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When a controlled school closes, the Education Authority (EA) will first consider whether it has any further use for the premises. Once the EA confirms that the property is surplus to requirements, my Department then determines whether there is any other educational use for it. If none is determined, the EA will commence the formal disposal process, with the approval of my Department. Disposal is in line with the guidelines set out by central advisory unit at Land and Property Services in its document, 'Disposal of Surplus Public Sector Property in NI', March 2013. These guidelines apply to all Departments. When a voluntary grammar, maintained or grant-maintained integrated school closes, responsibility reverts to the trustees, and it is for them to determine whether to dispose of the property.
I thank the Minister for his response. He has made great play of reusing school premises, such as the old Lisnaskea High School site. Has his Department an equality-proofed policy? Can he assure the House that in the case of the Lisanelly Strule project the proceeds accruing from the sale of the sites of the schools moving to the Strule campus will be treated equally and that the taxpayer will be protected?
I assure the Member of that. As I said in my original answer, my Department, as does any Department, has to work under guidance from the central advisory unit in relation to the disposal of surplus public-sector property. Where schools fall under other managing authorities — for instance, where they are maintained or in the voluntary sector and have therefore received grant payments in the past — there is a claw-back policy to protect all public funds.
The disposal of a property is in line with the disposal of the building or its potential future use. Often, deciding on a future use or the eventual clearance of the site takes so long that the building becomes a blight on the area or somewhere for vandals to gather and create a nuisance. Is there a timescale within which the decision-making process should be completed, so that the two scenarios that I have outlined do not become problems for those who live close by?
There is no timescale for the disposal of assets, but two factors encourage disposal. The first is the authorities, whichever category they are, because you have to pay rates on them. Security and insurance also become an issue. In many cases, it is in the best interest of the managing authority of the premises to dispose of the property or land as quickly as possible.