Adjournment Debate

Schools Building Projects

I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy Hoctor.

This is a longstanding issue in regard to the provision of a PE sports hall at Scoil Ruain, Killenaule, County Tipperary. I was present in 2004, as was Deputy Hoctor and many other public representatives, when the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, announced that this project would go ahead. This project is on the books since 1999, if not before. A number of chief executive officers, including Mr. Pat Moroney and Ms Fionuala McGeever, have worked on it with their dedicated VEC colleagues. I compliment them and their staff on the VEC and, above all, the staff and principal in the school, Ms Colette Treacy, and her management, the parents council and so on. I also thank them for their patience and forbearance. However, patience always wears thin. This excellent sporting school has 345 pupils with a proud history and we were made all the more proud this year with our achievements on the playing field.

This facility is badly needed. It would cost approximately €1 million and the promise must be honoured. Deputy Hoctor and I are in negotiations with the Ministers for Education and Skills and Finance and their staff. This project has to be brought over the line because the time for talking is over. The planning permission is about to run out for the second time. It is time we put aside the pious platitudes. We need the go ahead for the building to allow the plans to go to design and construction and to allow the pupils, families and the staff to have a proper facility in which to reach their full sporting and educational potential.

I am pleased to share time with Deputy McGrath. The school originally applied for funding as far back as 1996 for a PE hall and, in February 1998, the Department approved the commencement of the project and architectural planning was initiated. A number of other steps were taken. In 2002, an announcement was made welcoming this project and, again in 2006, as my colleague indicated, yet the hall has still not been approved.

This is an exceptional project in so far as the Department has acknowledged in writing that the documents and file for this project went missing and were mislaid for two years. Only for that, the hall would be in operation by now. However, with that acknowledgement from the Department, there is goodwill to advance the project and I ask the Minister to include it in the capital programme for 2011 in order that the school can proceed to tender and construction.

The cost of such a project has reduced given the current economic climate and excellent value for money could be obtained by progressing with the building now. I appeal to the Minister to consider this project. I acknowledge the fantastic sporting achievements of Scoil Ruain, Killenaule, in the absence of a PE hall. It is reliant on the weather in scheduling physical education activities and games. While the astroturf is an excellent facility, the school and the entire community have no indoor sporting facilities. We ask that the project be advanced without further delay. We acknowledge the patience, determination and resilience of the staff and pupils of the school and the management of the VEC in south Tipperary. I hope the Minister will look on this favourably.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline the Government's strategy for capital investment in school building projects and the current position regarding the building project to provide a sports hall for Scoil Ruain at Killenaule, County Tipperary.

Modernising facilities in our existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. The allocation of funding for school buildings in 2010 is almost €579 million. This represents a significant investment in the schools building and modernisation programme. This level of funding, at a time of great pressure on public finances, is a sign of the Government's commitment to investing in school infrastructure and it will permit the continuation of the Department's programme of sustained investment in primary and post primary schools.

All applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings, site capacity and so on leading to an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners.

Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project. In other words, a proposed building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it. There are four band ratings overall, of which band 1 is the highest and band 4 the lowest. Band 1 projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exists, but there is a high demand for pupil places, while a band 4 project makes provision of desirable, but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities, such as a library or new sports hall. The project to provide a sports hall at Scoil Ruain has been assigned a band rating of 4.1 under the published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects.

All major projects on the Department's capital programme progress through the same structured process of architectural planning which is divided into clearly defined stages. There are five stages involved in the progression of major school building projects through architectural planning. These stages are set out in the Department's design team procedures and are necessary to comply with Department of Finance guidelines which require that capital projects be fully designed prior to going to tender. They also ensure proper cost management of capital projects and facilitate compliance with statutory and public procurement requirements. The building project for Scoil Ruain is at an advanced stage of architectural planning.

The progression of all large scale building projects, including this project, from initial design stage through to construction phase will continue to be considered in the context of the Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme for 2011 and subsequent years. However, in light of competing demands on the capital budget of the Department it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe, at this time, for the progression of this project to completion of tender and construction.

I have noted the Deputies' comments in this regard. They made a strong case for this project and I will convey their views to the Minister. I thank them again for the opportunity to outline the current position regarding the school building project for Scoil Ruain in Killenaule, County Tipperary.

Architectural Heritage

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue, namely the need for the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government to provide funding for the restoration of Kilbixy church, Ballynacargy, County Westmeath, through the Heritage Council and to outline other available heritage grants for this essential restoration project. The church of Kilbixy, St Bigseach's, is part of the earliest history of Christian Ireland. It is a protected structure and its conservation is essential in terms of our national heritage and that of County Westmeath, which is extremely proud of this link to its past.

I congratulate the Mullingar union of parishes for the comprehensive report it has prepared on this worthwhile project. There was some confusion in the Minister's Department. In reply to a parliamentary question I tabled on this issue, reference was made to an application made in May 2010, which was deemed by the Heritage Council to be incomplete. This was absurd, as the restoration group did not make an application until October last and all its documentation was very much in order. I hope this error will in no way impact on its application, as the report on which it was based was one of the most comprehensive and impressive I have ever seen.

Kilbixy is situated on the western shore of Lough Iron. The church itself is flanked by a Norman motte and bailey to the west and the site of the medieval town of Kilbixy to the east, once the capital of this part of the region before Mullingar. In fact, the site predates Norman development and it seems that an early Christian monastery was founded in the sixth century by a handmaid of St. Brigid.

The current Church at Kilbixy replaces two earlier churches. In a record by Bishop Dopping of 1682-85, Kilbixy is described as ruined, with no curate. Another reference to a church in 1682 indicates a tower or steeple, which would preclude its being the structure of the current church, but is proof of a pre-existing chapel. There is also reference in a report of October 1793 to the discovery of underground passages at Kilbixy, which indicate a monastic settlement of approximately the eighth century. There was also a leper hospital at Kilbixy, founded by Hugh de Lacy in 1197.

This church has a history that makes it essential for preservation and a major attraction for educational and tourist visits. The restoration group is sensitive to the responsibility of this heritage and is anxious that any new facilities would contribute to the long-term sustainability of the church and its enjoyment, without damaging its special character. This is to be achieved by identifying special features of the church and ensuring that restoration will repair and conserve, while protecting the historic character of the building.

According to the architect's report the building is in poor condition and remedial works are urgently required. These would include work on the roof space, the interior of the church and the exterior, both of which are badly cracked and exposed to water penetration. The severe weather conditions of last year have caused a rapid deterioration of the whole structure. The recently discovered crypt underneath the church is partially filled with stones blocking the entrance and it urgently needs to be cleared out. If it proves to be empty of human remains, the crypt would provide an excellent storage for a heating boiler, water pump and other equipment. Facilities needed to fulfil contemporary functional requirement have to be integrated into the current building. No separate structure is proposed as this would take from the integrity of the existing site.

Our history is of the utmost importance in this time of rapid change. We need to preserve our unique architectural heritage for religious, educational and tourist purposes. I hope the Minister can see a way to ensure this valuable heritage resource is not lost to future generations, unlike so much of the wealth of our unique past. I am sure he realises how vital it is to provide the Mullingar Union of Parishes with the funding to go ahead with this worthwhile project, through the Heritage Council and other bodies. I would welcome a positive reply this evening.

I am taking this matter on the Adjournment on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I understand that Kilbixy Church occupies the site of an early medieval monastic site founded by St. Bigseach and later a medieval religious foundation. The area around this church is of archaeological importance and is regarded as one of the finest examples of a deserted medieval borough in Ireland. I listened with great interest to the Deputy outlining the history of this site.

The application for funding for the Kilbixy Church restoration project, which was initially submitted to the Heritage Council in May 2010, was deemed incomplete by the council. As such, the project was not considered for funding this year. I have noted what the Deputy has had to say in that regard and I will certainly seek clarification from the Minister on that point. A further application was submitted to the Heritage Council for funding for emergency structural repairs and the conservation of Kilbixy Church, under the heritage conservation and management grants scheme in October 2010. This application is currently under assessment by the Heritage Council and a decision in regard to grant aid for such projects will be made by the council in February 2011.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has funded a number of grant schemes for the conservation of structures of architectural importance. The civic structures conservation grants scheme, administered directly by the Department, provides grants for the restoration and conservation of buildings of significant architectural heritage merit which are in civic ownership or occupation, and generally open to the public. The allocation for this scheme in 2010 was €1.38 million.

The significant places of public worship grants scheme, administered by the Heritage Council on behalf of the Department, provides grant assistance for major conservation works to places of public worship which are of national or greater importance, are protected structures and generally open to the public. The allocation for this scheme in 2010 was €0.5 million. The Heritage Council is responsible for the administration of grants under the scheme including the call for applications, assessment of applications and awarding of grants.

The local authority conservation grants scheme, administered by local authorities on behalf of the Department, provides grant assistance for the conservation of protected buildings, which are those buildings on the record of protected structures maintained by each planning authority. The allocation for this scheme for 2010 is €3.75 million. Information on this scheme is available from the relevant local authority.

The Heritage Council has also administered a programme of grants, funded through the Department, in the areas of heritage research, heritage conservation and management, and heritage education, community and outreach. The heritage conservation and management grants scheme supports projects that apply good heritage practice to the management of places, collections and objects. The closing date for the receipt of applications for purposes of the 2011 scheme was 8 October 2010. Further information on the scheme is available from the Heritage Council.

The Dáil adjourned at 3.40 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 7 December 2010.