HC Deb 26 April 1994 vol 242 cc216-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

11.11 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise an issue that has caused my constituents and me considerable concern in recent months —indeed, for the past year or so.

Let me put the issue in perspective. Over the past 20 years, my constituency has become the youngest, fastest-growing constituency not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom, with the possible exception of Milton Keynes—and, as the Minister will realise, Milton Keynes has the advantage of being a new town with a development corporation.

When I won my seat in 1983, Gordon's electorate was 65,737; this year it is 84,074—an increase of 18,337, or 27.9 per cent. No other constituency in the country has recorded an increase of that scale. Even since the last election, the growth has been 2,973, or 3.37 per cent., in just over two years.

During that time, we have benefited from prosperity. In 1991, the census year, our per capita income was £11,430 —second only to London's. For a number of years, our unemployment has been the lowest in the United Kingdom. However, recent trends in the area are slightly disturbing: over the past three years, unemployment in Gordon has risen by 199 per cent., more than anywhere else in the UK. Rationalisation in the oil industry—and, I have to say, the Government's adverse tax changes—have clearly played a part in that.

In 1991, Grampian's gross domestic product was £5,893 million, representing 1.2 per cent. of the UK total. That means that by now—in the current year—the total Government tax take from the region must exceed £3 billion a year, and that figure excludes oil revenues. When she was Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher was very fond of fighting for the return of what she called "our money" from the European Community; I believe that we in the north-east of Scotland have a case for advancing a similar argument. We make a substantial contribution, and I am not at all sure that we get a fair return for it.

It is true that, in the early years of oil development, an additional infrastructure allowance was made available to the north-east; but that has long since ceased, while population growth continues unabated. Between 1989 and 1992, the Scottish population grew by 0.4 per cent., but Grampian's grew by 3.8 per cent. The number of pupils in local education authority schools in Scotland grew by 1.9 per cent. between September 1989 and 1993, compared with a growth of 4.2 per cent. in Grampian.

The 1991 census showed that, in Gordon district, which is part of my constituency, 23.6 per cent. of the population were aged under 15, compared with a Scottish average of 20.2 per cent. The figure for the whole constituency is not available, but it is probably higher. Added to that, the area continues to have a significant inward migration of families with school-age children.

Since 1976, 10 new primary schools have been opened in Gordon constituency, as well as four new academies —Westhill, Dyce, Kemnay and Oldmachar. The growth of the school population continues at the same rate, meaning that we need to expand the capacity of existing schools, and that we will almost certainly need another new academy in the very near future.

Grampian regional council estimates that, to keep up with this demand in terms comparable with the past, it will require a capital investment programme for the whole region of about £12 million to £13 million per year, compared with the £6.5 million per annum allowed by the Scottish Office.

This year, four academies in my constituency have school rolls above their notional capacity. Alford academy has a roll of 552, which is forecast to rise to 564 in 1996, against a notional capacity of 532. Westhill academy has a roll of 887, which is forecast to rise to 934 by 1996, against a notional capacity of 686. Its promised extension has been postponed for a further two years.

Oldmachar academy in Bridge of Don has been roll-capped at 1,087 and it is forecast that the school population will rise to 1,245 by 1996. No permanent extension is planned, and the school provides no community education.

Under the greatest pressure is Ellon academy, whose school board meeting I attended last week. It is the largest school in the Grampian region, and the fourth largest in Scotland. The current roll is 1,626, which is forecast to rise to 1,678 by 1996, against a notional capacity of 1,645— and on a split site which brings special problems.

The education authority estimates that the requirements of the new curriculum effectively reduce the capacity of any school by between 10 per cent. and 14 per cent. In these four schools alone, that means 400 to 500 places, or a total shortfall of between 825 and 985 places in 1996. This pressure is immediate, and it requires action now. It does not take any account of the forecast requirement for 3,000 extra houses currently being discussed in the regional structure plan.

We need to commit further funds for extensions to existing schools now. We need the equivalent of one extra academy now, and the structure plan—whether it is based on a new settlement or the expansion of existing settlements—requires a further new academy.

In addition, with local government reorganisation around the corner, it should also be noted that 750 pupils currently resident in Gordon and scheduled to be in the new Aberdeenshire go to schools in Aberdeen city. If the city wishes to reserve those places for its own pupils in the future, clearly a third academy will be required for the pupils so displaced. Of course, no pupil will be required to move schools, but those currently in primary school may not end up at the academy to which they now expect to go.

One new academy is needed immediately, and probably two more will be needed in the next five years. Planning and budgeting for that should be taking place now. If a new academy costs about £11 million, as has been estimated, clearly a capital consent for the whole of Grampian of £6.5 million per year is inadequate.

As it is, four out of six secondary schools in the Gordon district have temporary classrooms housing 800 pupils at any one time. Temporary accommodation is in use at both Bridge of Don schools, raising the total number of pupils in temporary classrooms in the constituency at any one time to about 1,000. Temporary classrooms do nothing but provide short-term relief. In fact, they increase the pressure on the common facilities which were not designed for the extra numbers.

The situation is most acute at Ellon, where the new academy, built for 1,000 pupils, provides the common facilities for 1,600, criss-crossing a busy road. This also squeezes out other community groups which are desperate for space.

So far, I have identified only the problems of secondary schools, but a number of primary schools have space problems, and there is also controversy about nursery education.

The most acute problems are at Ellon primary school, Westhill and Alford, for which plans have been finalised but for which the capital is not available. In addition, Rayne North, Tipperty, Kemnay and Oyne are all scheduled for investment but face some uncertainty about availability and timing. Forehill and Greenbrae in Bridge of Don also have space problems. Other schools such as Tarves, which has been promised improvements, have been dropped from the programme altogether, and there is also a campaign for a new primary school at Potterton.

Priorities for the allocation of nursery places have sparked a row which will come to a head this week when the council decides the priorities for new nursery classes to be provided this coming August. It is worth recording that, during the 12 years in which the Tories ran Grampian, nursery provision was frozen. They would not open even the units that had been built by Aberdeen county council before its demise.

Following the Conservatives' defeat eight years ago, the Liberal Democrats in administration pressed for a commitment to a rolling programme, which has led to the provision of six new nursery classes a year, providing more than 2,000 extra places, including two mobile units for rural areas—one in my constituency and one in that of the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch). From a starting point of only three nursery schools in the constituency in 1986, there are now 14.

On a wholly objective assessment this year, Insch was identified as the top priority for the next nursery class. However, on the ground that there were accommodation problems, it was dropped down the priority list in favour of other areas. In fact, some capital funding had been put aside especially for the purpose, but it was diverted to less urgent priorities.

Funding has been diverted to areas that were third, eighth, 11th and 28th in the council's priority listings, all areas of SNP or Labour representation. I am proud to say that at least the Liberal Democrats in administration have always supported the application of fair and objective criteria, and will do so again when, as I confidently predict, they take over the lead in the administration after next week's elections.

Currently, 740 children have places at nursery school, with 120 on waiting lists. Overall, that is substantially thanks to the Liberal Democrats, but, if we are to achieve fair provision for all children, more resources are needed.

At the moment, provision in Fraserburgh and Banff academies is 58 per cent. and 59 per cent. Forres academy has 40 per cent. provision, whereas Gordon schools have only 28 per cent. provision, and children in the Huntley area may be displaced by pressure from Insch. Therefore, in Gordon we currently face the gerrymandering of the Labour and SNP administration on the council in respect of the allocation of the capital spending budget for which Grampian region has received Government consents.

However, the situation is made far worse by the total failure to date of the Scottish Office to grasp the pressures that arise from a fast-growing young population spread over a fairly extensive rural area. In recent years, the cost-cutting pressures in the oil industry have led to a rationalisation by a number of oil companies, which has, paradoxically, brought management jobs to Aberdeen while the offshore work force is being reduced.

Some companies have expressed concern about the pressure that such moves have placed on local schools. People are accommodated and welcomed, but more schools in and around Aberdeen are being brought up to their limit, and now face capping. The problems that I have described are most acute in Gordon, but they will increasingly affect the areas of Kincardine and Deeside closest to the city, and other schools within the city of Aberdeen.

The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), is usually courteous and considerate when hon. Members express concern about problems in their constituencies and he usually wants to help. It is with some sadness, therefore, that I have to say that it has made me very angry that no fewer than five times in the past year he has refused to meet me to discuss what threatens to become a crisis in my constituency in the north-east.

I hope that I have now proved to the Minister that the situation needs his urgent attention and that of his officials. After last week's meeting, I can extend to him a personal invitation from Ellon school board to visit the school and see for himself the problems it faces, especially as pupils are switching between the two sites.

I should sincerely welcome the opportunity to show him around any or all of the schools that I have mentioned, so that he can see for himself why we have good standards, but also why we need an understanding of our future investment needs if we are to maintain them.

To date, the Scottish Office seems well content to take the benefit of what the north-east can contribute to the Scottish economy, but to stop giving back what we are entitled to expect to enable us to maintain that contribution, and to maintain the standards of our education service.

11.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) on securing a debate on the important issue of school buildings. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) is supporting the debate by his presence, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch); the hon. Member for Gordon will appreciate that there are similar problems, arising out of success and a swelling population, in my hon. Friend's constituency.

The hon. Gentleman has written to me expressing his concerns about the capital building programme for Grampian in general, and about the impact on particular schools in his constituency. In the course of that correspondence, he has asked me to meet him to discuss his concerns. I shall try to explain to him in a little more detail why such a meeting has not seemed appropriate so far.

I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Gordon is well informed about matters affecting his constituency. The point is, however, that responsibility for the allocation of capital resources for school buildings in Grampian is a matter for Grampian regional council. It is for the council, not for the Scottish Office, to determine how those resources are spent to meet local needs and circumstances.

It follows, therefore, as I have already told the hon. Gentleman, that for a meeting to be productive it would be important first to know the regional council's latest plans for school provision in Gordon district. As he knows, at the time of my most recent letter to him on the issue, in December 1993, the council had not provided the Scottish Office with detailed information about future provision in the Gordon area.

Before I focus on the individual schools referred to by the hon. Gentleman, it would be helpful if I were to explain the Government's role in local authority school building programmes in Scotland in more detail. Let me first make it clear what our role is not.

When we came to power in 1979, we took the decision substantially to disengage from detailed involvement in local authority decision-making. As a result, neither Ministers nor Scottish Office officials are generally now involved in the detailed consideration of individual school building projects.

The present role of the Scottish Office is twofold. First, it is to determine the broad overall level of capital consent resources that can be made available for school building by authorities in Scotland. Secondly, it is to take decisions on how that total is to be distributed to meet the competing claims of the 12 education authorities.

That process involves a general consideration of the financial plans submitted to us by authorities every year, each of which sets out an authority's proposals for school building over the next five years. Of course, all authorities know the Government's priorities for school building work.

Our first priority is the provision of additional school places where there is insufficient alternative accommodation within reasonable travelling distance—in short, roofs over heads. Our second priority is cost-effective rationalisation—that is, projects designed to reduce the number of surplus places within the existing school system.

In deciding what allocations should be made, we try to ensure that authorities have sufficient resources to make progress with projects that fall within those categories, especially for the provision of new school places where those are required. Account is also taken of the need for authorities to upgrade and refurbish existing buildings, although I acknowledge that there may not be not as much available for that purpose as authorities might wish.

However, as I have said, authorities are free to determine their own school building priorities within the total level of resources available to them. Those resources are not limited to the advisory allocation for educational building notified to them each year.

Authorities are free to add to their allocation in a number of ways. They can switch resources from other capital programmes; they can use receipts from the disposal of assets; they can transfer funding for capital projects from their current expenditure budgets; or they may be able to attract private finance. By those means, authorities, including Grampian, have substantial resources at their disposal to enable them to proceed with projects to which they attach priority.

Of course, I appreciate—

Mr. Malcolm Bruce


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

May I develop my argument a little further?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has concerns about particular schools in his constituency. He has referred, for example, to Ellon academy and to Inverurie academy. He has suggested that those pressures could be relieved by building a new secondary school at Oldmeldrtun, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of that proposition, because Grampian regional council has not included it as a new project in its financial plan. Nor, so far as I am aware, has the council reached any conclusion on that matter.

Therefore, while I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concerns, he must understand that it is the regional council's responsibility to consider the appropriate level of school provision in its own area. Only when that has been done can the Scottish Office consider the matter in the context of capital allocation levels.

I recognise that—

Mr. Malcolm Bruce


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I shall give way to the hon. Member, but may I develop the argument a little further?

I recognise that the council may be in something of a quandary on future settlement patterns in the region, and I know that it has been considering the possibility of a major new community in different parts of the region in the area around Aberdeen. I understand that various options have been put forward, including, at one time, the suggestion that it may take place to the south-west of Aberdeen.

On the other hand, I also understand that a developer has now suggested that a new development may be centred on Ellon. Running in tandem with all that is the council's review of its structure plan.

In all those circumstances, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not for me or any other member of the Government to tell the council what it should or should not decide. Although I understand his frustration at the time being taken to reach a decision, it is, as I have said, a matter for the council.

Another point to consider in reaching a decision is the need fsor a new secondary school in Gordon. Given the current uncertainties, it would be seem prudent for the council to ensure that the decisions that it takes are properly informed. I need hardly remind the hon. Gentleman that, in the past, a number of new schools have been built throughout Scotland which were never in the end occupied to their planned capacities. Such actions have simply served to aggravate the problems of surplus school places in some areas, and do not represent the best value for taxpayers' money.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

May I point out on that last point that four of the new schools built in Gordon to which the Minister refers are the four that are now over their capacity? Far from being under-utilised, they are under extreme pressure.

I accept his argument about the case for the Grampian region to get on with the job. I am sick to death of hearing about new settlements, and I wish that it would settle its structure plan. In the meantime, children and parents are under extreme pressure and need to know that those schools will receive the investment that they need so that the education may be carried out.

The regional council may be able to find some extra funding, but I am sure that the Minister will recognise that £13 million is all that it has consent for until it disappears. One academy would wipe all that out, and would leave nothing for anything else. There is simply not enough money in the pot.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

There are two points that I shall mention quickly. We shall take into account the kind of points that the hon. Gentleman has made, as well as those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside and those made by hon. Members representing all the other constituencies in Scotland, before we decide the next overall allocation of educational capital investment funding for Scotland in the next public expenditure survey round.

If I may, I shall come in a moment to the allocation for Gordon. Also, I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's request for a visit in due course, arising from the debate.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the difficulties of running Ellon, partly because the school operates on a split site. In their report on the school, published in April 1992, the inspectors noted that the fact that the school was accommodated on a split site was far from ideal, and that there were other constraints on the accommodation. They also noted that both buildings were well maintained, and that overall accommodation was adequate for the role at that time.

I was pleased to read in the report of the good standards of attainment achieved by the pupils of Ellon academy. I pay tribute to the diligence of the pupils and to the efforts made by the head teacher and staff, which contributed to those achievements. I know that in 1993–94, some 35 per cent. of the school leavers went on to higher education. When compared to the national average of 25 per cent., that is an impressive achievement. Indeed, I am delighted to see that, overall, secondary schools throughout the hon. Gentleman's constituency have achieved above-average results in the school examinations in recent years.

On a rather less happy note, I record how sorry I was to hear of the damage recently caused to the art department by an accidental fire at Oldmachar academy.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of accommodation problems at Westhill academy. This school was built in recent times to accommodate pupils from major new housing developments to the west of Aberdeen, but the council identified a need for expansion. The council drew this to the attention of the Scottish Office, where it has been recognised for some years that this would qualify as a "roofs over heads" priority. But I understand that, in the interim, the council may have decided to defer the project. That would, of course, be a matter entirely for the council.

I should like to turn now to the overall level of resources available to Grampian regional council. The council's advisory allocation for educational building in 1994–95 is £6.7 million. That is a substantial figure, to which, as I have said, the council is free to add in various ways. As a share of the total resources available for allocation to authorities, it is also close to its share of the Scottish population.

It is not, therefore, the case that Grampian is being treated unfairly, or less generously than other authorities, in the allocations that it receives. Indeed, in the past, the council received a higher proportion of the total resources available than its population share.

In each of the years from 1977–78 to 1985–86, the council was allocated up to twice the share it would have received if allocations had been made on the basis of population. That reflected the need for new school buildings, on a "roofs over heads" basis, arising from oil-related development in Grampian. Several new schools were built in Gordon district, including Westhill academy and the new part of Ellon academy. This underlines the responsiveness of the capital allocations system to identified school-building needs.

However, it also emphasises the uncertainties that can arise in predicting local population trends and long-term school building requirements. That is why it is important for the regional council to examine carefully the real needs for the future. If the authority were, in due course, to make a clear case for a new secondary school in Gordon district, I have no doubt that, as has been the case in the past, we should ensure that its capital consent allocations were at a level that could accommodate such "roofs over heads" needs.

I have already said that it is most certainly not the case that Grampian regional council has been unfairly treated in the distribution of capital consent resources for educational building. The hon. Gentleman may, however, take the view that the council pays insufficient attention to the needs in Gordon district compared with other parts of the region. It is not for me to comment on that, as capital allocations are not project-specific. As I have said, it is for the authority, with its detailed knowledge of local needs and circumstances, to determine its detailed spending priorities.

The hon. Gentleman has also asked whether the overall level of resources is adequate to meet all the council's demands for capital expenditure. Of course many people would wish for more resources to be made available for local authority school building work, as for many other programmes, but there are not unlimited resources. The Government have to balance competing demands right across the public sector.

Between 1988 and 1993, we were able to increase by some 35 per cent. the capital consent resources available for educational building. That is a substantial increase, particularly given our other spending priorities over the period. For the current financial year, we have also held the allocation at the same level as was announced in March 1993 for the 1993–94 financial year. That means, for Scotland as a whole, that the capital allocation for school building stands at £71.5 million—a very substantial sum, by any standards.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate from what I have said that I do understand the reasons for his concerns. I have already said that the Secretary of State and I will wish to consider with great care the allocation of capital resources for school building in general in the next public expenditure round. Nevertheless, I appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. If he still wishes to meet me to discuss these matters I shall be happy to agree to a meeting. In the first instance, I strongly advise him to follow these matters up with the Grampian regional council, where certain points have to be resolved initially.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

I am grateful to the Minister for the detail that he has gone into, and I accept much of what he is saying in principle. He talked about £71 million. If we take pro rata the contribution to the economy that is made by the Grampian region, a £6.5 million capital allocation is not comparable.

As for population, it is the youth population that matters, not the overall structure of the population. In my area, we have more school-age children than in other parts of the region.

As I have said, I am grateful to the Minister. I wish to meet him to discuss these matters in more detail. He said earlier that he might wish to take advantage of the opportunity to visit my constituency. I hope that he will do so, because I shall be delighted to show him what I and others are talking about—both the quality of what we have and the pressures we face.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his invitation. I shall, if I may, respond to it in due course.

I recognise that the area has problems that arise from a growing population. I must recognise also that, in the first instance, we must deal with local democracy. As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, that is his first port of call. When the region has made its plans and proposals clear, it is much easier for the Scottish Office to focus with great clarity on what is required.

As for the overall allocation of resources for school building, we shall examine it with the greatest possible care in the next round—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Twelve midnight.