18. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the action he will take to ensure school building projects are completed on time; and if there is enough funding to complete the schools capital programme. (Question 14452/18 asked on 29 Mar 2018)
Deputy Thomas Byrne: I told the Minister at a committee meeting yesterday that he is fast becoming the Minister presiding over a collapse in the school capital programme. Whatever money was in it has been absorbed by increased building and land costs. I want to get the Minister’s response to that.
Deputy Richard Bruton: My Department’s capital programme continues to address the challenges posed by the significant bulge in pupil enrolments going through our schools. There has been significant expansion in the rate of provision of new school places. The capital programme details the school projects that are being progressed through the architectural planning process.
We are building more schools and providing more additional school places than ever before. This reflects the priority which the Government is placing on education. We have doubled the number of school places being provided from 8,900 in 2010 to 18,000 in 2017. We have also increased the number of large scale project completions from 25 in 2010 to 50 in 2016 and 46 in 2017. Since 2011, some 340 major school projects and more than 120,000 new and replacement places have been provided.
In addition, there are currently a total of 52 large scale projects under construction while a further 11 major projects with approval to advance to tender and construction are expected to commence on site shortly. A further 22 large scale projects are due to commence tendering over the coming months and are expected to start on site during 2018. That represents a total of 85 projects either under construction or progressing to commence construction in 2018. More than 80% of our school capital allocation has to be expended on the delivery of large scale projects and the additional accommodation scheme.
The Department is managing the school building programme in a manner which ensures that school projects in the architectural planning process are delivered as quickly as possible. There is a number of factors however such as difficulties with acquiring sites and issues arising in the planning process that have impacted on the pace of progress of projects announced. These issues are in the majority of cases outside the Department’s control. The Department is in ongoing liaison directly with each of these schools on the ongoing progression of their projects in the architectural and planning process.
Regarding the adequacy of funding, the Department is satisfied that the €8.4 billion investment in the National Development Plan 2018-2027 is sufficient to deliver the necessary school infrastructure over the next decade.
Deputy Thomas Byrne: Regardless of what schools are to be built, the problem is that a huge catch up will be required in terms of the school buildings that have not yet started and those that have not been completed. The schools that are only starting to think about their requirements for a new building and which do not appear on any of the lists do not have any chance. I would add to those the schools that will be required because of demographic pressures, and many of them are probably required already. There has been a dramatic drop of 30% in the number of small classroom extensions delivered at primary level in recent years. There has been a smaller drop in the number of small extensions and extra classrooms delivered at second level. However, there has been a dramatic increase of 25% in the provision of prefabs in 2016 to 2017 under the Minister’s watch and no one else’s watch. He is fast becoming the Minister for prefabs, the Minister who cannot secure the school capital budget. I appeal to him, as I do all the time, to go back to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and tell him that land and building costs have shot up, that he needs more money to build schools or we simply will not have the classes required and our children will have to continue to be taught in substandard accommodation.
Deputy Richard Bruton: The evidence is there. We have increased our capital budgets by 56% since 2013. In the mid-term review I secured an additional commitment of more than €200 million for 2019 to 2021. In the long-term capital programme we have €8.4 billion assigned to the school building programme. There is no doubt during the past seven or eight years there has been a unique expansion at both primary and secondary level, with an additional 50,000 to 60,000 pupils at primary level and an additional 50,000 pupils at second level. That has put a strain on capital budgets. As the Deputy said, it has meant there has been a squeeze in other areas where we would have liked to have been making capital provision, but we have to commit to the priority of making sure there are school places for everyone who is attending. That has been a priority. It has put pressure on us but, nonetheless, we have met all those requirements with a 120,000 additional school places being provided.
We have a system that ensures that every euro allocated to us is spent effectively. We have been very experimental in our approach using the NDFA, the Office of Public Works, the ETBs and rapid build to ensure the approach we take is flexible and effective. The Department building unit has done a good job. I know the Deputy is critical of its planning but that planning process has ensured that in recent years 61 additional new schools have opened.
Deputy Thomas Byrne: A pattern has developed such that if we say anything about the Government or a Department, we are accused of criticising civil servants. The Minister is the one who is held to account in this Dáil. I am holding him to account and nobody else when I ask questions in this Dáil, not civil servants. We had this with the strategic communications unit, SCU, and every time we mentioned it, the response was “those poor civil servants”. We are holding Ministers to account, not civil servants. The civil servants do their job, as we expect, in a non-partisan way. The Minister, however, is not doing his job in giving direction to civil servants as to what to do. That is where the accountability is. I feel that is not happening in respect of developing areas when I specifically question the Minister as to his requests for budget for the capital programme. It is all very well to have fantastic plans for the next ten years to build schools but the demand is there today. All of my colleagues will have questions tabled on a daily basis about specific school projects, as will the Minister’s own colleagues. There is nothing the Minister can say. We think about the schools which I raised in a parliamentary question this week. These seven schools, including two in my own constituency in Whitecross and Lismullen, have had to apply for planning permission more than once because the permissions ran out. That is a real difficulty which is adding extra costs. There are various reasons but, certainly in Meath, I would put it down to the lack of money in the Department. The money was not available and these schools’ planning permissions ran out. That is going to happen more and more.
Deputy Richard Bruton: When the Deputy’s party was last in government we were building 9,000 places. We are now doubling that and are building 18,000 places. We are meeting those commitments and delivering a very expansive programme. We have great ambitions for the future and we have set aside €8.8 billion for school capital for the coming years. This shows a huge commitment in the area of school building, which is matched by the commitment of the Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, to investment at third level. This is a unique investment in the talent of this country. We have a strong record of delivering quality projects. I have had the opportunity to visit some of those schools. Those 200 new schools which have been built up and down the country either to replace old schools or as entirely brand new schools represent a quality environment which we are delivering and we are delivering these schools according to need.