Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Schools Building Projects Status

10:30 am

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I thank the Minister, Deputy McHugh, for coming in to deal with this important Commencement matter. I am from Ennistymon in County Clare, a town that has three schools which are doing their best in primitive buildings to provide quality education facilities and supports to more than 600 students. The Department has made a commitment and the money is in place to build a new purpose-built state-of-the-art community school. Much work has been done by the boards of management, the parents and the Government to get this project to the stage it is at.

My purpose in raising this issue today is to find out exactly where this project is at. The design team has advised that it sent a list of suitable contractors to the Department and did a pre-submission a number of months ago. It has also submitted a report outlining the necessary steps to ensure the school will have a near zero carbon position, which is all very welcome. As a result of this type of development, an economic analysis study has to be carried out. Has this short-list been approved? Has whatever necessary economic assessment been carried out and what is the timeline for the school at the moment? When will this project go out to tender? How long will the tender process take and when can we expect construction to begin on the site?

This project is ongoing for a long time now. There was talk of a community school in Ennistymon when I was in school, and I left in 1993. Discussions were taking place the entire time I was in school. I, along with others, have worked hard on this project. The fact the money was committed in 2015 and we are now in 2019 and construction has not started is a little frustrating for parents and students. Parents are very patient and understanding. They know that it will happen and would prefer it be done right than rushed. However, the fact it has gone on and on, people have started to wonder if it will ever happen. I know that it will but we need clear timelines as to when the project will go out to full tender, if that has not already happened, and when can we expect construction to begin?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I will try to comply with the rules and regulations and will try to be as brief as possible.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position in relation to the major building project for Ennistymon in County Clare. This major project will deliver a new post-primary school to cater for 650 pupils and a new primary school on a shared site. The project is currently in stage 2b - detailed design of architectural planning - which includes statutory approvals and the preparation of tender documents. Planning permission, fire certificate and disability access certificate have all been secured for this project.

All Government Departments, local authorities, the Health Service Executive, public bodies and all bodies in receipt of public funding must comply, as appropriate, with the relevant requirements of the public spending code. The public spending code is the set of rules and procedures that apply to ensure that these standards are upheld across the Irish public service. The code brings together in one place all the elements of the value-for-money framework that has been in force up to now.

The Department of Education and Skills, similar to all Irish public bodies, is obliged to treat public funds with care, and to ensure that the best possible value-for-money is obtained whenever public money is being spent or invested. An economic appraisal must be conducted for all capital projects costing in excess of €20 million and should be submitted to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform prior to the sanctioning authority granting the approval in principle.

In the case of the school project for Ennistymon, a procurement process was carried out in early April 2019 to commission a specialist company to carry out a cost-benefit analysis. A number of responses were received and a successful tender was awarded and instructed to proceed on 30 April. A draft document was received in July but some data was still outstanding. My Department requested the project manager to collaborate and assist the company in obtaining the relevant data from the schools. The completed draft document was reviewed by Department officials in September and feedback has issued back to the authors. It is expected that the final report will be made available to the Department within four weeks.

The design team has carried out a pre-qualification process to produce a short-list of building contractors and a separate list of mechanical and electrical contractors. The Department is continuing to liaise with the project manager in this regard.

When all items have been satisfactorily completed, the Department expects to be in a position to authorise the project to progress to tender stage which normally takes between seven and eight months to complete. This does not necessarily mean that it cannot be done in less time. I can confirm to Senator Conway that this project is included in the Department of Education and Skills construction programme which is being delivered under the national development plan.

One of the things we are all very conscious of is ensuring that people's expectations are met and that there is no weakness as to the advancement of this project. It is committed to and is in the capital plan. There is money available for this project. I will ensure, through the Senator's contacts, that we keep this on a live footing to ensure we get movement on it. To reiterate, we are waiting on the first stage within the next four weeks, when we will be looking at feedback on the submissions that have been made. Once we have all that documentation together, we will move to the tender process, which is the most important process of all.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for renewing the Government's commitment to delivering this school as it is very important that it happen. I have no doubt about the Minister's personal commitment because I have spoken to him on numerous occasions in the last 12 months since his appointment about the importance of this project for the entire area of north Clare. It is reasonable to say that, after the four-week process has been completed, in quarter one of 2020 we will be moving to the tendering process which will take a maximum of seven months to complete.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I reiterate that the key point in any project is getting into the pre-qualification process and getting the list of potential companies. As the Senator said, that process has been completed and the design team has completed its work. We are awaiting feedback, which process will be completed in the next four weeks. It is not unreasonable to suggest we will move to the tendering process in quarter 1 of 2020. We will keep up the momentum and, even though the target is seven to eight months, if we can bring it back even further, it will be only right to do so. The school has been waiting a long time and the project was included in the conversation during the Senator's time in the school in 1993. It is time to bite the bullet and get it done. I reassure the Senator that I will give the matter my personal attention. Ennistymon is a place I know quite well. My next-door neighbour in Donegal is from Ennistymon where I have spent a bit of time in the last couple of decades. I know of the importance of the project which I will keep on the radar.