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14 July 2009 : Column 267

I am sure that the Minister, who is new to his job, has a spring in his step. He has a great opportunity to make his name in this Chamber and will be able to fill us in with a little more information about what Bournemouth and Poole college will get towards its costs-if not every penny, then at least a pathway for dealing with a very serious problem that needs to be addressed in a matter of days and weeks, because term time in September will come very quickly, and choices have to be made.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my neighbour, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, for being here, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about this subject, which is vital for many thousands of our constituents.

10.30 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): I congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on securing this debate on further education provision in Bournemouth and Poole. Of course I agree that further education is extremely important, and the Government put a great deal of importance on it. It has a crucial role to play in helping people to make the most of their talents and their lives, and in building Britain's future. It does that day in, day out, by improving people's job prospects and helping employers to achieve growth by improving work force skills and strengthening local communities.

As I think that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, in recent years there has been an increase in overall public investment in the further education system-by a record 53 per cent. in real terms between 1997-98 and 2007-08. Total investment in adult skills was more than £4.7 billion in 2008-09 and is planned to increase to £5 billion in 2009-10. That means that more than 3 million adult learners are benefiting from further education each year. I know that hon. Members would agree that in the current economic downturn it is more important than ever that we invest in learning and skills. The Government have offered a package of measures that includes boosting apprenticeships by a further 35,000 and providing £83 million over two years to provide an extra 75,000 further education places over 2009-10 and 2010-11.

The hon. Gentleman has been a keen advocate in this place of the capital proposals of Bournemouth and Poole college, the local college of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. He intervened in an Adjournment debate earlier this year, and he has asked a specific written question about Government plans on capital funding in further education. He took up the invitation by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), to discuss individual cases. I understand that subsequently, on 23 March, the hon. Gentleman and the college principal, Lawrence Vincent, met my hon. Friend and discussed at some length the college's capital proposal. In recognition of the wider importance of the college to its local area, I understand that on 16 April the chief executive of Bournemouth borough council wrote to my hon. Friend, adding her support to the college's capital proposal.

It is therefore fair to say that a considerable degree of information has been given to previous Ministers about the proposal. Indeed, having looked at it prior to this debate, I note that the college has been working with the
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Learning and Skills Council on this large and ambitious redevelopment project for a number of years. In June 2007, it received approval in principle to the application in relation to the new proposals for the redevelopment of the Poole and Bournemouth sites, and it subsequently worked closely with the LSC capital team to develop those plans further. The original proposal had a total cost of £102 million, and the college was seeking LSC grant support of £88.4 million. Given the scale of that proposal, it was agreed that it would be more manageable if it were to be treated as two separate developments. As a result, the college has focused its efforts on developing the Bournemouth site first.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bournemouth proposal in itself is large, with forecast costs totalling just under £50 million. In developing that ambitious proposal, the college has continued to work closely and positively with the LSC. I know that, as he said, the LSC has had discussions with the executive team of the college. I understand that they may have been meeting today to further the discussions on the college's current situation following the recent announcement. The LSC accepts that the college is central to learning provision across the local area of Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset.

I understand that, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the college has improved its quality and results over the past four years. I am pleased to hear about the work that it is doing to engage with learners in the area who have been hit by the economic downturn. It has made a successful bid to deliver part of the special package of support during the downturn. In particular, it will deliver some of the 75,000 extra further education places around the country for those who have been on jobseeker's allowance for six months or more. I am pleased that it is now working with the LSC, nextstep, the nationwide skills advice service and Jobcentre Plus to raise awareness of that, and that it has submitted a bid for the entry to employment programme, which will provide employment-focused learning for those who are not yet ready to enter full-time work.

The college is bidding for other funding announced as part of the package of measures to boost skills and learning in the downturn, and I encourage it to continue to do that. I welcome the fact that it has been designing its own programmes to meet the needs of local businesses. Its business enterprise unit has been working in partnership with local business and industry to boost the skills of the regional work force and to help companies through these tough economic times. I accept that there is excellent practice going on in Bournemouth and Poole college, and I know from representations that I have received from other hon. Members that many other colleges around the country are doing similarly good work on 16-to-18 apprenticeships, 19-plus apprenticeships and so on.

Capital projects in general, and particularly the project at Bournemouth and Poole, are part of a record level of investment, and it is fair to say that for a long period there was very little investment in FE. I acknowledge the mistakes that were made by the LSC, and previous Ministers have apologised to the House for what happened. We have had the Foster review, which set out the problems that occurred in relation to the capital programme.

Mr. Syms: An apology is great, and the Minister has mentioned the good things that the college is doing, but it will not be able to continue doing them unless there is
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an offset to the costs that it has already committed. It may not be a 100 per cent. offset, but can he say a little more about what will happen?

Kevin Brennan: I will come to that point. The LSC has indicated that it will meet its obligations on costs that have been incurred on the development. However, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that a blank cheque is not available to FE colleges around the country for costs incurred on development plans that were not those agreed with the LSC.

Mr. Syms: The original proposal was for 80 per cent. funding, and I do not think that it would be unreasonable if there were now 80 per cent. funding of the up-front costs. I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to indicate that, but that is the sort of level that would be needed to help out Bournemouth and Poole college so that it can keep first-rate education.

Kevin Brennan: I would encourage the college to continue its discussions with the LSC to identify the costs with which the LSC may be able to assist. It has set aside a sum of money to do that, and to help colleges with their genuine development costs. I can only encourage the college to continue those discussions about the plans that it has been developing and the development costs that it has incurred.

The capital programme process, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and the recent announcement followed a prioritisation process after the Foster review earlier this year. As he said, the LSC announced that 13 college capital projects can proceed this summer, as long as they reduce their costs to a reasonable level. The 13 college projects were chosen following a robust and thorough assessment by independent consultants against newly agreed prioritisation criteria. Each project had been assessed as having the greatest impact on local education and skills, and on contribution to local economic and regeneration priorities; links to other funding or projects; the current condition of the estate; and value for money. That process built on the recommendations that Sir Andrew Foster made in his report about the capital programme.

The LSC worked closely with key stakeholders, including the Association of Colleges, the 157 Group, the Sixth Form Colleges Forum and the Association of National Specialist Colleges, as well as the regional development agencies and the Local Government Association. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, many colleges could not be funded in this round, and the next steps start this autumn, when the LSC will consult the sector further to agree a robust, fair and transparent process for prioritising the capital investment programme for the next spending review period starting in 2011-12.

The LSC has worked with colleges throughout the development of capital proposals, and is committed to meeting all its contractual obligations on development costs. It is also committed to ensuring that no college
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will be allowed to become insolvent as a result of decisions about the capital programme. I hope that that is helpful.

I know and appreciate that there have been grave difficulties with the FE capital programme, but let us not forget that the Government's policy has meant that, since 2001, there have been 700 such projects throughout the country and nearly 330 colleges have been funded. That has transformed the further education estate for learners.

In 2008-09, the LSC supported 253 schemes that were under way or had full approval to go ahead. No college with full and final approval to go ahead has failed to proceed. We will spend £2.6 billion in this comprehensive spending review period. We should remember that, in 1997, not a single penny was spent on the further education estate in this country. We have put in record Government investment, which means that we can continue to develop further education and to unlock people's talent to meet the economic challenges and to create a fairer society.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's disappointment and the criticisms about what went wrong with the expectations that had been built up for his college and throughout the country.

Annette Brooke: I agree that there has been a good record of investment, which was long overdue, in further education. However, before the Minister concludes, will he give us an idea of the time frame in which the LSC is working during the short-term funding crisis because confidence must be restored in our local area to ensure that people enrol on the courses?

Kevin Brennan: I agree with the hon. Lady, and I think local Members can help in restoring that confidence. I am sure that Bournemouth and Poole college has a bright future, despite the disappointment that its current plans for redevelopment cannot go ahead. I have given an assurance that the LSC will not allow any college to become insolvent, and I have also suggested that the college should continue its discussions with the LSC about the development costs for which it may be able to be reimbursed in relation to its capital project, without the LSC accepting a blank cheque for Bournemouth and Poole or any other college across the country.

FE colleges are making a huge difference to the lives of students and learners across the country. I am sure that Bournemouth and Poole college can continue to do that, and although it has not been successful in the current round, it is important that we continue to invest in colleges in the future. A future capital programme is planned, and I encourage Opposition Members to talk to their Front-Bench teams about ensuring that we continue this investment into the future, and I encourage colleges to speak to the learning and skills councils about other ways of proceeding with capital projects. It is important that we continue to invest in colleges for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

10.45 pm

House adjourned.

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