Schools: Maintenance Budget

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 6th December 2016.

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Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 6th December 2016

1. Mr McNulty asked the Minister of Education whether he will increase the budget for maintenance for schools this year. (AQO 860/16-21)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for his question. School maintenance is an area of the budget that is always under pressure due to the ageing schools estate. That is partly why there needs to be an overall assessment of the schools estate. While there is a significant capital programme under way involving new builds, school enhancement projects and minor works, a significant number of schools require maintenance. That is funded from the resource budget. The budget for school maintenance is just one of the budgetary pressures faced by the Education Authority (EA). The budget position for Education as a whole remains challenging.

As in the previous year, an initial £14 million was allocated for maintenance for the 2016-17 financial year. I note that the Member asked about the budgets for this year; I am not quite sure whether he is referring to the remainder of 2016-17, which is about three months, or whether he is looking ahead. The £14 million was allocated for maintenance to enable the EA to undertake statutory and emergency response maintenance and address urgent health and safety issues. An additional £950,000 was allocated to the EA following the October monitoring round, which boosts it up to approximately £15 million. I will continue to highlight pressures in the maintenance budgets in monitoring rounds but, obviously, there will then be the question of where we are potentially for next year. Obviously, the focus, given the constraints of the budget, is still very much on urgent maintenance activities to address health and safety issues.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer thus far. Will he tell me whether there is a backlog in maintenance? If so, how much? Has he bid for additional resources in the monitoring rounds to clear that backlog?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Some of these things depend on where you draw the line. One description of a maintenance backlog for the school estate could be estimated at just under £300 million. I am sure that the Member realises that this is a little bit beyond the scope of a monitoring round. The definition of a maintenance backlog is to make good the costs that are necessary to bring school buildings back to the condition they were in when they were built. In many cases, you are talking about a degree of transformation. The argument for many buildings would be that, if you are trying to restore them to the position they were in on day 1, the level of expenditure required would be prohibitive. In many cases, a school enhancement programme (SEP), a new school build or even minor works would be a much more cost-effective solution. Obviously, those are outside the direct remit of the maintenance budget.

It is something that will be kept under review. To be perfectly honest, considering where we are in terms of the overall Budget position at present with the Executive, is there likely to be a great deal of money available in the next monitoring round? It is highly unlikely, but we will continue to have discussions in relation to that.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

The Minister recently sent a letter to schools requesting responses on how they can have better control of their own budgets. Will he detail whether, at this stage, he has any plans or proposals to put to schools? If not, are they at least in development?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The point was to have something relatively open-ended. There is no point in saying to schools, governors or school principals, "What autonomy do you want? We'll actually tell you what autonomy you're getting as part of that". It is an open-ended situation.

An issue around maintenance and procurement has been raised regularly with me as I have been out around schools. It was also raised with me before I became Minister. It is a very pertinent issue. It is an area that I intend to look at particularly closely if we look at autonomy, but the burdens in that regard go wider than that. There may be, at times, a slight element of urban myth about some of that stuff as well. I sometimes get responses from various school principals that outline a degree of frustration in terms of procurement and some of the blockages in that regard. While one wants to ensure that we have an open and transparent process, we should not have a situation where, in terms of getting some relatively minor maintenance done, it takes twice the time — possibly at a greater cost — than it would if there were a level of autonomy locally.

From that point of view, whereas no decisions have been taken about additional autonomy for schools, that would be a very live area within that. When we look at issues of autonomy, we should look at the expertise on the ground, particularly among school principals. That is just one of the aspects that is looked at, but I do not come with a prejudged opinion in that regard; that is why I am seeking the information directly from schools.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

My question is not dissimilar from the one that Mrs Dobson asked. Does the Minister accept that there is merit in considering delegating funding to schools for their maintenance projects? Surely there is some merit in that. Would he be prepared to consider that in future?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I would certainly be prepared to consider that. It is part of the wider consultation — it is, effectively, a pre-consultation — on greater autonomy. There is a feeling in terms of what is known on the ground that there is a range of issues, and maintenance is one obvious example where school principals know the best way to do things. They should, sometimes, have a degree of autonomy over what they prioritise within that. Balanced against that, there are economies of scale. You have to balance that out to make sure that you get the best possible value for money. If you are looking at issues around public procurement, there is a good argument, because the maintenance that is done directly in schools tends to be at a lower level, that a lot of that can be done with a budget delegated directly to schools. Nobody is talking about giving a school the money to build a new school or for an SEP or anything of that nature, but, if we are talking about day-to-day maintenance, there is good sense in looking at that closely.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answers. Continuing the theme of a certain autonomy for schools to carry out maintenance, is it the reality that there is no point in having autonomy if they do not have the budget and the resources to do that? Is this not in reality putting an additional burden on already overburdened school principals, who will now have to procure small works for their schools? Is this not and should this not be the work of the Education Authority?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I have indicated that these are issues for consideration, so it is not a done deal. It is about trying to work out where the dividing lines should be. I mentioned the figure of £14 million. If there was movement towards that low-level maintenance being dealt with at school level, the budget would have to follow the function. There is no point in doing otherwise.

On the other side of the coin — again, there are compelling cases in relation to that — if there is going to be greater level of autonomy and responsibility, that creates a certain level of burden. That said, on the other part of the consultation, we also need to look at the unnecessary bureaucratic burdens that we place on schools. Sometimes, schools will react and will say, "We do not want this" or "Why on earth are we being asked for that?". It may well be that, depending on the nature of things, there are good reasons why the Education Authority, the Department or an external body would seek that particular piece of information, but I am also concerned that we do not get a situation where there is simply a level of duplication. Sometimes, when issues have been raised with schools, it has been about the weight of the paper load that is there. Consequently, if we can create a situation in which there is sensible removal, where we can, within that, in many ways that goes to the other side of the coin in looking at greater autonomy. As with anything in life, if you take bigger decisions, there will be bigger levels of responsibility on you.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Before I call Mr Christopher Stalford, I have to inform the House that question 4 has been withdrawn.