Thursday, 9 November 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Third Level Education
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, to the House for the second time this week on Commencement matters. It is good and refreshing to see a full line Minister, who sits at the Cabinet table, here for a Commencement debate. We are genuinely delighted he is here again.
I welcome the Minister to the House for this Commencement debate on two critically important projects for South East Technological University, SETU; namely, the acquisition of the former Waterford Crystal site, and the completion of the public private partnership, PPP, process for bundle 2 which will see a 12,000 sq. m engineering computing and general teaching building built on the Cork Road campus.
When I submitted this Commencement matter, I did not know that the Minister was going to formally write to me yesterday evening and issue a statement this morning confirming the approval of the purchase of the 20.3 acre former Waterford Crystal site. This Commencement matter, therefore, has been overtaken by events. Given that the Minister issued a formal statement at 9 a.m. this morning, I wish to formally record my thanks and appreciation to the Minister, his staff and his officials for the work they have done to arrive at this point. Today is a very positive day for our new university. I believe this is a strong statement of intent by the Government. It will future-proof the growth of SETU in Waterford city. Over time, it will regenerate one of the most strategically located brownfield sites in the region, a site which once employed thousands of people. To be able to repurpose that site now to educate and accommodate the next generation of young workers in industry is very important from a practical and symbolic point of view. I suggest the motives of those who dismiss the acquisition as anything other than a positive move have to be seriously called into question.
The Minister will agree with me that the various stages and the due diligence have been extensive and at times painstaking. I get that when a State is buying an asset, all processes have to be followed to a T but there is probably room to streamline those processes because it may not always be the case that there is a seller on the other side who is as patient as the vendor has been in this case. I am aware that the SETU president, Professor Veronica Campbell, along with Mr. Noel Frisby and the Irish Strategic Investment Fund, have very ambitious plans for a university innovation and enterprise quarter which they are very much looking forward to setting out in the next fortnight during the formal contract signing. I ask the Minister for early engagement by his Department in the design of the first building on the site and to ensure continued engagement from his officials about possible earlier delivery by bringing the former showrooms and offices on the Waterford Crystal site back into productive use for SETU in a much quicker fashion by using innovative ways to do that.
I wish to turn my attention briefly to the higher education bundle 2 PPP process, which encompasses five higher and further education buildings. The Waterford project is the largest in both bundle 1 and 2 with a 12,000 sq. m engineering, computer and general teaching building for the Cork Road campus. As the Minister will know, this project received planning permission in November 2019 and went into the PPP process in 2020. Both of those bundles have been very slow in moving. Bundle 1 had been moving about six months ahead of bundle 2 and that has now slipped to ten months. I understand the reasons behind this - the fact that just one consortium was left in the process, the very significant construction inflation and the need to ensure value for money for the State - but I firmly believe the process needs to be brought to a conclusion without any further delay. I would appreciate the Minister's comments on that.
I thank Senator Cummins for his tireless work in delivering a university for the south east and, subsequently, keeping the pressure on night and day to ensure we successfully acquired the Waterford Crystal site for the expansion of one of Ireland's newest and most innovative universities. I am delighted to be back here to discuss where we are at with the acquisition of the former Waterford Crystal site for SETU in Waterford and where we are at with regard to the PPP bundle 2 process.
I will be very clear, as I have been from day one, that part of the vision we have as a Government for the development of SETU - I know Senator Cummins shares this vision - is to expand its footprint in Waterford. We have said that day in, day out. We are not just interested in a name change or anything like that. We want to build a university of scale that serves all of the south-east region. As part of that, we want to see the footprint in Waterford growing with more students, more courses and more modern facilities in Waterford. This is a vision which I am very strongly committed to, together with Senator Cummins, because I believe this expansion will enable SETU to cater for increasing enrolments and to deliver an infrastructure transformation that reflects its university status and the mandate which we as Government have given this new university. Like the Senator, I want to thank Professor Veronica Campbell and her governing authority for the incredible way in which they have hit the ground running with regard to this project.
Earlier this year, as the Senator will be aware, my Department gave approval for SETU to expand its presence in Waterford by agreeing to accept the vendor's final reduced asking price for the 20.3 acre portion of the Waterford Crystal site.SETU has been engaged on the site in due diligence, which is obviously required as part of the pre-contract stage of a site acquisition. Today, I am delighted to inform Senator Cummins and the people of Waterford that this process has now concluded. I gave formal approval today to South East Technological University to proceed and sign the contracts to acquire the Waterford Crystal site. As to what happens next, very practically the next steps will be the signing of the contracts, and I understand that the president of the university is now arranging this with the owners of the site and that it will take place within a fortnight. This is huge, and Senator Cummins knows better than most how important this is beyond education because this is an iconic site that used to be full of people, enterprise and hope. However an economic crash hit our country and it has lain idle for many years. That was the past. Its future is now secure and it is now part of the exciting new university footprint. I genuinely thank Senator Cummins for his tireless work with me on this. I appreciate it has taken a long time and that it has been frustrating at times, but it has certainly been worth the wait. This is a very significant investment in Waterford and in the university.
Regarding the next issue, I again thank Senator Cummins for giving me an opportunity to provide an update on the engineering, computing and general teaching building on the Cork road campus of SETU, which is part of the public-private partnership, PPP, bundle 2 projects. There are 11 projects being progressed through the PPP programme. Bundle 1, which consists of six projects, has now commenced construction, and all projects will be delivered between quarter 4 of next year and quarter 2 of the following year. There are five projects in bundle 2, two of which are for the South East Technological University. We are discussing the one in Waterford today and there is one in Carlow. Those five projects as a bundle are currently at tender stage. I want to say very clearly, in case there is any doubt about this, that the new engineering, computing and teaching building is a high-priority project for me, for Government, for the Department and for the university. The new building in Waterford will have capacity for more than 3,400 students and approximately 160 staff. The bundle 2 procurement process is currently at tender stage. The competitive dialogue remains open. I know it is frustrating when I cannot say more but I have said very clearly that it is a high priority and I join the Senator in wanting to see this brought to a conclusion very quickly.
I thank the Minister for his forthright comments and again I thank him for the approval that has been given today to SETU to purchase that iconic site in Waterford. It is hugely welcome and I put on record my thanks for all those who have been involved in the process over the past 12 months and more. Regarding the PPP process, there has been justified inflation. It is a build and maintenance contract. The sooner we can proceed to final price on that, the better. The alternative of taking it out of the PPP bundle will not deliver further value for money in my view. The sooner the process can be concluded, the better. It is a really important project. I welcome the fact the Minister stated it is a high priority for the Government, and what I want to see is that the process will be concluded this side of Christmas.
I share the Senator's ambition on that. This is a high-priority project. It will involve me, at a point in time, needing to engage with my colleague in the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform. One way or another we need to bring finality to this and I think everybody shares that view.
Can I just say that a couple of people, or maybe a few more than a couple, in Waterford have doubted us a few times on this university, so let us look at their record today. First, they said there will never be a university in the south east. Wrong. Next, they said we would not attract great calibre of leadership. Wrong. We attracted the former bursar of Trinity College Dublin to be its first president and who is an exceptional academic and leader. We attracted the former provost of Trinity to head up the governing authority. Third, they said we would never acquire the Waterford Crystal site and today, they are wrong again. I am looking forward to proving them wrong for the fourth time when we deliver this engineering block as well. Today is a really good day for Waterford and for the south east. God knows, the people of Waterford and the south east have waited long enough. They deserve this. They deserve and need a university of scale, and Senator Cummins, with his Government colleagues in Waterford and his tireless work have delivered that for them.