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We have heard a great deal about the lack of assessment and everything being centrally dictated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The regional assembly put together the proposals and undertook a sustainability appraisal, which was subject to consultation. The proposed changes were also subject to a sustainability appraisal, which showed the plan moving towards sustainability. The plan was particularly positive about the approach to carbon emissions and water.

Anne Main: Before the Minister moves off carbon emissions, which nearly slipped through, will she comment on my specific points about the M25 junctions 20 to 21, the M1, the A1(M), the A414 and the M10, all of which have significant pollution levels that are already considered to be unsustainable?

Meg Munn: On transport and infrastructure generally, of course there are important issues about providing additional infrastructure support. We have already made substantial commitment to investment in the region through sources such as the growth area fund support for local delivery vehicles and the transport innovation fund. Those issues are clearly important and will be dealt with by the plans as we go forward.

The Government are committed to the principle of the green belt and propose no fundamental changes to policy, as I said last time we debated this. The green belt performs a vital role in containing urban sprawl, supporting urban regeneration, protecting the openness of the countryside and preventing coalescence between nearby towns. Any proposals to alter green belt boundaries must be pursued through the plan-making process and are subject to public consultation and inquiry, such as the recent examination in public into the draft east of England plan. Boundaries can only be changed in exceptional circumstances.

The Government are committed to minimising any loss of green belt to development. Policy remains to make best use of brownfield development opportunities before considering whether exceptional circumstances justify any release of green belt.

Mr. Prisk: The proposal for Harlow North, which the Minister made in her changes to the draft plan, is based on using 1,500 acres of green belt. Are those exceptional circumstances?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman knows that for propriety reasons I am not able to comment on the proposals at the moment. I am setting out the general policy framework.

Mr. Prisk: Here we go!

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman can laugh about this, but it is an important issue. He has raised many
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questions about propriety and it is very clear that, as I said at the outset, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the proposed changes at this stage. He has raised many issues and we have responded.

Martin Horwood: Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: No, I need to continue.

The Government are committed to minimising any loss of the green belt to development. Hertfordshire local authorities are to be commended for the way in which they have sought out and made best use of any opportunities to justify exceptional circumstances, but they know better than most the limits before problems of “town cramming” start to impinge on the quality of urban life. The pressing need for more housing coupled with the regeneration and wider sustainability benefits of expanding the new towns provides the exceptional circumstances that justify amending green belt boundaries in a small number of locations in Hertfordshire and Essex where major growth is to be concentrated.

Will Hertfordshire’s green belt be concreted over? As I said before, absolutely not. Only about 3 per cent. of Hertfordshire’s existing green belt will need to be built on to provide sufficient development land for the long term. The rest, some 97 per cent., will remain, and we are putting in place a stronger framework to make it greener and more accessible for recreation. There should be no question of towns merging together and losing their identity. National policy continues to be that green belts must prevent coalescence between nearby towns, and local decisions on green belt boundaries in Hertfordshire must respect that principle.

The Government’s targets for each English region are to maintain or increase the area designated as green belt. Since 1997, the amount of green belt land across the country has increased by 26,000 hectares. In Hertfordshire, the proposal is to extend the green belt by designating about three times the area that is proposed to be removed. Green belt is not being added for the sake of it, but to achieve sound planning objectives, to set clear long-term limits to development and to protect the surrounding areas from inappropriate development pressures.

Hon. Members asked about infrastructure. Central to our vision for sustainable communities is that development must be supported by the full range of infrastructure. We are proud of our track record of support for growth in the region, and we want to ensure that future investment is adequate, within the constraints of public expenditure.

In Hertfordshire, as elsewhere, the Government are working to achieve genuinely sustainable development to meet real housing and other development needs while respecting environmental limits.

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Broomhill Bank Special Needs School

4.22 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and I am delighted to do so. I am also delighted to have an opportunity to talk about a school that is extremely important to my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), both of whom share my interest in this very special special school. I am delighted that they are here today.

I shall briefly lay out the bald facts about the school. Broomhill Bank is a girls’ school. It educates girls with moderate learning difficulties. It is designated to take 92 pupils, of which 66 are residential pupils. Currently, the school has 83 pupils, including 29 in the 16-plus unit. I mention that unit because I shall go on to talk about it in a little more detail. Of the 29 pupils in the 16-plus unit, 20 are in residential accommodation at the school, and half of them are accounted for by Kent county council and half by other local authorities.

Those are the bald facts about the school. The reality of the contribution that it makes is apparent as soon as one walks through the door. The moment one enters the school, one senses an atmosphere of support, gentleness and great enthusiasm for learning. Broomhill Bank is an inspirational place to visit, and Members who have visited the school will have experienced that clearly. To enter a classroom is to see girls who have many challenging difficulties to overcome making huge progress. The care that teachers and other members of staff take over their education dispels all doubts about whether Broomhill Bank is a most valuable place for them to receive an education. There is a real joy in learning, and it is a measure of the support that the school enjoys in the community that so many people have risen up to support it in recent weeks. I am delighted to say that a large number of supporters—members of staff and the governing body, parents and pupils—have travelled to Westminster today to be part of this day and this debate.

The facts on the performance of the school are, equally, not in doubt. We only have to look at the recent Ofsted inspection results. Ofsted visited the school in 2006 and said that it was an outstanding school, with

In particular, its residential and 16-plus units were described as excellent and outstanding. Ofsted commented:

The county council’s officer has admitted that Broomhill Bank is a quite outstanding school. The Commission for Social Care Inspection, the body that inspects the organisations that care for people in a residential setting, has given Broomhill Bank easily the highest rating of any special residential school in Kent. There can be no doubt that this school enjoys conspicuous success and is a real jewel in the crown of Kent’s education system.

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What is the reason for this debate today and for the great public concern about what is being proposed for the school? There is a review of the status of Broomhill Bank school that contains five proposals. The first is that the designation of the school as one catering for pupils with moderate learning difficulties should change so that it caters for those with communications and interaction difficulties. I shall talk a little bit about that. The second proposal is that the school should no longer be a girls’ school, but should become co-educational. The third is that the valuable 16-plus unit should be abolished. The fourth is that the residential status of the school should be abolished, too. The fifth, which is a concomitant of these changes, is that the authorised number of pupils in the school should fall from 92 to 56 on site, with provision for another 24 as an outreach service. We need to be clear that that would destroy the ethos of Broomhill Bank school and this successful school would no longer be a recognisable version of the one that we see today. That is a short-sighted measure. I also fear that this might be the beginning of the end for the school, because to reduce it to 56 pupils on site—almost half the current authorised number—and to remove the residential accommodation calls into question the viability of a school that size. It is important that we resist this set of proposals.

Some hon. Members would like to speak, so I shall confine my remarks to two aspects of the proposals. First, the 16-plus unit of the school is a beacon of excellence in our county. What are the consequences of removing it? Doing so will force girls at the age of 16 into colleges of further education that cater for adults, not just children. Let us think about the consequences. I am sure that we have all visited colleges of further education in our constituencies. I have done so. They tend to be rather intimidating, chaotic places—although that is not to disparage them at all—full of young adults rushing from one place to another, with a bewildering myriad of courses on offer. They do not offer the nurturing familiarity and sense of structure and routine that a school offers. To remove children struggling with disadvantages from a caring environment into an alien environment is not just foolish, but damaging to their self-confidence.

Let us consider girls in the mainstream education system. Most secondary schools in Kent have sixth forms, because we recognise that between 16 and 18 the continuity of education, care and the familiarity that the teachers have with their charges is beneficial to them. Why is that approach good enough for pupils who do not suffer the learning difficulties that the pupils of Broomhill Bank do, and why should it be good enough for grammar school pupils to benefit from a sixth form while girls with moderate learning difficulties who struggle to cope are denied that choice and are forced to go into adult further education? That is an injustice.

We should be aware of the difficulties that some of these girls face. Having talked to the recent headmaster of the school, I am conscious of the fact that when some girls first come to Broomhill Bank their communication difficulties are so extreme that they find it difficult even to communicate directly with members of staff. The excellent recent headmaster, Mr. Barnett, described to me the case of one girl. She has now blossomed into a self-confident young woman but when
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she first came to Broomhill Bank she communicated with staff through the device of her pet toy cat. Girls who struggle to communicate need special help, and to send them into an adult further education college is an act of cruelty.

The second thing on which I want to concentrate is the residential aspect of the school. The majority of 16-plus students have a residential place at the school, so it is no great surprise that it is the 16-plus unit that is coming under attack. There is an orthodoxy that deprecates residential provision at all costs, which is unfortunate because a diversity of provision is important. When we think about residential provision of education, it is important to consider what that means at a school such as Broomhill Bank. It does not mean Dickensian dormitories that are a relic of the 19th century—far from it.

Such provision means 24-hour education and girls spending four nights a week with their colleagues, not in a dormitory but, in effect, in a flat, in which they help each other to live: they make friends and deepen friendships; they look after each other; they are responsible for their own cooking; and they help to do their own laundry. They are learning the skills that they will need to live in the wider world, which they soon enter. Let us get rid of the idea that this is in any sense an old-fashioned way of offering education—far from it; it is bang up to date and is helping young people to develop the confidence and skills that they need to succeed and prosper in the outside world.

I should like to raise three particular issues in connection with this residential provision. First, as I have mentioned, half the residential places are taken by other local education authorities. Sometimes the county council regards that as a negative thing, but I regard it as entirely positive because it shows that other LEAs are choosing the benefits of this school for their own pupils. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is entirely consistent with the Government’s approach of providing a more regional view of special schools, so that one county is not expected to maintain all of the provision in its own area. This school is used widely by other local authorities, and we should celebrate that. There is certainly not a charge on the Kent council tax payer for the places that are taken up by other authorities.

Secondly, in evaluating the cost-effectiveness of interventions such as residential accommodation, we should examine the quality of outcomes. It could well be that any money saved by forcing pupils into day provision and mainstream provision against their will and that of their parents is a false economy, not only in financial terms but in terms of outcomes and achievements. I am concerned that nowhere in the consultation document is there an adequate assessment of the comparative value of residential education for these girls who have been statemented as being able to benefit from it versus the use of other schools in the mainstream.

There is an inspiring example of a former pupil at the school, whose name I shall change to Carrie. When she was first considered for admission to Broomhill Bank, she had been excluded from two primary schools and was, in effect, in a pupil referral unit for secondary school pupils. When the head teacher approached her to see whether she would like to be considered for inclusion at Broomhill Bank, she said, “You won’t want me. My behaviour is too nutty.” I have been told that
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the girl went on to manage her behaviour and attained a maths GSCE at the school as well as an A-level in maths. She is now working extremely successfully as a financial adviser at Barclays bank. There are many more inspiring tales about the school and it is important that we keep hold of such stories and recognise that such matters cannot just be reduced to numbers, but that we must look at the unimpeachable outcomes.

I shall highlight what is a painful issue for many people. Certain pupils at the school who benefit from the residential unit have troubled home lives. In some cases, their learning, emotional and behavioural difficulties are connected with their life at home. Having the opportunity to spend four nights a week outside of the family home, but in a supportive, caring educational environment, can be the difference between their needing foster care or even permanent local authority care and being able to continue their lives with their families. We all know the devastating emotional consequences and the poor national record in respect of children in care, so an investment that allows them to be well educated and to stay in touch with their families is extremely important. I regret that nowhere in the consultation proposals does that feature, which is one of the reasons why I very much hope that the proposals will be shelved so that they can be looked at properly.

I said that I would not take up too much time so that other colleagues who wish to contribute to the debate can do so, but I wish to conclude by drawing attention to the point we are at in the consultation process. The proposals have been laid before the public. Last month, a public meeting was held at which people could comment on the proposals. Such was the level of passion and the contribution that people wanted to make to the discussion that it started at 7 o’clock in the evening and went on until midnight. I have been told that, as at 28 March, 984 written responses had been made to the consultation process. Of those responses, three were in favour; 981 were against.

If, as I hope, the consultation process is genuine and its purpose is to consider the views of parents, members of staff and pupils, no serious person could conclude from the evidence that has been presented anything other than that the school is admired widely educationally, loved by its pupils, cherished by their parents and valued very highly by the local community.

Kent county council is excellent. I criticise it only with great reluctance and the fact that the consultation has not been properly conducted in respect of the evidence and information that it has received will, I hope, lead it to live up to its high standards and reflect the views not only of myself, parents and other supporters, but of the local county councillor, John Davies, who is firmly in support of my proposals. I am grateful for his support.

The school is very special. We want to keep it a very special school. I hope when the Minister responds that he will feel able to support our ambitions for Broomhill Bank and our ambitions for it to continue to have the ability to offer the type of education that it has offered successfully to so many girls over the years.

4.39 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), my constituency neighbour, for
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allowing me to make a brief contribution to his debate. I support the extremely compelling case that he has made for the retention of the present status of Broomhill Bank school with illustrations from two constituents of mine who have daughters at the school and who have given me permission to quote from their letters to me.

Mr. Henry Street from Penshurst wrote:

Helen, the daughter of my constituent Mr. Adrian Belither, has Down’s syndrome and is at Broomhill Bank. He writes:

I also feel dreadfully sad. Broomhill Bank is an outstanding school doing an outstanding job by the girls attending it. Like my hon. Friend, I earnestly hope that Kent county council will reconsider the proposal and withdraw it.

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