Wednesday, 2 October 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Schools Building Projects Status
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, for coming to the Chamber once again to answer my questions about yet another school in Swords that urgently needs explanations from his Department. This week, I am referring to St Finian's community college in Swords and, as I explained to him last week, Swords has a population of approximately 45,000 and is the largest town in Ireland. St. Finian's community college has been in the town for more than 60 years and it has more than 660 pupils and a large teaching population. It also has DEIS status. A project to extend and refurbish the school was initiated in 2010 and, after a few issues were sorted out, planning permission was granted in 2015. It was expected that the work would go to tender and commence shortly thereafter but, without explanation, it was shelved and the school has remained in that position ever since.
The school is in a serious state of disrepair and urgently needs attention. It is overcrowded as there is serious pressure on places for both primary and secondary schools in Swords. There are serious health and safety conditions now in the school. There are classrooms without windows. There are leaking windows, which have damaged the children's work. There are problems with ventilation. Particularly worrying is that there are classrooms without access to fire exits. There is no WiFi, which hinders learning in the modern era. There is vegetation growing inside the classrooms and I have a photograph of that which I am going to give to the Minister of State. This is what the students, parents and teachers in the community college are putting up with. That is absolutely outrageous. I do not know if the Minister of State can see it from where he is so I will give him the photograph.
This is completely unacceptable. It is disrespectful to the hard-working teachers and pupils and the parents who send their children to the school with the best of intentions and who want them to get the best education they can to reach their full potential. They cannot do so when this chronic situation is allowed to continue. This needs urgent attention. This planning application will expire next year if it is not acted on. That is serious and would set back the entire project. We need urgent answers and, more important, action.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which gives me an opportunity to outline the current position regarding the major building project in St. Finian's community college. I hope my detailed answer will be of some benefit to the Senator and, of course, to all of those involved with the school.
The project to which the Deputy refers is a major building project to deliver improved accommodation at this community college in Swords, County Dublin. The Department of Education and Skills has approved the construction of a stand-alone extension of just over 4,000 sq. m in an area to include a two-classroom special educational need, SEN, base. Some works to the existing building were also included in this approval.
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 DDLETB in that respect. 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 DDLETB. In that respect, the education and training board has appointed a design team to design the accommodation being provided and to bring the project through the tender and construction phases.
It is of the utmost importance that the final outcome for this project be the correct one for both the school authority and the pupils. Equally, neither my Department nor the DDLETB are in any doubt about the critical need for this accommodation for the pupils, staff, parents and community of St. Finian's. Consequently, there has been an intensification of the engagement between senior officials from the Department of Education and Skills and DDLETB in recent months with an on-site meeting taking place in July. Agreement was reached at that meeting on a number of key steps required to resolve these issues at the school. Firstly, the Department will be providing funding to DDLETB to address the most urgent health and safety issues on site. This funding will be provided under the Department's emergency works scheme. DDLETB has already written to the Department on this basis and, once further information is received - and I think it will be received quickly - these works will be progressed as a matter of priority. Some of those works will deal with falling concrete and a pillar collapse. The Department is aware of that and I have been told this morning that money will be made available as a matter of urgency.
Secondly, DDLETB has put forward alternative proposals as to how the major building project for St. Finian's should be progressed. These proposals, which are under active consideration by the Department, were set out in detail at the meeting in July. They are being further developed through documentation and a feasibility report is expected to be completed in the coming days. This documentation will be of considerable assistance in determining the next steps to be taken in progressing the project.
I have spoken to officials in the Department last night and this morning and I acknowledge that the delivery of this project has taken longer than was originally envisaged. This was the result of a number of issues that arose with respect to this project and that 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 for the project as it was originally approved. I was assured by the Department's officials that the delays were not on the side of the Department.
It may be necessary for officials to take some further time to consider the revised proposals being put forward by DDLETB. However, I assure this House and the Senator that there will be no further delay in making decisions on this. This matter will progress as a matter of urgency, whatever plan for progressing the project is decided upon.
I again thank the Senator for raising this matter and I want to give assurances to her. I have spoken again to the Department and this project is moving forward as quickly as possible. I believe the Department's representatives when they say the delays are certainly not on their end. I can confirm that the necessary funding has been set aside for it. I have seen the legislative funding that is there and the Department will continue to liaise with the DDLETB to progress this critical project. I believe further communications will take place in the next number of days.
I hope I have answered the Senator's questions. There is an acceptance from the Department that there has been an internal delay, as she pointed out. I believe from speaking to officials that, over the next few days and weeks, there will be more progress than there has been in months.
There would want to be an awful lot more progress because there has been none at all. I am glad the emergency works scheme application has been granted. The Minister of State mentioned the pillar collapse and there are serious issues at the school.We are very lucky that there has not been an injury or even worse here at the school since. The Minister of State spoke also about the tender and construction phase. Will he let me know when he expects that phase to commence? I also seek an assurance that the project will start before the planning permission expires next year.
I give the Senator my word on that. I will follow it up for her if she sends me an email or text message in the next few days. It is important to know why the original proposal stalled. The detailed design stage for the original proposal is almost complete. It appears that a lot more was to be considered than had been thought. That does happen with major projects, which this one is. It became apparent as the project was progressing that the extent of the works to the existing building was greater than expected. The Department acknowledged that. At the time it genuinely believed it was a straightforward process and that it would proceed once the planning permission was approved. That is the reason it sought to review the position. I understand that. It would be premature for me to comment any further on how matters will progress while we are waiting for the feasibility study report. If Senator Clifford-Lee contacts me, I will make sure that she gets a weekly update on the project. I have asked the Department to do that.