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Although I will focus today on the impact that the delay in completing the Lagan College building project has had on my constituents in South Belfast, it clearly also affects people who live in areas beyond South Belfast. My colleagues Stephen Farry, Naomi Long and others have been contacted repeatedly by people who are concerned about the lack of progress in the process.
Lagan College, which was founded in 1981 with just 28 students, is Northern Ireland’s first planned integrated school. The central aim of governors and staff is to educate together and to the highest standards Catholics, Protestants and others of goodwill of all abilities. Today, there are 1,230 students, including 200 in the sixth form, the majority of whom will proceed to higher education. The college, which is consistently oversubscribed, is a bilateral school that admits 35% of its annual intake on the basis of the transfer grade. In 2009, 91% of students achieved three or more A levels, and 70% of students achieved five to 10 GCSE passes at an A* to C grade.
The first phases of the permanent buildings were opened in 1991, and the technology and design block was added in 1997. In 2001, it was announced that the college was to receive £11·1 million — now around £20 million — for completion of the permanent buildings, the first suggested date for completion being September 2006. That project comprised three schools: Lagan College, Down High School and Tor Bank School
Down High School withdrew from the project after one year. However, eight years after the project was announced, the buildings for the remaining two schools appear to be no closer to completion. It is appalling that 70% of teaching takes place in temporary accommodation.
It was decided that Lagan College would take the public-private partnership (PPP) route. The college would not have selected an option that bundles together into a single project three markedly different schools: a special school, an education and library board school and a grant maintained integrated school. The project was also complicated by the fact that Lagan College is located on a National Trust site that has a 99-year lease, and any extension or change must be approved by the trust’s board.
The project is an extension and refurbishment of the main building. The college’s staff have worked hard and done everything in their power to keep the process going, but the project has encountered hurdle after hurdle over the past few years.
When the evaluation of the bids was completed at Easter 2008, the schools were confident that they would have had a preferred bidder and be on the way to signing a contract by the spring of 2009. Unfortunately, the issues that have delayed the process must be resolved before a preferred bidder can be announced. Construction has been pushed back to at least the autumn, or even the winter, of 2010. That will be almost nine years after the project was announced. It took until early March 2009 to resolve the majority of the issues. The final issue that threatens to delay the project further is the ability to finance it in the current market conditions. The Department of Education, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Strategic Investment Board must develop a resolution with the utmost urgency.
The delays are having a detrimental effect on the college’s operation and planning. The site and building were designed to accommodate 600 students; the current enrolment is 1,230. Although an agreed allowance has financed an extra general classroom for the past five years, the amount of specialist accommodation has not increased. There is a serious shortage of specialist facilities for physical education, ICT, home economics, art, science and music. The college has one multi-purpose hall of 260 sq m that is constantly overbooked and overused. That is the only facility in which the college can deliver the PE element of the curriculum throughout the Key Stages. The hall is in increasing demand as a venue for extra exams throughout the year. To help to overcome the difficulties in the PE department due to the lack of facilities, a temporary PE unit is being built.
The college lacks the space for a study for sixth-formers, and those students have no common room or recreational facilities. The existing canteen was designed to accommodate 260 students at a sitting; it now caters for 500. It is impossible for the college to draw up a maintenance schedule for permanent, semi-permanent and mobile classrooms, because it has no idea how long it will be before they are moved or demolished as part of the decant phase of the construction. The maintenance of the temporary buildings is costly. Many mechanical and electrical installations are due to be replaced or upgraded, but it is also impossible to budget for any changes until a schedule for the project’s completion is agreed.
Due to the large number of mobile classrooms, the college spends a disproportionate amount of its budget on heating and electricity. That is detrimental to the health of students and staff, and it also has a high negative environmental impact. In addition, the college is not able to avail itself of any grants to improve energy efficiency until the new building is due.
The college is constantly writing to the Department about health and safety issues because of the increasing enrolment and the nature of the site. Those issues include car parking, drop-off facilities for parents, bus bays, which cater for a maximum of 14 buses safely, but are now being used by 17 buses, and the need for a perimeter fence around the college. However, the Department has informed the school that it is reluctant to invest money because of the building project. The Department of Education has recently added 20 extra spaces for car parking, replaced five double mobiles and two art mobiles, and extensively repaired one double mobile. However, those are all piecemeal actions: they are not really what the college wants.
The whole situation is totally unacceptable. Lagan College needs those buildings now. Parents send their children to the college in good faith and in the expectation that the building will be completed. Many staff have spent untold hours at meetings and feel utter frustration because of the continual delays. The Department selected Lagan College for this unbelievably complex process, and it is essential that the Department now works closely with the college to draw up an agreed timetable for completion so that staff can plan with those dates in mind. The pupils deserve a proper school building that is fit for purpose.
Given that the school is in my council area and in the South Belfast area, I have been involved in a fair amount of work with it over the years, particularly at council level. I am aware of its very serious plight. It is unsatisfactory for pupils in any school in any part of Northern Ireland to be taught in mobile classrooms. Unfortunately, however, that is part of the reality of the situation. It is not possible to provide for every school, but Lagan College has substantially increased its pupil numbers over the years. It suffered fairly severe damage to classrooms and computers a while back, and, on that occasion, the board and the Department were very good and sorted out the situation as soon as they could.
I know that Down High School is now out of the scenario, but Lagan College is tied to Tor Bank School. My colleague Iris Robinson, along with political colleagues from many different parties, has been heavily involved in trying to get Tor Bank sorted out for a number of years. It provides accommodation for pupils from all parts of Belfast and from outside the greater Belfast area. It is disgraceful that it has been in the position of working with mobiles for many years.
When I and other members of the South Eastern Education and Library Board were sacked, which the Minister agitated for, Tor Bank School was a regular topic of discussion. We all tried to do what we could to get the issue resolved, but even now that has not happened. I worry that Tor Bank and Lagan College are linked in a PPP project. The best way to put it is that one school holds back the other.
I hope that the Department will quickly look at Tor Bank School and Lagan College. I will not go through all the statistics presented to the Assembly by Anna Lo. Needless to say, there are accommodation problems and there is very serious need. Many pupils have left the school having spent their full education there in mobile classrooms. That is totally unsatisfactory and should not happen. Lagan College is a good school that is well used by all sections of the community in South Belfast and Castlereagh.
On the matter of the roads and the increase in traffic for buses, I must be fair and say that Roads Service has done a considerable amount of work over the years to improve the roads outside the entrance to the school. A footpath was also put in. Former board members worked together to move forward that work. However, there is a traffic problem. It is a busy road, and I appreciate that the turning circle in the school grounds is not satisfactory at present. So many buses are going in and out that health and safety issues arise, which puts added strain on teachers, pupils, parents and everyone else who has to deal with the situation
I ask the Department to take a serious look at the issues affecting Lagan College. I also ask the Minister to look at Tor Bank, which deals with some of society’s most vulnerable children. Time is of the essence, and both schools’ situations must be sorted out. I urge the Minister, her Department and its officials to do all that they can to resolve the situation after so many years of waiting.
I thank my South Belfast colleague Anna Lo for bringing this important issue to the House. The delay in the extension and refurbishment of Lagan College and the development of permanent buildings there, as well as the slowness in providing the promised new school building at Tor Bank, is nothing short of a disgrace.
Building projects for each of those sites were announced in early 2002. At that stage, the expected completion date for Tor Bank was September 2005, and for Lagan College, it was September 2006. More than seven years on from that initial announcement, as we approach the end of 2009, construction work has not yet even begun on either site. Indeed, contracts have yet to be awarded. That is despite the expected timeline of about 18 months from the critical initial planning stage to the final negotiations of the PPP projects, as published on the Department’s website. Eighteen months is a lot shorter than seven years, and it is still going on.
The next set of estimated completion dates for the projects, as outlined by the Department, is somewhere in late 2010 or early 2011. If we stick to that timetable, more than eight years will have elapsed since the initial announcement was made.
Even after a seven-year wait, when one obstacle followed another, although it is understandable that there is a lot of hope, there is little confidence among pupils, teachers, parents and principals that that suggested timeline will be fulfilled. Given that Members provided background information on the disastrous delays and ongoing obstacles and made valid points about the detrimental impact that those problems continue to have on pupils and staff at both schools, there is no need for me to repeat what they said.
In the past seven years, needless time, effort and money have gone into both projects. Between the two sites, more than 30 project board meetings have been held, not including meetings with prospective bidders. Furthermore, I am told by the Tor Bank School principal that, in the past seven years, well over 150 meetings were held in an attempt to move the project forward, not to mention the significant amount of time that departmental officials spent on the matter and the consultancy fees that the Department spent.
As Members may have gathered, Tor Bank School is not an ordinary place. Profoundly handicapped children are expected to operate on a steeply inclined site, and many of them cannot get from one part to the other. It is a most unsuitable place even for physically able pupils, and it is an absolute disaster for children who are confined, as many of them are, to wheelchairs. Unfortunately, we are where we are, and the burning task before us is not to look back, but to focus on moving forward.
A month ago, in response to a question for written answer, the Minister of Education said:
“my Department has to be assured that this project is the best way forward.”
That frightens me. She went on:
“The Department is therefore working closely with those involved in the project to address this issue as a matter of urgency.”
More shakiness, flakiness, uncertainty and indecision seem to be emerging, and that response leaves me concerned and confused. Therefore, I would welcome further clarification on the Minister’s statement. I want her to clarify whether she has reservations about value for money and the use of PPP as a procurement process, or whether her reservations are simply about the Tor Bank School and Lagan College redevelopment projects.
It would also be extremely helpful to all concerned if the Minister would confirm whether the obstacles that are halting the PPP process will be overcome so that the latest completion date of late 2010 or early 2011 can be met. If meeting that deadline is not possible, will the Minister fulfil her commitment to carry out the refurbishment and the newbuild by prioritising the projects under the traditional procurement process so that work can begin immediately?
The SDLP is on record as expressing grave concerns about the ability of PPP to meet essential value for money, transparency and accountability criteria. In particular, it felt at the time, and it continues to feel, that Tor Bank School, where the environment must change continually to meet the changing special needs of its pupils, and Lagan College, which is on a National Trust site, are both completely unsuitable for inclusion in a PPP project. The complications and agonising paralysis that have arisen from these projects are, regrettably, testimony to the fact that the SDLP may have been right.
Nevertheless, it is essential that we get a clear decision today, or in the very near future, on how to kick-start the urgent development work that is needed on both schools. Make no mistake, in the past seven years, the pupils in both schools have suffered, and they continue to suffer. Sadly, many children with severe learning difficulties and other shortcomings have died while waiting for the desperately needed improvements to be made to Tor Bank School.
We cannot lose sight of that, as school is for many children, and especially for those children, the only chance of getting a life.
That is why we need a clear decision today from the Minister. Decisions on Tor Bank Special School and Lagan College have been left hanging for too long; the confusion needs to end and we need decisive action now. The children, their teachers, their parents and all of us deserve it. If the PPP process will not work, we need to switch to a more traditional process that will.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I see that all the parties are represented in the Chamber. I welcome back Jimmy Spratt, and I am glad that he is here to hear my comments.
This is a serious issue. People are aware that I actively encourage and facilitate integrated education along with Irish-medium education; it is a part of my statutory duty that I take very seriously.
A couple of days ago, I attended a meeting with all the integrated schools in the South Eastern Education and Library Board area, and I am conducting a series of meetings with integrated schools across the North.
I agree with Jimmy Spratt on the issue of mobile classrooms. The Irish-medium and integrated sectors are the only sectors in which entire schools are housed in mobile classrooms, and that is simply not good enough. Our children should be educated in top-class buildings, and that is what we are moving towards.
Members know that I have a significant amount of money to invest, but there are rules and regulations about how I invest it. I cannot say that this project will go ahead right now, as Dr McDonnell and every other Member knows. We have to go through processes.
I thank Anna Lo for securing the debate. Since coming into office, I have opposed the use of public-private partnerships in schools. I have not approved any new PPP projects since taking office, and the Lagan College and Tor Bank Special School cluster is one of a number of legacy PPP projects that were already in procurement when I was appointed.
Bhí roinnt tosca ann a raibh tionchar acu ar sholáthar an PPP do Choláiste an Lagáin agus do Scoil Speisialta Tor Bank. Ar na tosca seo bhí athruithe sa scóip agus athruithe maidir leis na tairgeoirí chomh maith le hathruithe sa pholasaí d’úsáid PPP i scoileanna.
As people know, a number of factors affect the PPP procurement for Lagan College and Tor Bank Special School, including changes to the scope, the composition of the bidders and policy in relation to the use of PPP in schools. Two key changes referred to by Anna Lo, or perhaps another Member, delayed the procurement of all school-sector PPP projects: the change in policy in 2005, which removed catering; and that in 2006, which removed cleaning from the scope of services that transferred to the PPP operator.
Another significant issue for this PPP proposal was the need for Lagan College to negotiate a revised lease with the National Trust, as the school is situated on a National Trust site. That was mentioned earlier in the debate, and it resulted in some delays to the project.
More recently, a major issue arose as a result of last year’s change in financial markets, which was brought about by the banking crisis. The public-sector comparator was recently revised to take account of changing market conditions, and revised costings still indicate a value-for-money deficit, with additional risk attached as the project parameters remain volatile in the period up to financial close.
To appoint a preferred bidder at this stage would contravene the procurement guidance within which the Department must operate. There are also substantial additional consultancy costs on the project, associated with reaching financial close that have not been agreed with the Department. The Department has been provided with a business case setting out the details, and I have sought further clarification on the full quantum of consultancy support before making a decision.
A number of those issues have arisen due to circumstances and events that could not have been foreseen or mitigated by the Department or the project board.
The Lagan College/Tor Bank School PPP project is being procured by the project board, which is made up jointly of members of Lagan College, Tor Bank School, and the South Eastern Education and Library Board. Project management is provided by the PPP education service. The project is not procured by the Department, nor has the Department at any time put an obstacle in the way of moving the project forward.
I appreciate totally the frustration felt by staff and pupils at Lagan College and Tor Bank School, and I share that frustration. However, my Department must ensure that any eventual contract to provide the schools with new facilities is in line with government procurement policy and is affordable to the public purse. The Department is working very closely with those involved in the project to be assured that it is the best way forward.
To answer the question about timelines: the project board is seeking the best and final offer. All being well, the next stages are: the appointment of a preferred bidder, which will take one week or less for the project board to issue a letter; the preparation of the full business case and its approval by the Department, which will take nine to 12 months to financial close, depending on whether there are any planning issues; and the opening of the schools in 2011-12, subject to a 24-month build for Tor Bank School and a 42-month build for Lagan College. Therefore, if a contract were signed in nine months and the contractors went on site in June 2010, Tor Bank School would be completed in June 2012 and Lagan College in December 2013. That is probably not what Members wanted to hear, but I have to abide by procurement guidelines.
As I said at the outset, if I had had a choice, PPP would not have been my preferred way forward. It gives me no joy to be proved right about PPP projects. I assure Members that we will move this project forward as quickly as possible. I absolutely take on board the points that were made about Tor Bank, which I have visited. It is disgraceful that some of our most vulnerable children are being cared for in those conditions. Having said that, I know that Members will join me in paying tribute to the teams at both schools that have managed the difficult situation very well.
Adjourned at 5.02 pm