Monday 19 November 2018

Independent review following school safety controversy to be conducted by construction expert

Scaffolding erected at Tyrrelstown Educate Together school. Photo: Mark Condren
Scaffolding erected at Tyrrelstown Educate Together school. Photo: Mark Condren
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The independent review into the Design and Build programme at the centre of the school safety controversy will be conducted by someone with expertise in the construction industry, not a lawyer.

Education Minister Joe McHugh told the Dail today that he wanted the review to look at accountability and culpability, and also lessons that needed to be learned about building safe schools.

The Department is known to be keen to avoid a tribunal-type inquiry, usually conducted by a judge or senior counsel, which, potentially, could have implications for pursuing separate legal avenues.

Mr McHugh said “I do not want it set up so that it will impact on the legal process, the legal channels have to continue,” as he referred to legal action already initiated by the Department against the company at the centre of the building controversy, Western Building System (WBS).

“I want to be crystal clear that, in parallel to this, we fully intend to pursue Western Building System through all contractual and legal challenges for the costs arising from the structural defects” he said.

Labour TD Joan Bruton said it should be headed by someone extremely experienced and competent in relation to building and someone like a reputable senior counsel, because “obviously there are a high number of issues as to where ultimately legal responsibility will fall”.

Solidarity –People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger asked would there be a criminal type investigation or would it “just be an inquiry that would  look at some specifics.”

Meanwhile, the minster said the Department’s legal teams were working closely with the Attorney General’s office and the Chief State Solicitor’s Office on the issue of responsibility.

The Department is pursuing Co  Tyrone-based WBS in relation to fire safety works at four schools arising from checks conducted in the past year.

It was while conducting fire safety remediation work at Ardgillan Community College, Balbriggan, Co Dublin that “significant structural issues” came to light, which led to structural checks on 42 WBS-built schools.

While Mr McHugh described Ardgillan as “an outlier”, 23 of the 42 schools have been confirmed as either needing remediation work or have precautionary protective measures in place pending further investigation.

Mr McHugh also addressed the issue of where responsibility lies for certifying projects built under the Design and Build programme, which has been the subject of a dispute between the minister and WBS.

He repeated that the contractor and the contractor’s design team “are very clearly responsible for ensuring quality and for presenting certificates which confirm that the buildings are constructed in accordance with the works requirements and building regulations.

The certificates signed by Western Building Systems are on the Department’s files – yet, as we now see, significant issues have been uncovered in buildings which were confirmed by the contractor as having been compliant with regulations”.

Arising from concerns in  relation to fire safety, since 2017 the Department  appoints  clerk of works to school building sites. WBS points to guidance on the Department’s website setting out the role a clerk of works, including that person is there “primarily to represent the interests of the client in regard to ensuring that the quality of both materials and workmanship are in accordance with architects/engineers drawings and specifications.

Independent TD Mick Wallace, who has a background in the construction industry,  said that even with a clerk of works on a Design and Build site,  “the responsibility is 100pc with the contractor”.  He said if a clerk of works saw something a miss, they would not have the power to stop a contractor, who could say “I will take responsibility for this”.

Mr Wallace said the Design and Build approach “creates huge problems.”    

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