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The hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) made the point that academic excellence is extremely important, and she referenced the very good schools in her area. I simply reiterate that academic excellence can be catered for in good, non-selective schools, whether they are academies, community schools or whatever.

On the point of social mobility and the make-up of existing grammar schools across the country, in a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) in April this year, which can be found in the Library debate pack for this debate that I am sure hon. Members have seen, the Minister set out the number of year 7 pupils attending state-funded secondary schools overall, the number of those pupils attending grammar schools and then the numbers of pupils from a black ethnicity, those who receive free school meals and those who have a statement of special educational needs. It must be said that the Minister’s statistics show that grammar schools are purely academically selective; they are clearly socially selective as well.

Laura Sandys: As I outlined in my contribution, different areas have different settlements when it comes to grammar schools and high schools, and that is important to understand. In an area with many grammar schools, there is a much greater cross-section of the population. When there are only three or four in a county, they are often in rural areas and people must drive to them. There is therefore a difference in the systems. We often put an umbrella around all grammar-school systems as if they were one, rather than look at the nuances that have developed in different areas with different outcomes.

Kevin Brennan: In her speech, the hon. Lady made the point that the grammar school in her area with a free school-meal intake was at exactly the average for the area, but that is an exception. It has to be an exception, and the statistics show that. In 2010, for example, 96,680 year 7 pupils attending state-funded secondary schools received free school meals out of a total number of 549,725. Out of 22,070 grammar school pupils, 610 received free school meals. The table goes on to give a percentage, and I must say that, using my comprehensive school maths, I think that the figures are wrong in the Minister’s answer. I am sure that it was not his answer, but perhaps a mistake in translation when it went into the debate pack. The percentage calculations that I have done to check seem wrong, but what is clear from the figures when they are recalculated in a different way is that the ratio of state-school pupils to grammar-school pupils is about 25:1 and yet the ratio for free school meals is 158:1. There is clearly a huge amount of social selection going on, but I give those figures with the health warning that they may have been mistranslated along the way. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that—if not now, at a later date.

I will not go on much longer except to say that, as I stated earlier, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD statistician who compiles the figures for the programme for international student assessment, pointed out at a meeting that I attended that the best school systems in the world are non-selective. That is a clear conclusion of the OECD’s research.

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12.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this important debate, which has been interesting and well argued. As ex-grammar school pupils, we share a familiarity with the high standards and positive experience that grammar schools engender. I also know that he continues to serve as a governor at Dartford grammar school for girls to ensure that those standards and values continue. As the Sutton Trust recently reported, more than eight in 10 of girls at that school are accepted at university. At 83%, it is around the same percentage as Maidstone grammar school, which I attended for one year, where 87% are accepted. That record is testament to the work of the school, its staff and the girls themselves. More than nine in 10 pupils go to university from Dartford grammar school—the boys’ school.

This debate comes at a time of almost unprecedented reform in our education system, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the work of the Department since May 2010. For too long, standards were allowed to slip in far too many schools. I know that Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s new chief inspector at Ofsted, will bring a resolute determination to reverse that trend and to return the focus of all schools towards excellence rather than excuses.

Grammar schools ensure that thousands of state-educated pupils move on to higher education and to the most competitive universities. Around 1,050 grammar school pupils were studying at Oxford and Cambridge in 2009. Some 98% of pupils in grammar schools achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, compared with 57.8% of pupils nationally. In 2009-10, some 95% of grammar schools pupils who were eligible for free school meals achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with about 31% nationally. The gap between the overall figure of 98% and the free school meals figure of some 95% of those in grammar schools achieving those good GCSE grades, which is about three percentage points, is absolutely critical. That contrasts sharply with the national figure.

In 2009, 55% overall achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, but for pupils who were eligible for free school meals the overall figure was just 31%. That gap of 24 percentage points has stubbornly remained over recent years. That is a disparity in outcome that we want to close or, at the very least, bring closer to the narrower gap that grammar schools have achieved for the simple reason that reducing the attainment gap between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds is one of the key objectives of the coalition Government. The question is how we can achieve that objective. How do we spread to the whole state school sector the grammar school ethos of high standards and ambition and of placing no limit on achievement?

No limit on achievement certainly seems to be the approach taken by Dartford grammar school. It is one of three such schools where, in 2010, more than 95% of pupils achieved the English baccalaureate’s combination of GCSEs. A further nine grammar schools scored above 90%, and 67.9% of grammar pupils achieved the E-bac nationally, compared with the overall national figure of 15.2%.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) was right to pay tribute to Reading school, where 78% of the pupils achieved the E-bac, and to Kendrick school, where 72.8% achieved the E-bac.

Kevin Brennan: At Chislehurst and Sidcup grammar school, only 15% of pupils achieved the E-bac. Does the Minister regard that as a failure?

Mr Gibb: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are a variety of standards in the list of grammar schools, and I believe that we will see a rise in that figure that he just quoted in the years ahead, just as we will see a rise in the proportion of pupils taking the E-bac right across the state sector, as schools focus on achieving results in the E-bac.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East raised the issue of the grammar school ballot provisions, both in statute and in annex E to the funding agreement. We have discussed these issues on a number of occasions and the head teachers of the two schools that he mentioned—Reading school and Kendrick school—have made very clear representations. Throughout the country, there have been just 10 petitions since 1998 and only one went to a ballot. That proposal to abolish a grammar school, in Ripon, was defeated by a margin of two to one, but we are looking very seriously at the technical issues that my hon. Friend raised both today and in recent weeks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) paid tribute to Lancaster girls’ grammar school, where 87.3% of the pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs, and to Lancaster royal grammar school, where 81.9% of pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs. Those are excellent schools, and my hon. Friend is right that we should not be engaged in wars about such excellence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) was right to extol the virtues of Calday Grange grammar school, where 87.3% of pupils achieved the E-bac, and the two Wirral grammar schools, where 77.3% of pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) was right to pay tribute to Lawrence Sheriff school and Rugby high school. I listened very carefully to the important points that he made about the selection process, and local authorities should be advising parents about the options that are available to their children, particularly those who are from more disadvantaged backgrounds. I have also taken on board my hon. Friend’s important point about the environment in which the tests are taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) raised the issue of the ethos and popularity of grammar schools. It is that formula that the Government are now seeking to replicate in every school in the country and for every pupil, irrespective of family background. In this country, we have many exceptional schools and teachers who work extremely hard towards achieving those goals—in fact, we have some of the very best schools and teachers in the world—but we also know that many state schools are struggling to work in what is at times an almost unworkable system of bureaucracy and central control. As a result, we have fallen back in the programme for international student

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assessment rankings, from fourth to 16th in science, from seventh to 25th in literacy and from eighth to 28th in maths. Our 15-year-olds are two years behind their peers in Shanghai in maths and a full year behind teenagers in Korea and Finland in reading.

Kevin Brennan: When the Minister cites those figures, will he cite the change in the number of countries participating in the PISA survey, will he say over what period he is quoting and will he also give the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study statistics for the same period?

Mr Gibb: Even if we take into account the increasing number of countries taking part in the PISA surveys, which took place in periodic years from 2000 onwards, the surveys still show this country declining. Also, the TIMSS survey is different, because it examines the curriculum of the countries in which children are tested, whereas the PISA survey looks at a common set of questions right across the different countries. The PISA survey is the one that we should be concerned about.

Kevin Brennan: It is only fair to put on record that, as the Minister knows, Andreas Schleicher, who compiles the PISA statistics, does not agree that there has been any absolute decline in performance in this country.

Mr Gibb: However, Andreas Schleicher also says that there has been no increase in performance in this country, whereas other countries around the world are increasing performance. That is the problem facing our young people if we do not improve standards in our state schools, because those young people are now competing for jobs in a global market. It is no longer good enough just to look at the past, because we now have to compare our system with the best systems in the world.

Our education system has become one of the most stratified and unfair in the developed world. Since coming into office, we have been setting out our vision for reform on four broad themes: improving the quality of teaching and the respect for our work force in schools; greater autonomy for schools to plan and decide how and when improvements should take place; more intelligent and localised accountability; and reducing and simplifying the bureaucracy that frustrates and demoralises teachers. Those themes formed the basis of the White Paper that we published a year ago this month, “The Importance of Teaching”, and I believe that grammar schools can actively support improvement in each of those four areas.

First, we want to get the best graduates into teaching by funding the doubling of the Teach First programme during the course of this Parliament, and by expanding the Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders programmes, which provide superb professional development for the future leaders of some of our toughest and most challenging schools. We want grammar schools actively to share their experience of staff development with other schools, in both the initial training of staff and the provision of professional development. We have had more than 1,000 expressions of interest in establishing teaching schools and 300 applications have already been received, with grammar schools among the keenest to sponsor or support local schools to improve standards in their communities.

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Secondly, our drive for greater autonomy has seen 111 of the 164 grammar schools that made those applications become academies, and many of them support other local schools. The vast majority of grammar schools participate in some form of partnership with other maintained schools or academies, be that an exchange of staff, working with students or supporting school leadership. Between them, the newly converted academies have agreed to support more than 700 other schools and to support fellow head teachers through the doubling of the national and local leaders of education programmes.

Thirdly, it is vital to ensure that improvement is driven not by the Government but by schools themselves, through effective accountability that focuses on raising standards. We are overhauling the inspections framework to focus on schools’ “core four” responsibilities—teaching, leadership, pupil attainment and pupil behaviour. The E-bac sets a high benchmark against which parents can hold schools to account, and it helps to narrow the gap between those from the poorest backgrounds and those from the wealthiest backgrounds.

The Russell group of universities has been unequivocal about the core GCSEs and A-levels that best equip students for the most competitive courses and the most competitive universities—English, maths, sciences, geography, history and modern or traditional languages. However, nine out of 10 pupils in state schools who are eligible for free school meals are not even entered for those E-bac subjects, and just 4% of those pupils achieve the E-bac. In 719 mainstream state schools, no pupils who are eligible for free school meals were entered for any single-award science GCSE; in 169 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for French; in 137 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for geography; and in 70 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for history. Academic subjects should not be the preserve of the few, but we need to free schools to achieve that aim.

Fourthly, therefore, we are dramatically reducing the bureaucracy that constricts achievement. In opposition, we counted the number of pages of guidance sent to schools in one 12-month period. They came to an incredible 6,000 pages—or six volumes of “War and Peace”, if people are inclined to consider it that way— yet they contained little of substance that schools do not already know or share.

The most recent example of our efforts is the recently completed consultation on the school admissions and appeal codes. There were some 130 pages of densely worded text, with more than 650 mandatory requirements that were often repeated. The revised versions, which we published last Wednesday, total just over 60 pages and are minimal in their requirements, while preserving the important safeguards as well as introducing new requirements, such as priority in admissions for children adopted from care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) said in his contribution, it is one of the most far-reaching changes that we can make if we give all schools, including grammar schools, a greater say over their own published admission number.

Currently, that intake number is tightly managed by the local authority to ensure that any increases do not affect the school down the road. That kind of rationing of places only limits choice for parents and pushes

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cohort after cohort of children to less accomplished schools, rather than giving good schools the freedom to expand and share their excellence.

Our approach is simply to let schools decide how many students they can offer a high quality of education within their own capital budget, while ensuring that they maintain standards or improve any underperformance. Why is that important? Quite simply, it is important because we want the number of places in all good schools to increase, to increase genuine choice for parents. Even marginal increases in some areas will lead to a positive cycle of increased standards. Critics who argue that that will create sink schools overlook the current admissions codes—

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. We must now move on to the next debate. Before doing so, I ask colleagues who are leaving Westminster Hall to do so quickly and quietly.

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Primary Care (Devon and the South-West)

12.30 pm

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): This debate is about a proposal by most, but not all, of the NHS primary care trusts in the south-west, including my own in Devon, to contract out some of the important administrative work done to support GP practices and other family health services to a business partnership with the private French company Steria, called Shared Business Services, or SBS. The work includes running the system of payments to GPs, pharmacists, ophthalmologists and others, patient registration and screening, organising the timely transfer of patients’ records, and basic but vital things such as ensuring that GPs do not run out of prescription forms.

I was first alerted to the proposal when constituents of mine who work for the Devon primary care support services at Newcourt House on the edge of Exeter contacted me. I subsequently visited and spoke to some of the 27 staff who between them have more than 500 years’ experience of working in the field. As a result of those conversations and subsequent research, I now have grave concerns about the proposal and the process that has led to it.

As far as I am aware, there have not been any complaints about the quality or efficiency of the current service. On the contrary, the in-house service in the south-west in general and in Devon in particular is considered to be one of the best in the country for quality and efficiency. The Department of Health has for the past two years been undertaking a major research and benchmarking exercise to improve and standardise the quality of primary care commissioning, including that of support services. Of the 19 NHS organisations reviewed, Devon was shown to be one of the best for quality, and the best for efficiency. Its costs for transferring medical records, for example, are less than half the national average.

That Department of Health study is supposed to help develop a national standard or specification for primary care commissioning, so why is the Department pushing PCTs in the south-west to contract out the services when we have not yet seen the results of this important work? The Department’s programme director for primary care commissioning, who is in charge of the work on a national specification, has said that she “cannot envisage” the arrangements that are likely to emerge from her work “being in line with” what is being proposed in Devon and across the south-west. Surely, therefore, it makes sense to wait until the work of the Department’s national commissioning board project team is complete and published before pressing ahead with the contract.

The Secretary of State for Health states in his letter to me of 25 October that decisions are entirely a matter for individual local trusts, but from the conversations that I have had and the documentation that I have seen, it is clear that his Department and the strategic health authority have put considerable pressure on PCTs to sign up to the SBS bid. I have seen a letter from the Department’s commercial director to a PCT chief executive, which basically implies that they have no choice. As a former Health Minister, I know that it is possible for different bits of the Department not always to work in a joined-up way, but it seems extraordinary that the

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commercial division is pushing a policy that would seem to, if not go completely against, at least pre-empt what the primary care commissioning officials are doing.

In spite of the pressure from the centre, some PCTs in the south-west have decided not to go with the SBS bid and to keep the work in-house. Somerset has done that, Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset have recently announced a delay to any decision until they have done a full due diligence assessment, and I understand that Gloucester put up some initial resistance.

The original bid from SBS was to cover the whole of the south-west, but with significant parts of the region either now not signing up to the contract or having second thoughts, I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts about how that will affect the viability of the bid. It must also surely strengthen the arguments for waiting for the outcome of the national specification work, given that the study might recommend a very different solution only for PCTs to discover that they are already bound into a contract with SBS that they cannot change.

What particularly concerns the staff in Exeter and me is the future quality of the service. I have seen figures—I can let the Minister have them if he has not been given sight of them by his officials—that show that the quality of primary care support services that are already run by SBS are worse than those in the south-west and that they have deteriorated since SBS took them over. For example, in the south-west 91% of patient records are transferred within the maximum target time of six weeks, and the east midlands used to boast a similarly good figure but performance has fallen to 76% since SBS took over at the end of 2010. North London was the first and is the only other area where SBS runs the primary care support services, and performance there is just 35%.

The SBS model involves moving some of the work currently done in Devon and the rest of the south-west to India. I have nothing, in principle, against work being done in India. When I book my train tickets to and from Exeter every week, I speak to extremely helpful people in India, but for these particular NHS services, the local knowledge that the staff have built up over many years and the relationships that they have with local GPs and others are vital for resolving problems and ensuring that a system runs safely and efficiently. For example, during last winter’s bad snow, staff from Exeter used Land Rovers to ensure that GP surgeries did not run out of vital supplies.

Our existing service operates a hub and spoke model for the ordering of prescriptions by practices. Suppliers deliver orders to the hub—the primary care support services—which then delivers to the individual practices. Devon primary care support services have two very busy staff members to administer the process from their side, but the NHS SBS bid would have just two administrators across the whole south-west.

The chairman of the Devon local medical committee, which represents GPs in my area, has described the current service as “exemplary” and has told me that GPs and their practices have “severe anxieties” about the proposed change. Just last night, a Devon GP contacted me when she heard I had secured this debate and said:

“I have over the past two years had several causes to ask the Devon primary care support service for brief advice. They clearly have a wealth of knowledge born from years of dealing with these

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queries and I have found the advice to be much more up to date and helpful than the service that I received from their equivalents in the previous PCT where I worked prior to coming to Devon. The support that we receive is invaluable. It allows us to do our jobs rather than spending hours on the telephone and e-mail. The plans to derail this system are unhelpful and counter-productive for the wasted time that will be spent finding information elsewhere.”

I thought that the whole thrust of this Government’s policy was about giving GPs the power and money to commission services as they wished, but here the Government are doing exactly the opposite and ignoring the wishes of local professionals in the process.

Doubts have also been raised about SBS’s reported record in reducing costs. A 2008 report by the Office for Public Management details examples of huge oversights in plans for cost reduction. One member of staff has said that his

“team are as big as they were when SBS was introduced”

because SBS had to re-recruit a full team after its previous job cuts had left the organisation unable to function effectively. The report concluded that

“few if any cost savings were made as a result of the agreement and it is deemed ‘unlikely’ by interviewees and commentators that they ever will”.

Staff in Devon have told me that the draft contract with SBS does not include a lot of their current work. The work will have to be done by someone, so on whom will the costs fall? The staff feel particularly aggrieved that the strategic health authority’s finance director recently visited India to inspect SBS’s work but has not talked to the people who currently provide an excellent service on his own doorstep. I understand that he has also told primary care trust chiefs that SBS represents

“the way forward for the NHS”.

Again, that hardly sounds like encouragement for local decision making.

It has been suggested to me in the past 24 hours that European competition rules might not have been adequately addressed when dealing with the bid. I would be grateful if the Minister went away, examined that point and reassured me in writing, if not in his reply, that both the policy and the process are legally watertight.

We face a fragmented part-privatisation of an important part of the NHS across the south-west, before the Minister’s departmental officials have reported their findings on best practice and a national specification for primary care commissioning. Questions have been raised about the company bidding for the work, in terms of its record on quality and its potential to deliver savings. The Government claim that the decisions are entirely for local PCTs, yet pressure has clearly been applied by some in his Department and the strategic health authority, contrary to everything that the Government claim to support in terms of local commissioning and decision making. There is also a strong feeling that the decision is being rushed through. For example, it appears that staff in Devon are being subjected to a curtailed consultation period, before due diligence work is complete. Surely, consultation with staff should begin after local managers have satisfied themselves that any bid stacks up.

It feels as though loyal and hard-working NHS staff in Devon are being presented with a fait accompli that is being pushed on them for ideological reasons by a Government who are not joined-up. Primary care support services are what keep the wheels of the NHS moving

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smoothly. The quality of local service is at stake, and I urge the Minister, in consultation with senior staff at the regional and local levels, to put the decision on hold, at the very least until the questions and concerns that staff have raised with me and that I have highlighted in this short debate have been addressed satisfactorily.

12.41 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Paul Burstow): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this debate. As a former Health Minister, he has stood up in the Chamber to respond to hon. Members who have raised concerns on behalf of constituents, as he has done thoroughly and thoughtfully today. I appreciate the way in which he presented his case. When he was a Health Minister, I found him to be a constructive and courteous colleague on the occasions on which I dealt with him.

I pay tribute to the hard work done by national health service staff every day of the week, whether in back offices or on the front line in wards. They change lives. It is all too easy to dwell on the things that go wrong and not to pay enough attention to the excellent work that they do. I certainly want to pay attention to that today. This Government are committed to doing all that we can to support front-line staff and ensure that we continue to deliver excellent services to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

I will first address the central issue—the role of NHS shared business services and how it has come to be such an important player in shared services—by referring to the chronology. NHS SBS was established in 2005 after an open competition in accordance with European procurement regulations. I will certainly consider the right hon. Gentleman’s point about procurement law and will write to him if any further issues need to be dealt with. I will confirm the state of play.

The service was established to help to meet efficiency targets set out in the previous Government’s efficiency review, led by Sir Peter Gershon, in 2004. In creating NHS SBS, the last Government brought together two shared financial service centres situated in Leeds and Bristol and introduced private sector capacity and expertise to assist expansion and increase the range of services offered, to deliver the potential efficiencies of such an approach. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s question about his concerns on behalf of staff. As a constituency MP, I too would want to ensure that such concerns were properly aired and that the decision makers involved understood those concerns and properly reflected on and respected them. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as a former Health Minister, will understand that the responsibility for determining how local services are delivered rests with local NHS organisations. I will set out why. Local NHS organisations are in the best position to understand what local people need, how to design shared services to meet the support needs of NHS provider organisations and so on, and how to ensure that the offer available is appropriate and affordable. It would be inappropriate for a Minister to try to micro-manage the details of individual contracts.

In line with that policy, the Government absolutely do not mandate NHS organisations’ use of SBS. That remains a decision for local organisations on the basis of their assessment of the quality and value for money

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that they will receive by letting contracts to SBS. Nevertheless, the Department supports the use of SBS. I will explain how that tension is resolved. As a former Minister, the right hon. Gentleman will have grappled with it himself.

Public sector use of shared services and private sector expertise is in line with the policies of this Government and the last Government, but it absolutely must offer best value for money and meet the required quality standards. Equally, when the previous Government set up SBS, they took a 50% stake, meaning that from day one, the Department has had a duty to promote the venture and create value for the taxpayer. In turn, the Department’s share of SBS profits is returned to the NHS. It is therefore not uncommon for the Department, in undertaking its duty, to correspond with NHS organisations considering the use of NHS SBS in support of using shared services, particularly SBS. Such letters have been consistently provided throughout the existence of SBS, and I have copies of correspondence dating back to October 2008 that relates to the transfer of family health services of the sort that we are debating.

Mr Bradshaw: Does the Minister accept, however, that the original joint venture established by the Labour Government was for finance and accounting, not family health services? The only area in which we allowed SBS to take over the running of family health services was north London, because that service was failing dismally. It does not seem to have improved much since SBS took over, either.

Paul Burstow: My understanding—I will go back and check, and if it is not correct, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman—is that that extension of SBS’s role was a policy decision by the previous Government, and that the Nicholson challenge set in 2009 of making better use of support services by sharing across organisations was identified as an opportunity to realise savings that could then be reinvested in front-line services. I hope that that is a shared goal, even though its execution is open to proper scrutiny and debate.

I reassure the right hon. Gentleman again that, although the Department writes letters of the sort that he has referred to, they are nothing new in the context of promoting that business venture and the return of profits to the NHS. I stress that those decisions are local.

Back in 2007, the National Audit Office considered the potential of NHS SBS and estimated that it could deliver £250 million in savings over 11 years. To date, more than £70 million has been saved, freeing up funds for front-line patient care. As I mentioned, the review of shared services undertaken as part of Sir David Nicholson’s productivity challenge identified how a minimum of £600 million could be saved across England and redirected to support front-line services. The report cites SBS as an example of successful shared service ventures, delivering typical savings of between 20% and 30%.

In the specific case of Devon PCT’s family health services, as the right hon. Gentleman said, SBS provides numerous administrative functions relating to primary care, including patient registration, patient records management and contractor payments. Those functions help the NHS to run more smoothly, and the testimonies that he read out bear witness to the fact that they are valued services.

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The PCT, along with nearby health care commissioners, has been exploring how to save money on administration and management functions without affecting front-line services. To spell out the current situation in relation to the agreement between the south-west and SBS, SBS provided an outline proposal in March this year, followed up with a final proposal in June. At the south-west regional project board, 10 trusts agreed to sign an intention to proceed in September. The intention to proceed is made between the trusts and SBS—there is no contractual relationship in that sense between the Department and SBS—as an agreement to invest the time and effort in undertaking the final element of due diligence, which was one of the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and consultation. It is not, therefore, a commitment to enter into a contract.

Due diligence is a process that runs alongside the contracting process. The due diligence process began formally alongside the final proposals in June and will gather pace following the intention to proceed. As part of this process, efforts are undertaken by both sides to understand the precise details of the proposed arrangements. As part of that process, the final and precise quality, which is an important consideration, and service standards are determined. If, as part of the process, the trusts are not satisfied that the offer from SBS can meet the quality and value standards that they require, they are not committed to entering into an agreement with SBS.

Mr Bradshaw: That is helpful, because my understanding of the situation is that the staff in Devon have been told to expect to be TUPE’d across on 1 December. The consultation for staff is taking place in parallel with the due diligence process, but surely that should wait until the trust itself is satisfied with the quality of the bid, following the due diligence process.

Paul Burstow: It is not uncommon for such processes to run in parallel, which, as the right hon. Gentleman has identified, is what is happening in this case. This is not, however, a conveyor belt that cannot be reversed. The point that I am making is that the due diligence process is not about doing things by rote; it is about making sure that both the taxpayer’s interest and the quality standards of the service are properly protected. It is a legitimate area for local scrutiny and debate, and for challenge by him and other Members who have a concern in the matter.

The TUPE consultation started on 2 November. Extensive discussions will be held with staff and managers. Following the consultation, the organisations will be required to consider the feedback from staff. Again, it is not a rote process, but one that requires decision makers to have proper regard for what they learn from the process. The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned India. I should make it clear that NHS SBS has no call centres for family health services in India. It is envisaged that, under this contracting arrangement, if it goes through, some staff will work in India, but they will not be part of a call centre service.

Only when each of the processes that I have described is complete, and the individual local organisations have concluded that the service offering is in the best interest

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of the local area, will the decision be taken to proceed. Should the proposals be advanced, it is expected that five centres of excellence will be established in the south-west, based in St Austell in Cornwall, Exeter in Devon, Ferndown in Dorset, Brockworth in Gloucestershire and Devizes in Wiltshire. That decision will be a local one made by NHS organisations on the basis of all the facts provided as part of the process that I have set out. The matter is to be decided locally, and those concerned must assure themselves—hence the due diligence process—that the contracts afford the necessary flexibility and quality standards. Indeed, on quality change and the formation of an NHS commissioning board, the contracts are framed in a way that allows such flexibility. I am assured that that should not present an insuperable obstacle to delivering the wider goals.

Mr Bradshaw: I appreciate that, but would it not make all the more sense to hold off signing the contracts until we know what the national picture will be when the commissioning board publishes its findings? I should be grateful if the Minister returned to the Department and found out why the official in charge of this work does not seem to think that the model being pursued in the south-west involving SBS would be compatible with what is likely to emerge from the recommendation of the national commissioning board.

Paul Burstow: I will write to the right hon. Gentleman to amplify why I think that the policy concern is not as great as has been presented, and why the emergence of the NHS commissioning board, with its role in family health services and the commissioning of primary care, provides a model whereby the exploitation of the opportunities for shared services will be even greater than it is now.

In conclusion, local NHS organisations have responsibility for getting value for money and meeting the highest levels of quality. That is true about everything they do, including proposals such as the one under discussion. The coalition Government support the move to shared services, if that decision is made locally and for the right reasons.

This is equally one of the key proposals that will help trusts to meet the quality and productivity challenge that the NHS has faced since 2009. I understand that the proposal for the south-west region aims to deliver operational savings of 32%, with a 23% net saving after the cost of change. By commissioning the service in a different way, it is estimated that the NHS can save in excess of £6 million over four years in the south-west, including £1.6 million in Devon.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is only right for local organisations to look at areas where they can deliver efficiencies and quality and can release money for investment in front-line services. I hope that this debate has gone some way to addressing the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. I will undertake to enter into the correspondence that he has requested. If he has any further questions, I am sure that the Department will want to respond as quickly as it possibly can. I thank him for initiating this debate.

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Schools (Bradford)

12.55 pm

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Thank you for chairing this debate, Mr Sheridan, and I thank the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), for attending. I would like to begin with a quote:

“Funding totalling £337 million has been secured after an outline business case by Bradford Council was approved by Partnership for Schools (PfS), the organisation which administers the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) on behalf of the Government.”

It continues:

“Kath Tunstall, Bradford Council’s strategic director for services to children and young people, said: ‘We are delighted that the final stage of the improvement programme has been given the go ahead.

We will now be able to provide the most up-to-date environment and facilities for all our secondary schools.

Bradford children will be taught in the surroundings and with the technology that their efforts deserve. This is marvellous news.’”

It did, indeed, seem to be marvellous news.

That was the lead story in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus on 7 April 2010, just one month before the general election. What a cruel deceit. It was cynical and mean. At the time, I was a governor of one of the 19 schools in phase 3 of the Bradford BFS programme, and I was pretty sure that it was all too good to be true—I think that many of us felt the same—and so it proved to be. It was an example of the sheer dishonesty of a Government who knew that they were going to lose the forthcoming election, promising the earth in the full knowledge that the new Government, of whatever political complexion, would never be able to deliver the BSF programme. It was shameful.

Unfortunately, the problems that the BSF programme was designed to remedy are still with us today. The reception year population in Bradford is increasing rapidly—in fact, we have one of the fastest-growing young populations in the whole country—which is having a severe impact on school places in our primary schools. Although, nationally, numbers in maintained nursery and state-funded primary schools started to increase in 2010, they have been increasing in Bradford since 2006.

A significant number of our primary schools are now full, particularly in the lower age groups in key stage 1, which will start to impact soon on key stage 2. To overcome the additional demand for places in primary schools, 28 schools—nearly 20% of our primary schools—have increased their published admission numbers. Do not forget that, year on year, we have already asked our schools to increase their numbers, but here we have 28 trying to respond, all in one go, to the increased demand. To accommodate the additional children, the schools have been included in a building expansion programme funded through basic need allocations. Bulge classes had previously been established, but a more permanent solution was required to help schools with their organisation, management of staff and classes, and to enable them to plan ahead. For all schools, an extensive programme of building works to provide additional accommodation incrementally over a seven-year period is required as the larger cohorts progress through the year groups.

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The lack of information on capital allocations beyond 2011-12 means that the building programme has to be broken down into phases. Funding is only secured for phase 1, which will provide additional accommodation to cater for the children up to and including 2012-13. It should be pointed out, however, that a number of schools also have a backlog of maintenance issues. In phase 1, the council cannot address many of those issues due to the limitations of available capital. The figure for the backlog on repairs for primary and secondary is approximately £55 million.

Phase 2, for growing other year group capacity and beyond, will depend on available funding. Future forecasts also identify the need for further additional capacity over and above the current expansion programme. Additional problems have been caused by a reduction in pupil admission numbers at Catholic primary schools proposed by the diocese and governing bodies of voluntary aided schools. The reduction in places in certain schools and the desperate need for additional places is a double whammy. This is not simply an inner-city issue, as it is often portrayed. We are now experiencing difficulties in most areas across the Bradford district.

Although plans to provide additional capacity are in place, potential proposals and approvals of free schools in the district—of which the local authority has no knowledge at any one time—give rise to what can be described as tensions in the planning process, particularly where clear expansion programmes have begun to be delivered and there is a need to continue them through the older year groups.

Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): Is it not true that Bradford has taken a very pragmatic approach to free schools? The local authority and all three parties on the council have decided to support the principle. There might be arguments about each other’s schools, but free schools will be members of the family of the wider school population. However, there are issues that affect that wider school population.

Mr Ward: I have read some comments to that effect. They are not actually accepted in principle by the Liberal Democrat group, but I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. My point about free schools is about the difficulties they create for a strategic view of school admission numbers across the district.

We are also experiencing significant pressure in the secondary sector, particularly lower age groups. Numbers in secondary schools in Bradford started to increase in 2008 and are forecast to continue rising. As I understand it, that is against the national trend. Recent statistics on pupil projections identify state-funded secondary schools showing a decline since 2004, and they are expected to decline even further until 2016. That is not the case in Bradford.

Previously, there were plans to increase capacity at a number of secondary schools—I mentioned 19 in phase 3—through the BSF programme. However, the cessation of the BSF programme means that that route is not available. Alternative plans are being developed. The current approach, where possible—we have done this with our schools over a number of years with some success, and we have to pay tribute to the head teachers and governing bodies of schools for accommodating it—has been to request schools to admit year 7 pupil

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numbers above their pupil admission numbers. However, that is not a sustainable solution. It can only be done where there are gaps later up in the school years, and it soon exceeds capacity.

With the basic need allocation for the district fully committed to the expansion of primary schools at this stage, no funding has been secured to implement any plans for secondary expansions. It is estimated that, in addition to any expansions of existing schools, two further 1,000-place schools will be required in the next three to four years. Those two new secondary schools are required in Bradford in addition to the capacity potentially being introduced through known proposed free schools in the district—they are over and above. There is a tension between current place planning and proposed expansion programmes with the unknown quantity of free school places. We now have five free schools in Bradford and we do not know what will become available in the future. That creates the potential—perversely and inadvertently—to develop overprovision in certain areas.

As previously stated, we have information on capital allocations up to 2011-12 only. In the past, we had three-year allocations. The most recent announcement for capital allocations for 2011-12 was for one year only. Failure to be able to plan over a three-year period has led to considerable problems, such as the inefficient use of resources. Capital schemes have been broken down into smaller phases, which are proving more costly than larger schemes. On the ability to complete schemes on time, due to the late announcement of funding—I believe that there were big headlines in the Telegraph and Argus last week—it has proved difficult to contract and mobilise building contractors to complete programmes in time for the beginning of the new academic year. Hundreds of school days were lost recently as a result of schools opening late. On long-term planning, schools are finding it extremely challenging to plan ahead in terms of space, resources and staffing.

The only capital resource provided by the Department for Education for additional accommodation is basic need funding. That is based on the need for additional teaching space and is insufficient to deal with existing inadequacies of accommodation, or the provision of other important spaces required for the successful operation of a school—play space, dining space, space for whole-school gatherings, community space and so on. The indications from the James review are that space requirements are likely to be reduced, which is also a serious concern.

The methodology used by the Department to determine the allocation of basic need funding to authorities is based on the local 2011 school capacity and forecasting information return, which only focuses on a five-year forecast. Basic need pressure across the secondary school estate will only realistically become apparent by the end of that forecast period and will require addressing in the time frame of this funding announcement.

Bradford’s very welcome £7.4million allocation towards its basic needs will, I am afraid, be insufficient to cover the pressure on pupil places across both the primary and secondary school estate. In addition—I have referred to this—there are significant backlog maintenance requirements to bring existing accommodation up to suitable standards across Bradford’s existing school estate. Basic need funding is not provided to address this issue.

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Although a new programme, the priority school building programme, was announced in July to deal with the most serious cases, only a limited number of schools in Bradford qualified to bid for that funding, given the criteria that were set. Importantly, none of the primary schools being expanded qualified, while some of the smaller primaries, as well as a smaller secondary school, Queensbury, did meet those criteria but declined to take part because of fears about the affordability of the private finance initiative deal on offer. Should the six secondary submissions to the PSBP programme—Aire Valley, Belle Vue boys’ school, Carlton Bolling, Oakbank and the two new schools—be rejected by the Department for Education, pressure on pupil places throughout the secondary estate will not be dealt with and the authority might well face difficulties in fulfilling its statutory duty.

As an aside, I can comment on one of the schools that I have mentioned, Carlton Bolling, where I am a former chair of governors. Although the backlog maintenance is only 30.71% of the total costs of a new build, the school currently has sections that are structurally unsound. In fact, some areas of the school are roped off and unusable because they are unsafe. Also bear in mind that the other schools were part of the reorganisation programme, which was when they most recently had investment, but at Carlton Bolling the previous reinvestment occurred as the result of a fire. The fire damage, however, was not to the classroom area but to the sports and dining room areas, so the heavy investment during that time was in the non-classroom parts of the school. The classroom area has not therefore received substantial investment and includes the part that I referred to as structurally unsound.

The purpose of the debate is to explain the need for support for Bradford schools, which are in dire need of capital investment, and to emphasise the scale of the issue. It is incredibly difficult to plan strategically for school places in Bradford, not simply because of the considerations that I have presented but because of the enormous difficulty faced by the council in meeting its statutory responsibility to provide the right number of school places in exactly the right areas, given the short-term capital allocations and a highly turbulent and mobile school population.

Recently, in questions to the Secretary of State, I pointed out that 60% of the children in a year 3 classroom that I had visited were not together in reception. Go to many areas, even in Bradford, and 90% of those who come into reception go on to the same secondary school. Our turbulent and mobile school population makes the dynamics of forecasting for future places very difficult. In addition, we have free schools supported in their desire to set up when and where they choose, the freedom of popular schools to expand their pupil admission numbers without having to consult their local education authority and school fears about the private finance initiative. I will welcome the Minister’s comments on such crucial issues.

1.14 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing the debate. Clarity on how the Government are funding and ensuring fairness and choice for parents and their children throughout the country is important. The debate

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is particularly timely, as the academies and free schools programmes gather pace and as we announce our additional basic need allocations for those areas deemed to be most in need, which include Bradford.

Bradford is playing an active part in the academies programme, with seven schools already open as academies and another 10 in the pipeline. Bradford has 27 outstanding schools, which offers an excellent basis on which to continue to drive up standards and school-to-school collaboration. Currently, two free schools in Bradford are open, both of which directly support local needs. The Rainbow free school aims to improve education quality for children in central Bradford and to reach out to children in challenging circumstances. The positive local reaction to the Kings science academy was reflected in a high volume of applications for places in its first year.

My hon. Friend mentioned five free schools altogether, and a further three are due to open in September next year, helping to provide new school places where they are most needed. However, I accept his point that the need goes beyond the supply provided by the new schools. What has been achieved is educational transformation, delivering professional autonomy and recognising the expertise of teachers and the best leadership in the country. That is what we hope to achieve through the academies and the free schools programmes. None the less, real challenges face Bradford, with its increasing school population and the capital expenditure needed to repair and maintain its schools.

My hon. Friend was right to point out the political dishonesty of announcing a major piece of school funding one month before there had to be a general election and when everyone knew that there simply was not the sum of money needed to provide such a scale of school building in any part of the country, let alone in one particular area. The Chief Secretary wrote on leaving office that “there is no money”. It was political dishonesty of the worst kind to make those promises in Bradford and elsewhere, writing blank cheques when there was no money to support them.

We are committed to providing practical support to enable Bradford to manage its pressures. On school places, the Secretary of State’s 3 November announcement on capital allocation included a further £500 million for basic need, in addition to the £800 million announced for the same financial year to reduce pressure on school places. As my hon. Friend said, that led to £7.4 million for Bradford, in addition to the basic need allocation of £10.3 million in 2011-12, announced last year. That is on top of the £45.9 million of capital grant for Bradford in 2011-12, which covers capital needs including maintenance.

On school buildings, the priority schools building programme, which was announced in July 2011, targets those schools that are in the worst condition or have severe basic needs. Four Bradford schools have applied, one of which is Carlton Bolling; as my hon. Friend pointed out, parts of that school are structurally unsound and cordoned off from use by pupils and staff. Each application will be assessed fairly on its merits and against the criteria. Once all applications have been assessed, the successful schools will be announced, which should happen by the end of the year.

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On disadvantaged pupils, in 2011-12 the Government are providing a pupil premium of £9.1 million for more than 18,000 pupils in schools throughout Bradford. I was taken by the point made by my hon. Friend in oral questions concerning the churn of pupils in his schools—60% of the year 3 pupils had not been at that particular primary school in reception. However, we must still provide a high quality of education for those children. The pupil premium of £488 per pupil this year will increase over the next four years. We are doubling the total expenditure on the pupil premium next year, from £600 million to £1.2 billion, and it will rise to £2.4 billion by 2014-15. I agree with my hon. Friend that at all stages the processes of how decisions are made and how money will be spent to deliver real impact must be clear.

My hon. Friend raised his concern that local authority budgets will be top-sliced to pay for the academies and free schools programme. In the context of the pressures highlighted in the debate, I understand that concern, but I hope I can reassure him that no school, parent or child should be disadvantaged financially by academies and free schools. Far from disadvantaging other schools and breaking up the system, they will improve parental choice and ensure that all schools aim to raise their standards.

LAC SEG—the snappy acronym for the local authority central spend equivalent grant—enables schools converting to academy status to pay for those services that they previously received free from the local authority. To avoid the taxpayer paying twice for those services, the element paid to academies needs to be recouped from local authorities. How that recoupment is calculated and top-sliced from local authority grants is subject to consultation, and the Government will respond to that consultation and make an announcement in due course. The key is to ensure that local authority-maintained schools and academies are funded fairly.

The academies and free schools programme aims to meet demand for school places and to increase choice for parents and children. Our commitment is to ensure that parents and their children have a choice of school places, whether in maintained schools, academies or free schools. On performance, failure to secure high-quality education for pupils will not be accepted. The Government are committed to tackling underperformance. It is unacceptable that more than 200 primary schools have been under the floor standard in their key stage 2 results for five years or more and that more than half of those schools have been underperforming for at least 10 years. A further 500 or so have been below the acceptable minimum standard for three of the past four years. Those schools have let down repeated cohorts of children. We are starting work, as an urgent priority, on turning around the 200 schools nationally that have most consistently underperformed by finding new academy sponsors for them, so that they can reopen from September 2012. We want to work closely with the schools involved and the local authorities to ensure that that happens.

We have collective responsibility to make education provision more effective and efficient within the current economic climate. To do so, we must increase choice for parents and their children, so that they have the highest possible quality of education provision to choose from. Academies and free schools are a key part of that

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reform, but every education institution has a role to play. The security and predictability of front-line school budgets will be vital to that success.

My hon. Friend spoke about the importance of being able to plan for more than one year at a time. In December 2011, there will be another announcement on capital for future years, to address that planning point. We must ensure that there is up-to-date information, so that funding is targeted to the right areas. We are gathering that data now, so that funding can be targeted as accurately as possible on where the need lies.

We have announced that capital spending will be £15.9 billion over the four years of the spending review period, and I assure my hon. Friend again that no money is being diverted away from other schools to academies. Our commitment within the spending review is clear—to protect school funding in the system at flat cash per pupil—because even when funding is tight, as it is with the current imperative to tackle the country’s budget deficit, we realise that it is essential that buildings and equipment are properly maintained to ensure that health and safety standards are met and to prevent an ever-increasing backlog of decaying buildings that would be difficult and expensive to deal with.

We have learned the lessons of the private finance initiative contracts entered into by the previous Administration, but it is important that in being able to deliver the necessary capital expenditure we transfer some of the risk of maintaining buildings to facility management operations that ensure that those buildings do not deteriorate. That is the essence of the PFI arrangement.

Mr Ward: The concern of the smaller schools—five primary schools and one small secondary school—seems to be affordability. Does the Minister have any words of reassurance for such schools?

Mr Gibb: I do not want to give assurance on a particular proposal, but in general terms schools must maintain their buildings, and when looking at whether something is affordable, the calculations often omit looking at what a school will have to spend on maintenance over the next five, 10 or 20 years. When assessing the value for money of a PFI arrangement, it is important to do just that, and not simply to compare the cost of building a school with a design-and-build arrangement

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within the PFI arrangements. It is important to take into account those long-term maintenance costs.

By stopping wasteful and bureaucratic Building Schools for the Future projects we have been able to allocate £1.4 billion to local areas to prioritise their maintenance needs, and that includes £195 million of devolved formula capital, which has been allocated directly to schools to use in line with their priorities. On top of that, we have allocated £800 million of basic need funding for 2011-12, which is twice the previous annual support, despite the fact that we are dealing with a very difficult budget deficit. As recent events in Europe have proved, we took the right decisions early on in this Administration to help to tackle that deficit.

Earlier this year, the Secretary of State announced an addition to the £800 million of a further £500 million to provide extra school places where there is greatest pressure caused by the increasing pupil population—that makes a total of £1.3 billion—because we recognise the importance of ensuring that every pupil has a place when they start school, whether primary or secondary school.

Future allocations and the management of funding for 2012-13 to 2014-15 will be informed by the outcome of the capital review, but the Secretary of State has already indicated that local authorities may expect the headline amounts of capital available in future years to be broadly in line with those allocated when we first announced the figures for 2011-12.

As well as radically reviewing how capital funding is allocated and spent in future, the Government have renewed their focus on finding an academy solution for the weakest primary schools in the country. In that respect, Bradford will be supported by the Department for Education in challenging underperformance and securing improved performance in schools that are struggling. The introduction of the academies and free schools programme should be viewed as an additional tool in the arsenal of local authorities as they seek to eradicate any basic need pressures they are encountering. We believe that giving those involved in education the freedom, flexibility and support they need to shape the future of our schools and opening up opportunities for others to enter the education sector will offer an education system to meet the needs of local communities.

1.28 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Basement Developments

1.30 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this short debate. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) is also joining us. I know he has concerns about basement developments, too.

I have been conscious of the issue over the past year or two, having received constituency correspondence on it, and I was aware that the matter had been raised by amenity associations in various boroughs in central London. However, it was not until I accepted an invitation to see one of the larger basement developments in NW8 a couple of weeks ago that it really came home to me just what an extraordinary change we are seeing in some of our inner city communities.

I saw a basement excavation stretching between Hamilton terrace and the mews behind it in St John’s Wood. It seemed that the excavation was the size of an aircraft carrier—absolutely vast. It was far greater in scale than I had expected. Not only was this enormous excavation going on, but lorries that were turning into the mews to take away the soil were pounding away. There was noise and filth in the air. The small mews was already buckled by the pressure of the lorries coming into the street, which was not designed for the kind of traffic that was being imposed on it. It was vividly brought home to me how disruptive such basement developments are. They are an imposition on many residents in areas where they have become such a striking phenomenon over the past couple of years.

We all know that building works are a hazard of urban living. We live in a growing city. Wherever we live in London or other cities, at some stage we are likely to experience building works. It is right that we must endure some of this as our infrastructure is updated and as much-needed new housing development is fitted into our growing cities. However, if we look at some of the plans for basement developments that are now spreading all over inner London, we are not talking about infrastructure development or new house building. In many cases, basement developments—sometimes double basements going down two levels—stretch not just under the footprint of the house or even one or two thirds beyond the footprint of the building itself, but through an entire garden. Those gardens are sometimes substantial, because they are in our more prosperous neighbourhoods. Plans include underground cinemas, swimming pools, gymnasiums and gun rooms. Delightful as that may be for residents fortunate enough to live in such properties, it is hard to accuse those who object of restricting the necessary growth and infrastructure development of our city.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I agree with what the hon. Lady says. The Knightsbridge Association in my constituency, among others, has made it clear that it is not opposed in principle to the provision of basements beneath existing houses, but it is concerned about aspects of the design, construction and usage. What applies in the hon. Lady’s seat similarly applies in mine. We are dealing primarily with terraced houses. As in many other parts of London, they are 19th-century

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houses, built as terraces of varying widths and with a number of different storeys. They have proved remarkably adaptable over the past century to changing housing needs as well as changing tenure and household size. Does the hon. Lady share my view that in recent years almost unprecedented pressure has been brought to bear, along the lines that she has pointed out, to attach a bathroom to every bedroom and find space for home cinemas and gymnasiums at subterranean levels? That can cause real problems: it is not just the soil but the disruption to which she has already alluded.

Ms Buck: I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, has outlined, and I will touch on a few of those points.

We know that, for the most part, basement developments are not opposed in principle, but their scale and the speed with which such major developments are now spreading over large parts of inner London is a major concern for neighbourhoods. I have already mentioned what I saw myself in terms of the scale of some of the building works and the disruption and damage that they do. The damage to neighbours, streets and pavements is uncompensated. It can become a burden on the local authority that has responsibility for mending pavements, or it can fall on residents in the case of some of the unadopted roads and mewses. None the less, the damage is not compensated in any way.

The sheer scale and number of basement developments means that the noise is incessant, even when builders keep within the considerate builders code—sometimes they do; sometimes they do not—because the works are so substantial and prolonged. As my neighbour, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, has said, many of the properties are terraced—substantial, certainly—so there is no buffer zone between the residential properties affected.

I heard a sad story of one resident in St John’s Wood who is suffering from cancer. Living in the middle of two properties, they had to endure the noise and nuisance of a major basement development on one side. They got through that particular nightmare—it is always difficult living next to building works—and then found that an application for a basement development had been made for the property on the other side.

Sir Hugh Cortazzi, a local resident who I am delighted to see has turned up to listen to this short debate, has been corresponding with me on this issue. He describes his experiences as follows:

“The excavation of the basement and garden at an adjoining property has been continuing since September last year and vast quantities of earth have been removed via trucks and skips. The pollution and noise are extremely disruptive but they will also cause damage to the environment, alter buildings in a conservation area and could have adverse effects on the water table and drainage in an area built on streams which already suffers from subsidence”.

An editorial in The Lion, the parish magazine of St Mark’s church, Hamilton terrace, added:

“The digging and tunnelling not only devastates existing gardens but damages the water balance and root systems in surrounding properties...hidden waterways have suddenly come to light, causing unexpected flooding...we must ask ourselves whether those with millions to spend should be allowed to endanger the quality of life for their neighbours by embarking on developments that could damage the area for years to come”.

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Responses to the Westbourne neighbourhood survey included these findings:

“We have been through hell and beyond not with a basement development but steelbox frames underpinning our back extension against our wall—2 years of hell...and we cannot open our front door...We are about to be sent to an early grave—works are now being applied for next door on the other side”.

Last night, I received an e-mail from another constituent in Hamilton terrace. They asked whether I

“would also look at the gigantic building operations at…Hamilton terrace for which the application was for minor alterations. The actual operations are reaching out almost two thirds into the garden, and I have complained to WCC without receiving an acknowledgment or an answer. Last week when I was home briefly…I could not lock or unlock the basement door into the garden for the second time in two months because of the movements caused by the huge digging works…So for the second time in that period I had to call a carpenter to repair and adjust the door. On top of all that I have been suffering endless dirt and dust from the building works apart from the noise which makes serious work…during the day utterly impossible.”

Mark Field: Some solutions are in place. There is the issue of planning law, and it is vital that local authorities produce an annual public report, so that we are aware how many applications for this type of development have been approved. Could one further provision be a highway licence? We must ensure that the streets function normally, so where licences have already been issued—as in the cases to which the hon. Lady referred—it should be possible to bar further works for a period of time and stop the intense disruption that has taken place. Things such as skips and builders licences should be charged for by the day, just like a parking meter. That would provide a strong incentive to minimise the disruption to people’s lives, to which the hon. Lady referred.

Ms Buck: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will touch on those issues in a moment.

Westminster city council—the authority with which I am concerned, although I know that other inner-London authorities deal with similar issues—states in its policy guidance:

“The environmental impact of subterranean development also has potential to be significant and result in increased carbon emissions, due to additional requirements for lighting, ventilation and pumps. By limiting the extent of basement developments and requiring them to meet sustainable design standards, negative environmental impacts may be reduced.”

We know, however, that due to a degree of uncertainty about current planning guidance, some local authorities—Westminster in this case—are anxious about their ability to block developments.

I have mentioned the devastating impact of some developments experienced by neighbours and local communities, but we must also remember the sheer scale of some of the work—that took me by surprise, and I am indebted to the work of the St John’s Wood Society, South East Bayswater Residents Association and others, for their mapping of such developments. The St John’s Wood Society has identified no fewer than 86 basement applications in that corner of NW8 between October 2010 and September 2011, plus 10 repeat excavations; Hamilton Terrace alone has 13 applications.

In the Westbourne Neighbourhood Association survey, to which I have already referred, 47 local residents said that their area contained local developments of the kind under discussion. When asked, “Did party wall

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agreements broadly cover your building repair costs?” three quarters answered no. There was overwhelming support for greater legislative protection, an enforceable code of practice and greater powers for local authorities to block or restrict developments where necessary.

Mark Field: Does the hon. Lady agree with the Knightsbridge Association, which wrote to me before the debate? Its view is that

“provision should be made in party wall agreements for a bond to be put up by the developer or an insurance taken out to ensure that neighbours are able to obtain redress where problems are caused.”

As the hon. Lady is aware, all too often, the offending party may not be a UK national, and it can be difficult for those who have lost out financially—often quite substantially—to secure the redress that they deserve.

Ms Buck: That is a good point, which deserves to be explored, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. Neighbours affected by such developments often find that work is done by companies or people who are not UK residents and that those who live at the property will not necessarily be there for a long time or are not in full-time occupation. People’s ability to obtain leverage during the building works, or redress afterwards, is limited.

The problem has increased over the past two or three years and is impacting negatively on local communities and individuals. Nobody seems able to protect residents affected by such developments, whether it is the local authority or organisations such as the Grosvenor or Cadogan estates, or the John Lyon’s Trust, which manages some of the properties in St John’s Wood conservation area. Such agencies do what they can by way of guidance and a voluntary code of conduct for subterranean development, but it is understandably difficult for them to act where the planning authority cannot. Everyone is keenly aware of the amounts of money behind these developments, which makes opposing them risky in the absence of clear Government guidance.

The previous Government amended the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 in 2008, and removed the volume restriction that had previously limited home owners to developments that did not exceed a fixed percentage of their floor area. The 2008 guidance seemed to confirm that basement excavations should be permitted, although subject to conditions and restrictions intended to limit the impact on others. I am not sure, however, that the pace and scale of change was—or could have been—foreseen in 2008, and three years on, the system is obviously not working. If the legislative framework is inadequate, especially given the size and number of subterranean developments, what do the Government think can be done to rectify the situation?

I seek clarification on whether the current unsatisfactory situation results from a correct interpretation of the 2008 legislation, which may therefore require further amendment, or whether the legislation has been interpreted wrongly. In the latter case, can the issue be resolved by an additional consultation process to correct and restore the original intent of the measure? I believe that that

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point was raised with Ministers by representatives of the St John’s Wood Society and others, at a recent meeting, and it would be good to have an answer from the Minister.

If, however, the developments are based on a correct interpretation of the 2008 guidance, what options are now available? The hon. Gentleman mentioned proposals by the Knightsbridge Association and other amenity societies. I will not go into too much detail, but those proposals include the removal of permitted development rights to allow the implementation of stronger safeguards to protect neighbours and local neighbourhoods, and better guidance for inspectors at appeal. It is frequently felt that inspectors are not familiar with the conservation areas most affected, given the nature of central London where the basement developments are being built, and that they are not necessarily best placed to make their objections known. Other suggestions include updating the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 to allow more control over construction and compensation for residents of adjoining properties. That could include allowing bonds to be set up against the development. Existing building regulations could be reviewed to ensure that the interests of conservation areas are considered when assessing the development application.

Given the proposed amendments to the Localism Bill in the other place, it would be helpful to know what scope the Minister thinks has been provided for local authorities and residents to protect themselves against excessive subterranean developments and the combined impact of multiple developments in a small area. What can the Minister offer by way of stronger and clearer guidance to the small number of inner-London authorities where almost all such developments are taking place?

This is not nimbyism or an objection to new infrastructure or housing developments—indeed, the St John’s Wood Society played a constructive role in the future development of the King’s Troop barracks. It is, however, a response to a real and worsening problem that was probably unforeseeable only a few short years ago. Like Chelsea and Bayswater, St John’s Wood may be a largely prosperous area, but its residents have the same right as anyone else to be protected from unacceptable noise, nuisance and disruption that prevent them from the quiet enjoyment of their homes. We have a shared interest in protecting the urban environment and the character of our residential neighbourhoods, which contribute to making London the city that we love so much.

Mark Field: I thank the hon. Lady for an excellent speech. She will appreciate that we work on a bipartisan basis, putting the interests of our constituents first. She did not address this issue directly, but James Wright, chairman of the Belgravia Residents Association suggested, with some validity, that basements are often developed by non-resident, non-UK taxpayers, for the benefit of a single wealthy individual and at significant cost to the environment and community, as highlighted by the hon. Lady. Furthermore, extensive damage is caused to roads, and repairs are often paid for by the taxpayer, because the developer is not accountable for that. There are also

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concerns about the loss of viable gardens and mature trees because of basement developments, particularly those that go deeper than two storeys.

Ms Buck: I think that I covered most of those points in my contribution, but the hon. Gentleman is right. Those living next to such developments should not have to suffer the disruption and upheaval that now takes place at a relentless pace, given the scale and number of developments under way. Residents, taxpayers and local authorities should not be expected to foot the bill for damage and disruption inflicted by such developments on a number of our neighbourhoods. Through available vehicles such as the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 or planning guidance, it is clearly time to say that something has gone wrong over the past two or three years and that firmer, stronger controls must be introduced to protect people’s interests.

1.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate and I acknowledge the very constructive interventions and support that she has had from my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field).

This is an important debate about planning and basement development. It raises important issues, not for the first time in relation to planning, about balancing sustainable development with individual rights, and I will happily do my best to respond. The issues have been well set out by the hon. Lady. She is particularly concerned about problems arising from home owners’ wishes to increase the size and value of their home by extending the property through the excavation of new basement rooms. I recognise that there can be a problem with such development. It tends to occur in a fairly limited geographical area, predominantly in parts of central London, as we have heard. I am also aware that the cause for concern is often not the completed basement, but the disruption that can be caused during the construction phase. That is precisely what was graphically described by the hon. Lady.

This is quite a complex issue, because it covers many aspects of both the planning process and the construction process, including concerns about noise and general disturbance and issues about the consistency and effectiveness of enforcement. There is not necessarily, therefore, a single silver bullet that can deal with the problem, but there are existing powers and good practice available to tackle it, and I will endeavour to set those out.

It is important to bear it in mind that the planning system is designed to consider the impact of a development once complete, and of course it is often the case that subterranean developments, once complete, have little visual impact. The system is essentially about land use and visual impacts. What we are talking about today is generally an extension to an existing acceptable land use—a dwelling house. In the end, its visible impact will be limited, but I do understand that that does not help the people experiencing the disturbance during its construction. However, although there are some limitations,

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people often regard the planning system as the most reliable route for alerting a local community that a development is proposed—we are all familiar with the requirement to put up notices and so on—which can then act as a trigger for wider engagement on how any development will take place.

It might be helpful if I describe how the planning system deals with subterranean developments and the controls available. A planning application is likely to be necessary for a substantial new and deep basement, but as I think the hon. Lady conceded, that will depend on the size of the existing property. It generally depends on the size of the extension in relation to the original size of the house, as is well known. None the less, where permitted development rights grant planning permission without the need for an application, a local planning authority can consult on using the powers available to it to ensure that the proposals are brought back under its control through the planning process. In other words, it is possible to issue an article 4 direction—that is article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995—which removes the permitted development rights in relation to the proposed development. In those circumstances, an application must be made in the normal way.

Local authorities are already required to consult neighbours and other interested parties on planning applications, and we already advocate pre-application engagement between applicants and neighbours. Local authorities can use locally prepared planning policies to set the standards by which planning applications for subterranean development will be assessed. In addition, local authorities are able to produce guidance that can outline matters such as submission requirements and the standards that development will need to achieve. Our proposals to introduce neighbourhood planning provide further opportunities to fine-tune the detail to reflect what may be particular concerns in particular neighbourhoods of London or other major cities. Local authorities can already require applicants to ensure that their planning applications are accompanied by a construction method statement and require such a statement to be prepared and signed off by a chartered civil or structural engineer. Those methods can deal with some of the matters raised.

Ms Buck: Perhaps the Minister is coming to this point, but one of the grave concerns of residents in places such as St John’s Wood, Chelsea and so on is that, although each individual development can be close to unbearable, the compounded effect of, say, 13 developments in one street in St John’s Wood is absolutely intolerable. What powers does the local authority have to consider the compounded effect of numerous developments, rather than each individual one on its merits?

Robert Neill: As a matter of planning law, local authorities can have regard to cumulative impacts and they can attach planning conditions to the permissions to ensure that developments meet the standards set for such development. Of course, they have to consider each of those on a case-by-case basis, but it is well established in the case law that cumulative impacts can, in the proper circumstances, be a material planning consideration.

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That is the position as far as planning law is concerned. I will also consider building control, because the two are closely interlinked. It is likely that subterranean development work would be required to meet the Building Regulations 2010. Therefore the person in control of the works—from what I have heard, I imagine that that would be the contractor in these cases—will either have to submit plans or give a notice to the local authority building control department about the development. That enables the works to be inspected by a building inspector on behalf of the local authority. The building inspector will have to be satisfied that the basement structure complies with the relevant requirements. It is fair to say that much of the building regulations concentrates on the safety of those working on the site. I do not think that that is suggested as the primary issue in this case, but it is worth bearing in mind. The building regulations are also concerned with ensuring that nothing is done to impair the stability of the building during the construction process. Again, that can be a worry for neighbours.

Work would also need to be carried out in accordance with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and various other related health and safety measures. Regulation 31 of the 2007 regulations requires steps to be taken to ensure that an excavation is safe both for those within the building and for neighbours.

The noise and other sources of potential nuisance, such as dust and deposits, that we have heard about can be dealt with through the statutory nuisance regime set out in the Environmental Protection Act 1990. In addition, the specific issue of noise from construction sites can be dealt with through the powers in the Control of Pollution Act 1974.

Mark Field: The big concern that many of our residents have, whether this is on grounds of planning, building regulations or environmental protection, is that ultimately they are often up against an applicant who is incredibly wealthy—who has very deep pockets—and can bypass all of those. I am talking about the lack of the cumulative robustness that is required in this whole area to ensure that we do not have a David and Goliath situation between a developer wanting to drive ahead and, obviously, add great value to his property through substantial works along the lines that we have described, which are incredibly disruptive, and a local authority whose hands are tied behind its back because of what are obviously very inadequate protections or notional protections.

Robert Neill: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but perhaps it is not entirely fair to say that the controls are inadequate. There is without doubt a fairly new challenge because of the technology and the type of building that we have only fairly recently seen. However, there are powers, if they are robustly enforced.

Ms Buck rose—

Robert Neill: May I just make this point? The Control of Pollution Act 1974 enables issues such as the equipment type, the hours of working and acceptable noise levels to be stipulated, so there is a control there, if it is robustly enforced.

Ms Buck: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; we are about to run out of time. Will he either mention briefly the scope for looking at the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 in particular, as per the proposals that the

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hon. Gentleman and I have outlined, or meet us separately, possibly with representatives of the local amenity societies, to consider what action might be available under that set of powers?

Robert Neill: Certainly. The 1996 Act was considered in relation to the Localism Bill. As time is short, perhaps I will write to the hon. Lady, setting out the views

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expressed in the other House. We can then consider the matter if she wishes to make further representations. I think that that is the fairest way to do justice to her and her constituents—

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).