Thursday, 3 February 2005
Schools Building Projects.
Question 5: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the reason for the change to the format in which the schools building programme has been changed; when the remainder of the information in this regard will be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3189/05]
The allocation to the schools building and modernisation programme for 2005 amounts to €493 million of which €270 million is being allocated to schools at primary level and €223 million to post-primary level. This represents an increase of 14% on last year's allocation. The programme is underpinned not only by a significant increase in overall funding but also by major improvements in the administration and management of the funding.
My Department is moving toward a model of devolving funding, responsibility and authority as appropriate for building projects directly to school management authorities. The devolving of funding to local level will allow schools to have ownership of their projects and assist in moving projects in a specific timeframe to tender and construction and will also deliver better value for money. I have indicated that I plan to increase the level of funding available to schools under the small and rural schools initiative and I will make further announcements in this regard shortly.
The introduction of multi-annual capital envelopes requires a revised approach to how building projects are scheduled through the design process and on to tender and construction. Projects must be in the pipeline so that there is a smooth flow of projects through all stages.
The experience in 2004, whereby a record number of projects were selected for proceeding to tender and construction at a single time, while ideal in the context of announcing the entire building programme in one annual announcement, makes it less easy to take account of emerging trends generally and specific issues arising on individual projects such as delays in getting planning permission. I decided, therefore, to announce details last month of 122 major projects which will prepare tenders and move to construction in the next 12 to 15 months. While some of the projects will be ready to go on site earlier in the year than others, all the projects should be capable of being put on site in that timescale.
I will follow this recent announcement with a series of announcements relating to the school building and modernisation programme that will include details of schools identified as suitable for construction under public private partnerships, an expansion of the number of schools that will be invited to deliver their building projects on the basis of devolved funding, details of schools with projects approved under the 2005 summer works scheme which is being allocated €60 million, almost twice that spent in 2004, schools whose projects will further progress through the design process and schools that will be authorised to commence architectural planning.
I assure the Deputy that the changes to the format of the school building programme will in no way detract from the level of openness and transparency which is an ongoing feature of the programme.
I thank the Minister for her answer. I take her point about transparency but there remains much confusion abroad. The document that people could download to see exactly where their school stood provided a great deal of transparency that does not appear to be there this year.
Regarding last year's funding, the Minister told us in the House on 25 November that primary and post-primary schools would not be at a loss as a result of underspending last year and that the €50 million was all she expected to have to carry forward. Media reports suggest that there may by tens of millions of euro lost to the schools building fund. Will the Minister clarify that point and say whether money was lost to that fund or whether it was only the €50 million which was to be carried over?
The Minister seemed to suggest there would be more schools on the devolved list this year. Will she say if that is the case? There is a concern in growing areas, particularly around Dublin in counties Meath, Kildare and Wicklow, about the urgent need for school places. They are not getting much information from the Department, particularly where site acquisition is involved. Will the Minister clarify matters for those people in desperate situations who feel they will not have school places for their children in the near future?
The document referred to will be available for all to see, as it was before. It is being done in stages. The only information currently available relates to the 122 projects at the top of the list, ready to go to tender, to go on site and proceed towards construction. The next list will be of the small and rural schools projects and the permanent accommodation projects which I hope to organise soon, with the other projects which I have set out. We will also announce and place on the website the stage reached by every school in the country and what stage each is moving to. Rather than doing this with one big-bang approach we will be able to keep a better eye on the flow of work. All the information will be available, open and transparent, on the website, as it was before, with links for further information.
I intend to increase the number of schools under the devolved scheme. It worked very well, particularly in rural areas where we were able to get good value for money with local builders, people who perhaps might have had an interest in the local school or were parents of children at the school. They were able to do the work well locally. Given the success of that and that half the schools in the country have four or fewer teachers, that is an appropriate way to proceed, to give schools devolved funding. I have also doubled the amount under the summer works scheme because over the summer months many schools will be able to sort out, under that funding, any real problems they have.
Last year's underspend happened for various reasons, including planning permission and so on. An appeal in one case meant that there was an underspend of €2 million on a single school. There were difficulties in getting tenders, site purchasing, delays from design teams and so on, but the good news is that there was no money lost to the system and we were allowed to carry forward the €50 million. Nothing was lost in the end.
No. We carried forward the exact amount we were allowed. No capital funding was lost. We were allowed to carry forward €50 million and we did so. Quite a number of bills arrived towards the end of the year, as they tend to, but nothing was lost. The lessons learned from the delays last year are helping me to feed into the process this year for the building programme to ensure we have enough in the system to move it along.
Question 6: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the extent to which the PPP model will be used in the schools building programme for 2005; if she will address the concerns outlined by many commentators regarding the usefulness and cost effectiveness of this model; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [2995/05]
My colleague, the Minister for Finance, provided a capital envelope of €555 million in respect of education PPPs for the period 2005-08. My officials are examining how this may be best utilised. A number of issues will have to be determined before I make a decision on the allocation of these funds.
Those include the type of PPP model to be used, the level of operation and service to be included in any new programme, how the projects should be bundled so as to provide the most cost-effective procurement and the size and geographical spread of the bundles. Only new building projects on green-field sites that have been prioritised using the criteria agreed with the education partners and published by my Department are eligible for consideration under my Department's PPP programme. I will be announcing the programme in the near future.
One of the most striking aspects of my Department's PPP programme to date is the high quality of design and materials. By investing up front in design and construction, the cost of ongoing maintenance over the 25 year contract is significantly reduced.
Speed of delivery is one of the very attractive aspects of PPPs. The total time required to procure the five schools using the PPP approach was around three and a half years. Under the traditional approach to the procurement of new schools, the comparable elapsed time typically averages four to five years. The pilot project has provided the State with five exceptional schools, fully serviced and maintained over the next 25 years.
Ultimately, the full value for money represented by PPPs, including my Department's grouped schools project, will be determined over the 25-year life cycle of the project. It is too early in the life of the contract to carry out such an assessment. That point was acknowledged by the Comptroller and Auditor General in his report on the grouped schools' pilot project.
My Department is an active participant in the interdepartmental group on PPPs headed by the Department of Finance's central PPP unit, whose remit is to provide guidance and support to the PPP process in the public sector. The lessons and experience gained during the schools' pilot project have significantly assisted the formulation of that guidance. In addition, the National Development Finance Agency was established as a result of the pilot PPP programme to provide expert financial advice and assistance to the public sector for major capital projects.
Perhaps the Minister might comment on the Comptroller and Auditor General's point regarding the fact that the schools so far constructed cost more than they would have if built under the normal system. Secondly, concerns have been documented about PPPs in Britain. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the long-term implications. Has she had any complaints about access to the schools for other community purposes in the evening, or are the PPP schools available to the community for night classes?
The cost of the schools can really only be ascertained over the long term. The chances are that the schools now built under PPP would not yet have been built otherwise, meaning the costs would have gone up in the meantime. There is no doubt that they are state-of-the-art schools with superb facilities, but were we to start building them now, which is probably about right, they would cost us a great deal more. As I said, the benefits can be seen over the longer term. Learning from the PPP process happening in the UK was behind these pilot projects. They were a learning experience, and we learned from building those schools, using that experience in building the National Maritime College in Cork, which has now become the benchmark for PPP procurement. We have already gained from the expertise of building the schools, and that experience will now feed into our ongoing PPP programme.
Access to the schools is very good. I believe that they were offered 320 hours outside the normal school day for community use, adult education, sports facilities that could be rented out to local groups and for parent-teacher meetings and other activities that would go on in the school. I have not heard anyone say that it was not sufficient for them. Part of the contract for the maintenance is that lighting and heating must be available every day. I understand that quite good use is being made of them, in particular, Ballincollig has a superb adult education centre run through the school using all the facilities of the school after normal hours.
Who sets the costs for community use and is it viable and affordable for all communities? There have been some teething problems. It has been said to me in one of the schools that I visited that basic repairs can be difficult since, instead of simply going to the Department, one must now go to the company and then to the Department. That can be for quite small matters. For larger concerns, it is not a problem and is probably better than the regular building programme, but I believe that it can be difficult for small things.
Some of the schools that I visited have very visible machines vending Coke and similar products, as well as a fast-food element in their canteens rather than healthier food options. That seems to be outside the control of the school principal and the board of management, and perhaps the Minister might comment on it. I know some schools are hopeful of being included in the PPP process when it is announced in the coming weeks but are anxious to retain control over such issues within the school.
Regarding community use, the idea is that the school becomes a community asset. Under the terms of the project agreement, it is the operator who can market the school premises to generate income. The agreement provides that schools each have access to the premises for 350 hours outside the normal school day, which is quite substantial. Initially, the schools thought that 150 hours would be enough. I have already mentioned the school in Ballincollig, and Jarvis entered into an agreement on use of the fitness facilities in the community school in Shannon, generating income for the school. Jarvis appears to be the people who can market that.
Perhaps I might also answer the question relating to fast food. We are considering that regarding any future PPPs. They all have canteen facilities and serve hot food, so we want to ensure it is healthy. It is a strange irony that people who have spent years giving out about the Department now find it more difficult dealing with a private company.