Tuesday, 18 May 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State. My Commencement Matter concerns a licence agreement for a green field beside a school in Dublin 15, St. Patrick's National School in Diswellstown. The agreement is with Park Developments Group. It is a local agreement between the school and developer for the use of the land. It is zoned for community infrastructure and will not be used for housing. The agreement has worked very well. The school needs it for playing. It is the only green space it has. On 30 June, Park Developments Group has said it will revoke the licence unless there is significant progress on the purchase of the field. I will explain why that is so important, not just in terms of playing.
The school was built as a three-stream school and has been operating as a four-stream school for the past three years. It is on a three-stream site, and even at that it was squashed. For the past three years the school has used two community centre rooms, one of which only has one window, and the library of the school as classrooms. None of those rooms have proper bathrooms and children do not have any green area in which to play besides the field.
If the school is not expanded, it will have to revert to three streams because it cannot accommodate any more children. A four-stream school is not sufficient to meet the demand in the area. Every year I deal with disappointed parents who cannot get their children into the school. The pupil-teacher ratio is 30:1.
A two classroom extension in a new prefab was opened recently, but the cycle will start again in September with the library being used as a classroom for the school year 2021-22.It cannot continue like this. This is just the beginning of the challenges this school faces. It was built in 2006 and in 2010 the presence of pyrite was discovered. Engineers recommended a total removal of the hardcore infill. That work needs to be done but legal proceedings through the Chief State Solicitor's office are ongoing. There were issues as the contractor that built the school in the first place expressed interest but that was not a situation with which the school wanted to proceed. I believe there is mediation going on between the parties but if unsuccessful, the Department will instruct the Chief State Solicitor's office to set the case down for trial with a view to progressing the permanent remediation works, in parallel with legal proceedings. This school faces emergency works every year and has lost more play spaces in its yard because of pyrite.
In the short term we need this field. Going into September of a school year without a green play area, with all the children squashed into the areas the school has is unthinkable. In the medium term the school needs that field for the permanent remediation works, to accommodate the children in other areas while the work is ongoing in order that the school can continue to function properly. We also need this field for the long-term expansion of the school for the area because there is ongoing development. The school has the field up until 30 June and the clock is ticking. Park Developments has signalled very clearly that it needs to see significant progress when it comes to purchasing this field. The school wants it, Park Developments wants it and the Department has told the school that it should continue to take in students on the basis that it would purchase this field. I ask the Minister of State for an update on this.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. To put this issue in context, in order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, with data from a range of sources, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. Due to an increase in demand for primary school places in the Diswellstown area, which the Senator mentioned, enrolments for St. Patrick’s National School have increased by 13% in the past five years to the current enrolment of 835. The current staffing levels comprise one principal, 31 mainstream teachers and one developing post. The land and building out of which the school is currently operating will not allow for any further expansion, as the Senator has correctly pointed out. The land adjoining the current school site is deemed suitable to meet the Department’s requirements to allow the school to expand to a full four-stream school. Acquiring the site of approximately 1 acre to the north of the existing school site would provide accommodation for a displaced car park, additional car parking, displaced ball courts and pedestrian and cyclist permeability to Diswellstown Road.
As the Senator may be aware, officials in the Department are working closely with officials from Fingal County Council under the memorandum of understanding on the acquisition of the plot of land adjacent to St Patrick's National School. This site acquisition process has been progressed in respect of the requirement in question and in line with standard acquisition protocols. Negotiations, which are ongoing between officials in my Department and the owner of the additional 1 acre plot adjoining the current school site, are not straightforward. An offer for the land has been made by Fingal County Council on behalf of the Department. However, the landowner has introduced a number of preconditions unrelated to the sale of this land, which I am not at liberty to discuss. Discussions on these preconditions between the Department and the vendor are at a sensitive stage. I reassure the Senator that everything possible is being done by Department officials because they appreciate the urgent necessity to acquire these lands, for the reasons the Senator has so eloquently outlined. They are working very closely with officials in Fingal County Council to expedite the acquisition as efficiently as possible. I understand the urgency of this matter.
The Senator also mentioned the pyrite issue. That situation is being monitored and there is funding available under the emergency works scheme if needed.
It is important to set out the criteria the Department looks at when acquiring a site and evaluating a site's suitability. First, it looks at the zoning. As the Senator has said, this site is in a community infrastructure zone so it is suitable from that perspective. It also looks at existing services, site orientation, topography, transport and access, which are all very important criteria. As I said, this site is of interest to the Department and as the Senator has outlined, it is already being used as a play area for the school. The adjoining land is most suitable for an expansion of the current school accommodation. The Department is in negotiations with the landowner but agreement has not yet been reached in order to obtain the best value for money for the Exchequer.
I thank the Minister of State for that response. I am glad to hear that the Department is committed to this project and understands the urgency behind it. This issue has been going on since December 2019 so I sincerely hope a resolution and an agreement can be found and I hope Park Developments will come to an arrangement with Fingal County Council and the Department. The school would like to have space for the provision of a special class as well. It is in all our interests that this proceeds as quickly as possible. I understand that it is a sensitive matter but information has not been forthcoming. The school feels as if it is in limbo. The Minister of State is right that there has been a 13% increase in enrolments and there would be a lot more if there were more space for this school. It is a great school and I hope we can get this across the line as soon as possible.
I completely agree with the Senator. This issue needs to be expedited, particularly if it has been going on since 2019. However, the Senator will appreciate that the negotiations do not involve just one party. Discussions are ongoing with Fingal County Council as well as with the landowner and these preconditions need to be teased out and deliberated upon. We need to see if commonalities can be found in order to continue and progress with the site acquisition. I note what the Senator said about a new prefab. There is urgency to this matter as a library is to be used as a classroom. We in the Department will be doing everything we can to ensure the negotiations progress as expeditiously as possible. I will also bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. The Senator highlighting it today in the Seanad will concentrate minds and may result in the expedition and resolution of this issue in early course.