Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects Status
It is shocking to think that this refurbishment and extension was planned before my daughter attended St. Finian's community college. She is now in her second year of college and many of the issues at the school are probably as bad as they were when she was a pupil, if not considerably worse. Just before Christmas I received a letter from transition year students who are taking a particular interest in this issue. In their letter, they describe how several classrooms do not have any windows and that several windows in the school leak in bad weather, which has damaged student work and ICT equipment. They say that the roof leaks in wet weather, creating pools of water on the floor which is a health and safety risk. There are problems with ventilation in parts of the school which limits work in the science lab and home economics kitchens. Some classes do not have access to emergency exits, which is not in line with safety regulations. There is not enough space to accommodate 660 people and there is no Wi-Fi in the classrooms, which affects teaching and learning. This is a school in Dublin in 2019. It is a DEIS school, which means it is supposed to have extra resources and benefits.
When I raised some of these issues with the Minister for Education and Skills previously, I was utterly shocked to hear that the Department was "unaware of the scale" the problems in the school. Subsequent to that, students posted pictures of vegetation growing inside some of the classrooms online. Even then, the response of the Minister was that it was not possible to say when the project would proceed to tender, at least until the pre-qualification process has been completed. The problem with that is that this project was initiated in 2010. In 2015, after a few years of delay, planning permission was granted. There were certain delays due to fire safety and ESB issues but these issues were overcome more than two years ago. The project was expected to go to tender then and it was expected that work would begin shortly thereafter. A whole year and a half went by and there was no progress. Now we have a limbo situation. In September 2018, the ETB was asked what stage the project was at and what was going on. The school was told that the project was at the pre-qualification stage, for the appointment of contractors. This had been sent into the Department and had been returned with no explanation. I want to know who was responsible for that. We cannot have the two sides saying completely different things but that is what is happening.
In January 2019 there was still no movement. It appears from the Minister's response to me that the Department is using the pre-qualification process as an excuse not to proceed with the development. The ETB is saying that the pre-qualification process has been completed and is with the Department but the Minister is saying that it is with the ETB. They cannot both be right. The manager of buildings in the ETB communicated with the school principal and said that the ETB had completed the documentation and sent it to the Department for approval to go to tender in December 2016. The Department sent that documentation back, stating that it was to be "pre-qualified". The ETB wrote back and asked the Department what it wanted but nothing further happened. This is beginning to make the children's hospital project look well managed. I just do not get it. The answer we seem to be getting to all the questions we submit on education is that projects fall down between the council and the Department or the Department and the ETB. Somebody, somewhere has to do something. This project is more than nine years old and the planning permission for it will expire in the next year if it does not progress. New schools are being promised left, right and centre in locations nearby and meanwhile, hundreds of children are in this school in appalling conditions in Dublin, in 2019.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, who is in the Seanad at present. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding the building project to provide improved accommodation for St Finian’s community college in Swords, County Dublin.
As the Deputy is aware, the project to which she refers is a major devolved building project to deliver a critical standalone extension at St. Finian’s community college in Swords, County Dublin.
This extension will be over 4,000 sq. m, and will include a two classroom special educational needs, SEN, base. Responsibility for delivering the project has been devolved to the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, DDLETB. A service level agreement, SLA, is in place between the Department and Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB in respect of this project. This agreement outlines the roles and responsibilities of each of the parties in the delivery of education projects. It is a central tenet of devolution that responsibility for the delivery of these projects within certain agreed parameters as laid down in the SLA rests with Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB. In this respect, Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB has appointed a design team to design the accommodation being provided and to bring the project through the tender and construction phases.
The detailed design stage for St. Finian's community college project is almost complete. Planning and other statutory permissions have been obtained. Officials in the Department have been liaising with Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB in recent weeks with a view to resolving some other issues that have arisen with respect to this stage of the project. The matter was discussed at a recent meeting. The primary issue relates to the process for the prequalification of contractors to deliver the project. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that these issues have been worked through and Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB is now proceeding with its prequalification process. Once this process is complete, the project will move to the next stage. This involves the preparation and issue of tender documents and the appointment of contractors to complete the project. This process will be carried out by Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB and its design team.
I acknowledge that delivery of this project has taken longer than envisaged. This was the result of a number of issues which arose with respect to this project and which required time to resolve. These issues included delays in obtaining statutory consents from the local authority and delays in the finalisation of the detailed design process up to this point. While this process has not yet been completed, I want to assure the Deputy and the House that there is now a clear path to completion of this stage and towards progression to the next stage. The project is now moving into a space where it can quickly progress the prequalification of contractors and thereafter move to tender and construction phases.
I know the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, is not the Minister who is responsible for this, but there is a real problem here. When will anybody ever be held to accountant? There are primitive, totally unacceptable conditions in which our young people are expected to be educated. It is intolerable. I am supposed to accept a response that says not to blame the Department, that it is the fault of the ETB because of the service legal agreement. If that is true, who will make it pay for the debacle, which is what this is? If it is the fault of the ETB, someone has to be held to account. The Minister of State said the detailed design is almost complete. I am sorry but I cannot celebrate because the design team started in February 2013 and the final design proposal was completed two years later in 2015. For me to be told in 2019 that it is nearly complete is no solace at all, it is a cause for great concern.
We are told that the prequalification process is at issue but the ETB says it did its bit in that regard in 2016. Why is this process still outstanding? Whose fault is it that this is still outstanding? If it was doing this back in 2016, how can I be assured that it is finally sorted? The Minister of State might shed some light on the other issues that have arisen because, again, that is a problem as well. Nine years after this was given the nod, there are other issues coming to the fore. Based on all of the stages outlined by the Minister of State in terms of tenders, contractors and so on it will be another two years before anything will even start. That cannot be allowed. Entire generations will be going through this school. There are children there now whose parents and grandparents have been through it in almost the same condition. I cannot accept that without somebody being held accountable.
I will try to answer the Deputy's final question first. There were design issues which need to be considered. This requires the design team to review the project to ensure compliance with new regulations, namely the near-zero energy building regulations.
Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB carried out a prequalification process at an earlier stage of the project. However, for a number of reasons, primarily of a legal nature, it has been decided to proceed with a fresh prequalification process. When Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB and its design team have completed the tender process, a tender report will be submitted to the Department with a recommendation for the award of the construction contract to the most economically advantageous tender submitted. The Department will examine the tender report and accompanying recommendation, following which the intention is that a contract will be awarded with a contractor moving onto site shortly thereafter.
The Minister, Deputy McHugh, wants to give assurances that the Department is committed to progressing this project as quickly as possible and to confirm that funding has been set aside to progress the building.