This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons, arguing the case for investment in Andover College; and below that his comments after the debate.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill). He makes a powerful case for London. He is fortunate to have had some investment in his college from the LSC; many hon. Members are still awaiting the first tranche. I place on the record that 28 hon. Members are in Westminster Hall this afternoon—an almost record attendance displaying the strength of feeling about this subject.
I want to make two brief points. The first is generic. This episode demonstrates an abject failure in one of the core responsibilities of Government. Government is about determining priorities, getting the resources for those priorities and ensuring that they are effectively applied. All over the country, our constituents want better hospitals, schools, roads and railways, but we do not spend money working up schemes unless there is some prospect of funding them. This fiasco has revealed a heroic waste of money by encouraging schemes to be worked up for which the funding is not and never was available. Many will be abandoned and others will have to be redesigned.
That is made worse by two factors. This Government have told us that with the introduction of three-year capital programmes there will now be greater certainty about them, which was not there before. They have also told us that they are bringing forward capital programmes, for counter-cyclical reasons, from year three of the current public expenditure survey round to year one. The Homes and Communities Agency is bringing forward money from year three to year one for precisely that reason. Yet here the opposite is happening, with capital spending at best deferred and at worst cancelled. This is financial incompetence for which, at the end of the day, Ministers must take responsibility.
My second point is specific to my constituency, although features will be replicated elsewhere. Two years ago, Cricklade college in Andover merged with Sparsholt college. At the time of the merger, I got a letter from the LSC saying:
“Current thinking is that there will be a required investment of up to £30m in Andover and £20 million in Winchester”.
It went on to say that these figures were indicative at that stage but ended:
“I would wish to reiterate the LSC’s commitment to ensuring an appropriate level of investment is forthcoming to support the ambitions of the merged college.”
The scheme is now at £100 million, reflecting the substantial encouragement given by the LSC to build for the 21st century, with the LSC constantly urging the college to raise its sights. At one visit, an LSC officer told the college that he hoped it would knock down the main administrative building because it looked dreadful. That was not in the plan and it remains not in the plan.
The college submitted its application in principle last November, expecting approval in February or March. It has got planning consent for the project from Test Valley borough council. The scheme is an integral part of the regeneration of the centre of Andover and it plans to cater for the large number of NEETs in a growing town. Then, along with 143 other colleges, we were told at the beginning of the month that the deal is off. There is considerable anger in the town about how this has been handled.
There is now a revenue problem — picking up on what the right hon. Member for Streatham said — superimposed on the capital problem. Now the scheme is not going ahead, the auditors will not allow the college to capitalise the consultancy costs, totalling some £2 million. This means that the college will now turn in a deficit for the current year, which might allow the banks to allege breach of covenant and give them an opportunity to review the terms of any loan and fees for renegotiation.
I want two things from the Minister: first, a statement on the consultancy fees and some comfort — either reimbursement or an assurance that the fees can be capitalised because there will be a scheme; and secondly, an indication of what on earth happens next. My college would be happy to negotiate around a lower figure and to phase the scheme in over a longer period. What we cannot have is an indefinite stand-off.
Speaking after the debate, Sir George said he was very disappointed by the Minister’s response. “There were over 20 MP’s at the debate, not all of whom were able to speak. Many were from his own party, and they were as worried about what had happened as the rest of us. The Minister was pressed for answers as to how this fiasco would be resolved, but we were none the wiser when he sat down. He said nothing about the consultancy fees that had been incurred, raised by myself and others; nor did he tell us how decisions would be taken about how any remaining money might be spent. He said he had written to MP’s who were affected by the moratorium, but none of those I spoke to had had such a letter.”
“Not only have my constituents who go to Andover and Sparsholt been affected, but those who go to QMC and BCOT in Basingstoke are also involved. My colleague Maria Miller, MP for Basingstoke, spoke powerfully on their behalf in the debate.”
“The Minister offered those who were at the debate a meeting, and I am in touch with Tim Jackson, the Principal of Sparsholt, so we can pursue this.”