planning authorities what to do. An Opposition Member made the same point. That is at odds with the Government’s more devolutionary approach. It is also against the increased flexibility in PPS3. The important point about PPS3 and PPS17 is that within the local development plans that a local authority puts forward, it can specify the kind of development and flexibility that makes it clear that they are having regard to their own policies when they accept or reject a planning application.

The hon. Member for Solihull also appeared to welcome PPS3 and she agreed with us on density flexibility. She also drew attention to deficiencies in the Bill, although she was broadly supportive of it. She talked about the lack of confidence in planning authorities. In her area, she is eager to find brownfield sites that are suitable for housing and infrastructure—exactly the point that PPS3 addresses: local authorities can identify where development can take place in their area, and that can be included in their local development plan. The problems that the Bill attempts to address can be addressed through the local development plan and PPS3.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), in his extensive and wise contribution, outlined the problems that he has faced in his constituency and highlighted the necessity of having a clear and sustainable development plan. He had sympathy with aspects of the Bill, but was clear about the deficiencies. He also raised the need for housing, which cannot be separated from planning. Several of my hon. Friends made the same point. My hon. Friends the Members for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Crawley also pointed out that in their constituency surgeries, as I see regularly for myself in my surgery, constituents come to see them week after week on the issue of housing.

I am disappointed that Opposition Members failed to give a clear answer on whether they support Kate Barker’s proposals when she said that to meet housing need for the 10-year-olds coming through our schools and the couples who are 30 years old who want their own home we need 200,000 new homes a year. Do they support that target? If they do not, they should be honest enough to say that they are not trying to meet housing need.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) mentioned his council’s concerns about ensuring that it can provide affordable housing without being challenged. Where there is a good local plan and a local authority that has the will to implement it, as numerous authorities do, we can be confident that there is protection for the public as well

The right hon. Gentleman also made the important point that it is essential with any housing development to ensure that the infrastructure is in place. Coming from a new town, I am very much aware of that problem. The infrastructure has to be in place when people move into their homes. I assure him that that is very much at the heart of our housing and planning policies, as our response to the Barker report makes clear. We want to expand that idea and are talking more widely about shops, sewerage, education and heath. All those have to be in place to support new housing development. We make it clear in our response to the Barker report that we will ensure that there is adequate funding for infrastructure, in the right time scale, in step with growth. Various mechanisms are in place to ensure that that happens.

The point came up again and again about local authorities feeling powerless. I cannot accept that. We have to understand that 99 per cent. of planning applications are decided by local authorities. When they go to inspect a site, it is important that councils have clear development plans by which those are judged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley—I was pleased to see a fellow new town MP contributing to the debate—made the powerful point that we cannot divorce planning from housing. Other hon. Members said the same thing. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) bravely admitted his own planning application—

It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 15 June.

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Remaining Private Members’ Bills

Electric shock Training Devices Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 27 April.

waging war (Parliament’s role and responsibility) bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 20 April.

2 Feb 2007 : Column 546

School Closures (North East Lincolnshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Kevin Brennan.]

2.30 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I am very honoured to have been selected for the Adjournment debate today, in which I will address the worrying issue of school reorganisation and closure in North East Lincolnshire.

I want to put the debate in context, to try to explain why residents are particularly worried about the secondary school reorganisation in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. During the 2005 general election, North East Lincolnshire council, which is jointly controlled by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, dropped a bombshell on our communities by announcing that a number of primary schools would be closed, for which they blamed the Government. Of course, that is complete nonsense. It goes without saying that we have to deal with surplus places, but it is up to the council how it does so.

Through work that my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and I did, we managed to demonstrate to North East Lincolnshire that it had come up with wildly inaccurate figures predicting future birth rates in our area. As a result, the three primary schools that were most threatened—Elliston primary, Bursar infants and juniors, and Eastfield infants and juniors—did not have to close. There have been some mergers, but we retained those schools.

Fast-forward to 2006, and it is the turn of the secondary schools. As hon. Members will appreciate, many parents, having gone through the reorganisation and closure controversy in 2005, are now worried about what is going on in secondary schools, particularly as in the past the council came up with flawed figures. Last time, as I said, the council simply dropped a bombshell, saying “These schools will close.” There were no alternatives. This time, it has come up with option A and option B, so that is progress. However, that has pitched school against school, MP against MP and councillor against councillor. It is not a well thought-out process. The council is forcing school communities to choose one option or the other. As we demonstrated in 2005, there are many ways of tackling surplus places other than those that the council has come up with.

The plans that are causing the most controversy in our area of North East Lincolnshire relate to two schools: Whitgift school in the constituency of Great Grimsby, whose head teacher is Mark Rushby, and Healing school in my constituency, whose head teacher is Ann Addison. The first option that the council came up with was to reduce the number of places at Healing school to 729 and to reduce the places at Whitgift to 880. That option retains the schools, which looks good on the surface, but it has very serious implications for Healing. In fact, that figure of 729 threatens the school’s future viability.

Healing is one of North East Lincolnshire’s top-performing schools and is in the top 25 per cent. nationally. In 2004, it became a specialist science college. Of course, we all accept that we need specialist
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science colleges in this country. The plans for the specialist science college were based on a school of 800 pupils—not the 729 suggested. Apparently, there are 791 pupils on the roll and the school is on target to reach 800.

Last year, Healing became a science and foundation college and is apparently planning to go for a second specialism. It has excellent Ofsted results, its GCSE results are improving—by 9 per cent. in the past two years—and it is oversubscribed by 29 per cent. It is a popular school. I mention how successful the school is, yet 18 per cent. of its pupils have special needs. The 729 roll would mean a loss of places in the school, making it unable to fulfil its science college plans. It would not be able to balance the books or to meet its 14-to-19 curriculum requirements and it would be unable to meet parental demand. Thus, at the beginning of December, the school governors unanimously rejected that option and went for option B.

Option B was to close the Whitgift school in Grimsby, with a modest increase in the size of Healing school. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and I have resisted any closure of these schools for a variety of reasons. Whitgift school is located in the northern part of North East Lincolnshire. It is based in a large area of a former council estate, which is now run by Shoreline Housing. It comprises three-bedroomed family houses. Families moving into that area have Whitgift school at the heart of their community, which is also an area with some deprivation. We feel that closing Whitgift school will rip the heart out of that particular community.

This option would also mean more than 800 children seeking alternative provision, yet there is little available in neighbouring schools, which could not absorb that number of pupils. The nearest schools with places available would be some eight miles away, entailing long journeys for pupils who normally walk to school at the moment. I do not believe that the council has properly considered the environmental impact of closing the school or the damage that closure would do to that particular community. As I said, it would rip the community’s heart out. The school provides focus and cohesion for that part of North East Lincolnshire. A large area of the borough—larger than many towns in Britain—would be left without any education provision. If the school were to close, I seriously doubt whether any families would move to that part of Grimsby.

Whitgift school also provides a lot of added value to our communities. In fact, it is very lucky in having two swimming pools. About 50 per cent. of our primary school children have their swimming lessons at the school and other community groups use it, too. The head of our healthy schools project, Julie Boxall, has certainly expressed great concern about the loss of the pools to the area. Whitgift school also provides adult education and a film theatre. It has plans and aspires to be a specialist sports college, which is an excellent initiative. The council recently gave planning permission for the new Grimsby Town football club stadium in that part of the borough, so it would be excellent to have the educational work that the club does marrying up with Whitgift, a specialist sports
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college. Let us hope that it does not take too long before Grimsby Town starts scoring a few more goals there.

Our other worry about these proposals is the brain drain effect, from which we suffer enormously in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes-Immingham area. Some 500 pupils leave our area and go to grammar schools in neighbouring Lincolnshire in the towns of Louth and Caistor. That has a dramatic impact on our exam results and attainment figures. The brightest and best children are being creamed off and are going to a neighbouring authority. We believe that those plans will accelerate that brain drain and benefit a neighbouring county, rather than helping our area.

I do not want either school to close. A solution that could retain both schools would be to increase the number of pupils at Healing school above the magic figure of 800 on which specialist status is based. It would remain viable. It would fulfil all its plans. Perhaps we could consider either keeping Whitgift at the size that the council suggested or perhaps reducing it a little more. In effect, rather than option A or option B, both of which have a dramatic impact on our community and could lead to school closures, that is my option C, and it could be done.

I made that suggestion in my oral evidence to the North East Lincolnshire scrutiny committee last month. In fact, Ann Addison, the head teacher of Healing, told the scrutiny committee when she appeared before it that she would support an alternative that would retain Whitgift school in Grimsby and increase the roll of Healing to above 800. To achieve that, I want to pose some questions to the Minister. When I appeared before the scrutiny committee, these questions were put to me, and it is clear that some of these issues have influenced the council’s thinking.

What is the Government’s position on secondary schools that have fewer than 800 pupils on roll? There has been much talk in our area that the optimum size is 900 to 1,200, and many of our schools are simply not that size, so I seek some guidance on that issue. It has also been suggested to me that the 900 to 1,200 range represents a criterion for bids under the building better schools for the future programme. Is that correct?

I want to know whether social factors can be taken into account to justify smaller schools or perhaps a slightly higher surplus place figure. As I said, Whitgift school is certainly in a deprived area at the heart of a large council estate, so we hope that that type of social factor can be taken into account. Could geographical factors also be considered to justify smaller schools? We are on the banks of the Humber. Given the nature of the geography of our area, we do not have a 360° hinterland; we have half of that. We are not like major cities inland. That geographical point is pertinent to our schools.

We also have plans for academies in the area. The intake of those academies is fixed at 900, and questions have been asked about the fact that the size of the other schools in the area is being reduced because the academies are all fixed at 900. I should like to know whether that figure is fixed and whether there is any interplay.

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I do not believe that any survey has been done of the schools in question to analyse the space being used—an asset survey. When the primary school reorganisation was under way, it transpired that many schools had already taken action to reduce surplus places, by redesignating classrooms as libraries and medical rooms and for special needs use. Yet the council still thought in 2005 that they were classrooms, when those schools did not have any surplus places at all. Does the Minister feel that a council should carry out such a survey before proposing such plans?

I should also like to know the Minister’s views on federations and federating. Whitgift school works very closely with Tollbar business college in my constituency. Healing and Whitgift schools work closely together and increasingly share expertise. I wonder whether that is one way in which we could address some of the surplus place issues. Additionally, I believe that the talk about increasing the school leaving age has cast the council’s figures into doubt, because they relate to a time before those suggestions came forward. Has the Minister got any views on the brain drain problem? Some 500 pupils leave the borough on a daily basis. The reorganisation could have an impact on that brain drain. Finally, I would like to know about transport. As I said, most of the pupils that go to Whitgift walk there. If the school closes, it will mean journeys by bus and car, which will have a detrimental impact on the area.

I want to touch briefly on one of the other proposals: that of having a joint faith school in the area. That would involve merging Matthew Humberstone Church of England school in Cleethorpes with St. Mary’s Catholic school in Grimsby. Such plans always seem to be trying to bring me and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby closer together. In essence, Matthew Humberstone is a comprehensive school at the heart of its community. It is close to where I live in Cleethorpes. St. Mary’s is much smaller. Catholic parents have told me that they would not support the merger and would take their children out of the borough, perhaps seeking Catholic schools in neighbouring Lincolnshire. Again, that would exacerbate the brain drain problem. What powers does the council have in relation to Church of England schools and Catholic schools, or would it be up to the diocese to decide? Recently, migration has had an impact on my area. In 2005-06, we had 690 migrants registered in North East Lincolnshire. Some 370 of them were Polish. Those figures have not been properly taken into account in the council’s plans. That could potentially solve the problem of the rolls in the Catholic school.

The issue is of vital importance to the residents of Great Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Much uncertainty has been caused by the proposals. Parents are already considering not sending children to the schools that they originally intended to send them to. I have heard of teachers saying that they are going to leave. That is the self-same thing that happened with the primary schools. People are really unsettled. I understand that the cabinet of North East Lincolnshire council will meet next week to discuss the proposals. I hope that the cabinet will take on board the suggestions that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and I made to it about going for a different option from the two that it suggested. I understand that the council is perfectly entitled to do that and that nothing constrains it to its
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options A and B. I sincerely hope that the Minister’s reply to the debate and answers to my queries will assist in steering the council’s cabinet in the right direction, which is to keep both Whitgift and Healing schools open with a viable number of children on the rolls.

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