Tuesday 28 March 2017

Budget for run-down schools to be slashed by €62m

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Construction prices are down 40pc, so very low tender prices have been part of the problem

OVERCROWDED and dilapidated primary schools will lose €62m of the money they were supposed to get for building works this year.

It comes as a major blow to schools that have been waiting for years to get their new building.

The money is part of the €378m budget earmarked specifically for primary school building in 2010.

But Education Minister Mary Coughlan last night admitted a significant portion of this year's budget would go unspent, largely because of delays related to difficulties in the construction-industry.

The minister also said that, because of the State's current financial position, there would be no carry-over of unspent money from the building programme to next year.

In recent years, 10pc of the fund could be carried over if it was unspent. Last year, €72m was transferred into the 2010 budget.

The main victims of the 2010 underspend are schools waiting for a large-scale work, such as new building or a major extension or refurbishment.

The money is being diverted to the third-level sector and the technology in the classroom programme in post-primary schools

The minister said that €42m would go to third-level colleges for capital works, which they were in a position to carry out immediately.

The remaining €20m would be spent on information and communications technology in post-primary schools and in post-leaving certificate colleges.

Ms Coughlan said the school building programme had progressed as planned this year with the exception of the large-scale projects and, to a lesser extent, site acquisitions. On a positive note, construction prices are down 40pc from the height of the boom, but Ms Coughlan said that had contributed the challenge of ensuring that the full allocation was spent .

Very low tender prices quoted by some builders had been part of the problem, leading to delays in bringing projects to conclusion.

The minister said in some cases the department had challenged quotes because they felt that builders would not be able to deliver the job at the price.

Another difficulty the department encountered was confirming the availability of a bond prior to a contract being awarded, as a result of uncertainty in the banking sector.

She said there were also increasing examples of contractors, sub-contractors and other professionals associated with school building projects going out of business while they were engaged on school projects.

Flexibility

The 2010 school building programme included €30m for devolved grants to 200 schools giving them the flexibility to arrange their own building works. But the minister said that in some cases the school had not made any claim to draw down the funding six months after it had been approved.

"The department has contacted a number of schools in this category and understands that the difficulties they are experiencing are similar to the difficulties being experienced by the department on the large-scale projects," she said.

"These include difficulties in the development of the design and delays in securing appropriate planning permissions."

Labour education spokesperson Ruairi Quinn asked whether the department's building unit was fit for purpose and suggested that it was time for the building programme to be handled another way.

Two other areas of the department's budget saw a significant underspend. The Residential Institutions Redress scheme is down €10m on its €53m forecast mainly because of fewer awards than anticipated, while administration and legal costs for the Commission on Child Abuse has been cut to €12m arising from a critical examination of legal bills.

Irish Independent

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