Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
School Building Projects Applications
I, too, welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to deal with this matter. It concerns a school that has over 350 pupils and 75% of the accommodation of which consists of prefabs. I was in it in the last two weeks and in quite a number of the rooms there were clear marks on the ceilings where water was coming in. The process of applying through the Department of Education and Skills for a new school building dates back over 14 years. Full planning permission was obtained for the existing site. As Carraig Na bhFear is within ten miles of Cork city, the view is that it is going to grow substantially in the next ten to 15 years. Therefore, the need for forward planning needs to be kept in mind in developing a new school.
The board of management and those in charge of working out the details of building a new school came to the conclusion that if they went ahead with the project for which they had received planning, in the not too distant future the school would not be of sufficient size to deal with the growing population and that it would not be possible to expand it further because the site would be surrounded on all sides. On one side it is bordered by the public road, while on all others it is bounded by housing. Therefore, they decided the school should move to a new site.It was therefore decided to move to a new site which was acquired with the assistance of the purchase of some land from a community development group, some land from the GAA and some land from a private source. As a result, there is a far better site on which it will be possible to accommodate good facilities adjoining the school. The problem is that the proposal has been submitted to the Department which must give consent for an application for planning permission on the site. It is in that context that I am asking the question this morning. The board of management is very concerned about the current state of the school where more than 70% of the accommodation is provided in prefabs. There are 350 students at the school and more than 50 staff members, which includes provision for children who need that extra support. It is important that we try to move on with the project at an early date.
On behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, I thank Senator Colm Burke for raising this important matter. It provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position in relation to the major building project for Scoil an Athar Tadhg national school. The project is included in the six-year construction programme for 2016 to 2021 which was announced in November 2015. The brief for the project is to provide a new two-storey, 16-classroom school with a five-classroom autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, unit. The board of management of the school is the client for the project and is fully responsible for directing the design team on progress through the design stages of architectural planning. The board has made a number of changes to the brief over the past ten years and this has resulted in significant delays in advancing the project and bringing it to site.
In October 2009, a proposed exchange of the greenfield site for the current school site which had been advanced by the board of management was deemed to be no longer a viable proposition. The reappointment of the design team was then required following a changed brief to accommodate the new school on the existing school site. A replacement civil and structural engineer and replacement quantity surveyor also had to be appointed in June 2011 following the withdrawal of the original consultants from the design team. In March 2016, the board of management requested a further brief change, which included an increase in floor area, at an additional cost of over €2 million. This brief change was approved by my Department in August 2016.
Based on the 2016 brief, the project reached the end of stage 2b in early 2017 and would then have been ready for progression to tender stage. However, in June 2017, the board of management wrote to the Department requesting a meeting to discuss the possibility of a new greenfield site which the board of management was proposing as an alternative site for this building project. Following a meeting between the school's representatives and the Department in January 2018, the Department agreed to facilitate the school and its design team to submit a report on the viability of moving to the new alternative site. The report submitted to my Department in June 2018 included details of a pre-planning meeting with Cork County Council which took place on 30 May 2018. Following a review of the report, the Department authorised the school and its design team to submit a revised stage 2a, developed sketch scheme, submission based on the proposals for the new site. The stage 2a submission has recently been received in my Department and a stage 2a stakeholders' meeting is taking place today. At the meeting, the design team will make a presentation of the proposals to the Department. As soon as the stage 2a submission can be approved, my Department will be in a position to authorise the board of management to proceed with the new planning application which is now required due to the board's proposal to move the project to an alternative site. I hope that clarifies matters for the Senator. I believe the meeting is taking place as we speak. Hopefully, we will be able to move forward over the next couple of weeks to bring the project to a conclusion.
I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate the detailed reply very much and accept that the Department has worked well to try to progress the matter. It is important to acknowledge that there will be a saving with the new project in the following sense. If the school was to be built on the existing site, quite a number of prefabs would have to be moved to a new site while the building work was in progress. In going to a new site, this will not now have to happen. While I acknowledge today's meeting, my concern is about the timeline for proceeding to planning, which will take three to four months. I ask the Minister of State for some clarification in that regard. Will consent for the board of management to apply for planning be forthcoming from the Department within the next two weeks? That is the clarification the interested parties seek.
As I said, a stage 2a submission has recently been received, albeit I am not sure on what date. In any event, it is pretty new. The design team will make a presentation to the Department. I acknowledge that the Senator submitted a Commencement matter on 5 February 2019, which was not selected. The Department tells me that after the meeting today the submission will be assessed and I believe the Department will be in a position to authorise the board of management to proceed with the new planning application in a short time. I acknowledge the length of time this has taken to date and the board of management's consideration of a new application and change of site. The Department has been very efficient in moving project stages forward at all times and is determined to get the project up and running as soon as possible. Following today's meeting, I think we will see progress within a number of weeks. I will go back to the Department immediately and ensure the Senator is informed of what happens at today's meeting and how matters are developing.