Monday, 28 June 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Schools Building Projects
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming to the House. My question aims to get answers about the unacceptable and intolerable delay to the school building project for Gaelscoil Cholaiste Mhuire. Seacht mbliana déag ó shin, thosaigh an Roinn Oideachas ag caint faoi scoil nua do bhunscoil Choláiste Mhuire. Ag an am seo, ní raibh aon fhéidearthacht ag an scoil ach dul go dtí foirgneamh sealadach i gCearnóg Parnell toisc nach raibh a foirgneamh féin oiriúnach a thuilleadh. Bliain tar éis bliain, tá páistí, múinteoirí agus pobal na scoile ag feitheamh ar fhoirgneamh nua. Rinneadh gealltanas tar éis gealltanas ach tá siad fós ag feitheamh. Is léir anois go bhfuil fearg dhocht agus fíordhíomá ar na tuismitheoirí, ar na múinteoirí agus ar phobal na scoile nach bhfuil aon dul chun cinn déanta dá scoil.
For almost two decades, this school has been getting assurances from Departments and representatives about a new building. Despite the amazing efforts of the board of management, the principal, the parents, all the school staff and the pupils, children are being educated in a building comprising four storeys over a basement. There are serious concerns about the plaster work in some of the classrooms, the car park has to function as a playground and there is no lift so any child with a mobility impairment finds it incredibly difficult to access the upper floors. Despite all that and the thriving and diverse school community, we have no progress on the long-promised school building for this school. What is really galling about this situation is that year after year the Department of Education is forking out €300,000 in rent for what is essentially a substandard building.
I want to raise two key issues. The first is the delay in progressing the new building and the second is the shameful manner in which the Department has treated the school. After a campaign late last year, the Minister for Finance gave a clear-cut commitment to the parents and school management that stage 2(b) would be completed within a matter of weeks at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021 as opposed to months and that construction would commence some time between July and September 2021. This was followed up by a reply to Deputy Ó Ríordáin that the stage 2(b) process would be completed and submitted to the Department no later than November 2020. It is six months on with no sign of stage 2(b) and no prospect of construction taking place next month. The children will get their school holidays tomorrow and we are facing into another September of the school having to operate in this building with no clarity as to when it will get its new school building. I can tell the Minister of State that the frustration within the school community is palpable.
As already stated, the second key issue relates to how the school has been treated.We have had to resort to submitting freedom of information requests to understand the engagement between the Department and the owners of the building adjacent to the proposed school building with regard to right of way, a flue vent and other matters. It is disgraceful that the Department has been less than forthcoming with school management. We need to hear four key things in the Minister of State's reply today. When is the stage 2B process going to be completed and submitted? Have all of the issues with the adjoining building be resolved? Will clarity be provided to the board of management as soon as possible? What commitments can now be made to the children, parents, school management and staff with regard to the date of construction? I understand that there are 357 schools on the list of prioritised school projects. Will the Minister of State give a personal commitment today that she, as Minister of State at the Department, and the Minister, Deputy Foley, will prioritise this school project? We cannot have this torturous process go on any longer.
I thank Senator Sherlock. Yes, I am a Minister of State at the Department of Education but my responsibility is for special education so this matter does not fall under my remit. I will, however, take the Senator's concerns back to the Minister, Deputy Foley. I hope I will be able to give the Senator a comprehensive response which will address some of the issues she has raised.
As the Senator knows, this project is included in the Department's construction programme, which is being delivered under the national development plan. The brief is to provide a new 16-classroom school on a site being purchased by the Department from Dublin City Council. This new school building will abut and be directly connected to the listed building on the neighbouring site. Planning permission was secured for this project on 28 May 2020 on the basis of a proposed amended right of way. Discussions have been ongoing with the owner of the neighbouring property with a view to finalising an agreement in respect of the proposed amended right of way and matters arising from the abuttal of the two buildings.
The major building project for this school is currently at an advanced stage of architectural planning. As the Senator mentioned, this is stage 2B which involves the detailed design work. This includes the applications for planning permission, a fire certificate and a disability access certificate as well as the preparation of tender documents. All statutory approvals have been secured but amendment to these approvals may be needed if there are changes agreed in relation to the right of way which impact on them. The design team is currently working to complete the stage 2B report which, upon completion, will be submitted to the Department for review. However, it is not possible for the design team to complete drawings and costings relating to the final design until such time as final agreement between all parties in relation to an amended right of way has been agreed. In parallel with this work, any consequent statutory approvals or compliance issues will need to be addressed and the legal position relating to the right of way will be addressed.
In order to expedite the progression of this project, in January of this year the Department authorised the design team to commence the pre-qualification process to select a shortlist of contractors for this project in parallel with the completion of the stage 2B report. The design team is in the process of completing the pre-qualification process. Upon receipt, review and approval of the stage 2B report and completion of the pre-qualification process the project will progress to tender and construction stages.
I understand the Department has met with representatives of the school on a number of occasions in recent months and I have confirmed the Department's commitment to the delivery of this project. The Department and the design team will continue to keep the school fully informed regarding the further progression of this project. I understand that a progress review meeting with the school authorities, the patron body, the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, and the design team leader is scheduled for today. The current position and next steps will be discussed at this meeting.
The Department has told me that it is committed to the progression of this project and will endeavour to assist the school in every way possible. I have heard what the Senator has said with regard to the rent being paid, the delay, communications from the Department of Education, the building of four storeys over a basement in which the school is situated, the plasterwork, the lack of a lift and the lack of clarity and progress. She can rest assured that the Department will be aware that she has raised these matters in the House today. All of her concerns will be brought back to the Minister, Deputy Foley. I will personally let her know about them.
I thank the Minister of State. I am conscious that she is a Minister of State in the Department, that her responsibility is for another area and that she has had to be provided with the detail of this today. However, a clear message must go out. The answer I have got in this Chamber today shows that the project has taken a step backwards. How is it that last December assurances were given that construction would commence between July and September of this year when, in the response I have got today, we have been told that the final design is awaiting final agreement between all parties, that the process is ongoing and that meetings have yet to take place with regard to the completion of stage 2B? That is a very sorry state of affairs. It is most regrettable that this school, which is just over 200 m from where the Department of Education is located, is not being prioritised by this Government and the Department.
Planning permission for the 16-classroom building, which is to be built on the site procured by the Department of Education from Dublin City Council, was secured on 28 May on the basis of a proposed amended right of way. The right of way has been the subject of much discussion with the owner of the neighbouring property, discussion which is ongoing. That two-pronged process with regard to the pre-qualification stage and the stage 2B report being carried out in parallel will expedite matters. There is a meeting with the school today. The issue of communication about this project needs to be sorted out. The meeting today with the school authorities, the Edmund Rice Schools Trust and the design team leader will help the school to understand the processes involved, why there have been delays and, more importantly, what work can be done to expedite the project to get the school up and running as soon as possible.