Schools Building Programme: Discussion

Our main agenda item today is the schools building programme and the publication sent to the joint committee by the Construction Industry Council, CIC, setting out its views on capital programmes in general. In this respect, I am pleased to welcome the CIC here today, in particular, Mr. Paul Keogh, president of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, Mr. John Lombard, past president of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland, Mr. Martin Whelan of the Construction Industry Federation, Mr. John Curtin, senior vice-president of the Institute of Chartered Surveyors, Mr. P. J. Rudden, vice-president of Engineers Ireland, and Mr. Mark McAuley, managing director of the Building Materials Federation. I thank them for their patience as the committee had a number of private issues to go into given the long delay over the summer.

The format of the meeting, as I think they will be aware, will involve a brief presentation followed by a question and answer session. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I ask Mr. Keogh to begin.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I thank the committee for inviting us. I will start by asking each of the delegation to introduce themselves.

Mr. Mark McAuley

I am the director of the Building Materials Federation, which is part of IBEC. We represent the manufacturers of building materials across the island of Ireland.

Mr. P. J. Rudden

I am vice-president of Engineers Ireland. We have 26,000 members around the country involved mostly in infrastructure, including school buildings. We have quite an interest in this area of education.

Mr. Martin Whelan

I am director of policy and research with the Construction Industry Federation which is the employer representative body. We have more than 3,000 contracting firms that continue to employ more than 100,000 persons in the Irish economy today.

Mr. John Lombard

I am the immediate past president of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland. We mainly deal with consultants in the private sector serving work such as schools, hospitals, third level education buildings.

Mr. John Curtin

I am senior vice-president of the Society of Chartered Surveyors. Our interest is primarily cost.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I am president of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland. I thank the committee for inviting us to make this presentation. The committee has a copy of the manifesto which the Construction Industry Council prepared and issued with a press release in June 2010.

The document makes the case for building a better Ireland — investing in infrastructure and the built environment to support Ireland's smart economy. Since the manifesto was issued, we welcomed the Government announcement on the capital programme and the degree of certainty it gives regarding investment for the future.

We again make the case to the committee today that we see it as essential that such a level of investment is not diluted in the forthcoming budget for three reasons, the first of which is its impact on employment, both direct and indirect, in construction and associated services. Any dilution of that investment will have major impacts on the burgeoning economic recovery, and a delay in rolling out the infrastructure and environment we need will have an impact on national competitiveness.

We see the schools programme as being critical to the smart economy objectives of the State. As the introduction to the document reiterates what is in the national development plan, Ireland cannot afford but to offer a high-quality environment and first-class infrastructure if we are to be competitive on the world stage.

As an architect, I can say that there is a huge difference between schools, sheds and warehouses. Some of us would say that the quality of school buildings should be the very best of buildings we build in the State. As Lord Puttnam, the famous film producer, native of west Cork and adviser to the Blair Government, stated about Ireland, investment in schools is a test of our national will to invest in the future of the country. We know from international surveys that the quality of the school infrastructure has a major impact on attracting inward investment and talent to nation states and to local cities.

We are concerned that Ireland's investment in schools infrastructure still lags behind the OECD average. We are at 4.5% of GDP whereas the OECD average is 6.2%. We welcome the investment which has been delivered in difficult times, but there is a real urgency to maintain and ramp up the schools building programme. We must plan for the future, in terms of design standards, in terms of efficiencies in procurement and delivery and in terms of maintaining local employment and investment in construction right across the country.

In terms of planning, we are still awaiting the results of the housing statistic survey being done by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and on the refreshment of the national spatial strategy. As it stands, we still do not know whether there are 100,000 or 300,000 surplus houses around the country. We believe, from the reports from Sherry Fitzgerald last week, that the figure is much more likely to be at the latter mark. If we do not know how many surplus houses there are and where they are, how can we plan an efficient school delivery programme? The Department tells us that current estimates are that by 2016 we will need an extra 60,000 primary school places and up to 20,000 secondary school places. Unless we have Central Statistics Office figures for housing and a refresh of the national spatial strategy, how can we plan for where those schools are going to be built? If we cannot plan for them, how can we deliver them? The children are being born and need the places. A crisis is imminent in the system.

Since I took over as president of the institute in January, we have had active engagement with the building unit of the Department. It should be said the quality of some of the school buildings we have built in the last decade is the best in the world. Members may know the work of Grafton Architects which has built schools in Donegal, Galway and elsewhere, some of which are well known. Last year the company won "a best in the world" prize for a university it had designed in Milan. If we put our minds to it, we can build the best school buildings in the world. What we must do is prioritise quality and design. With the downturn, this is the time to plan for the future. We do not need to resort to repeating generic designs, rapid school building programmes or provide emergency pre-fabs. We have time to plan and deliver a school building programme in an efficient and sustainable way.

On a positive note, I am glad to say the Department's building unit has sponsored an RIAI architectural foundation competition, Space for Learning, where architects are working with schools throughout the country to look at what the school of the future will be like. Positive engagement between us, the CIC and the Department will result in a joint committee and a national school building conference being held in the early part of next year.

The existing stock needs to be audited. This does not apply to schools only. I have mentioned housing, but we also need to audit health, leisure and arts infrastructure. There is still no accurate audit of all school buildings, their quality of space standards, energy performance, accessibility issues and their general condition. From my own experience as a practising architect, last year I was asked to look at two schools, one in Dublin and one in Cork. I asked the principals for the plans and the files on the building premises, but they were not available. Notwithstanding this, the building unit is conducting an audit. In line with announcements by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, we believe the Government will have a national internship programme for unemployed or under-employed architects, engineers and surveyors which could be rolled out to cover a comprehensive audit of existing stock to find out what we need to do to these buildings to make them fit for purpose in a 21st century OECD economy.

The next issue that is important is procurement. The last time I sat in this room the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Deputy Penrose, said the procurement procedures being adopted were systematic processes to delay the delivery and roll-out of essential infrastructural projects such as schools. Last month we received Circular 10/10 from the Government, a specific response to concerns raised by SMEs about roll-out and inclusion. A number of issues have been raised. Yesterday I met the City and County Architects Association which has major concerns as to whether Circular 10/10 will slow down the delivery of some projects. On the other hand, as the Construction Industry Federation will state, it is opening the door for small firms to be involved. It is essential, therefore, that we work with the Department of Finance and the Government contracts committee to ensure Circular 10/10 will deliver what it is meant to deliver, the roll-out of projects efficiently and in a timely manner.

Both professional consultants and contractors are deeply concerned about below-cost tendering. I do not know a single architect who has not been involved in a school or public building project where someone has gone into liquidation, whether the main contractor or the heating, plumbing or other sub-contractor. There are major issues. From the designers' point of view, we are concerned that while fee tendering is essential to ensure efficiencies in the system, below cost fee tendering which has been the norm of late has resulted in a diminution of standards. We cannot afford to reduce standards at this time, particularly as the Government's innovation task force which promotes the smart economy is stating we must have buildings which are better designed to ensure energy performance and sustainability. We must invest more in design and prioritise quality of design and delivery, as opposed to achieving the lowest price.

A number of architects to whom I speak tell me they have schools on their books for eight, ten or even 12 years. It is essential, if we are to deliver the 250 schools which we estimate we will need in the next five years, that the procurement and delivery processes be streamlined. We must refresh the national spatial strategy and bring development plans up to date. Local area plans must also be rolled out. These will identify demographic pressure points, where schools will be needed and how we will deliver them. In fairness to my colleagues from the building unit, we need additional resources to speed up the roll-out of the programme more efficiently.

I thank the joint committee for giving me the opportunity to make this presentation. Our priorities are that the committee will do what it can to make sure the public capital programme, limited as it is, is maintained in the forthcoming budget and not diminished, for the reasons we have given, including the impact this would have on employment and recovery. We want to see the efficient roll-out of 250 schools in the next five years and a national school building programme as a priority.

I welcome Mr. Keogh and his colleagues. I welcome the thrust of what he says, that quality design and schools lead to a better environment for learning. There is no reason we should not be as good as or better than most countries in Europe.

Mr. Keogh referred to generic design. I have seen this work successfully in Drogheda where a new community needed a school urgently. Within three months the Department managed to get through all of the planning stages and have the school open for business in September. There are benefits to generic design in such situations, which I very much welcome. We need to do what is cost effective in the economy, what can be done and what is efficient. Notwithstanding the issues Mr. Keogh raised about design and quality which I support, when one has to build a school urgently and immediately, generic design can go a long way to help.

Water conservation is a major issue. Waste of water is an important environmental issue. The idea of schools not having a water conservation programme or the Department not funding it properly does not make sense to me and I will be questioning the Department about this later. Every school which does not have such a programme should have one in place. This would help many small builders and business people. We should fast-track measurses such as water conservation programmes and it is a shame that this has not been properly funded, as it should be one of our major priorities. It is a win-win, as many schools are paying a fortune in water rates. I know there is an active green schools programme to reduce water wastage and that is the way to do it.

Do the delegates have a view on the fact that only 2% of schools have high speed broadband? Putting high speed broadband infrastructure in place is essential for the smart economy.

I agree with Mr. Keogh on the need for an energy audit. This is especially the case if the energy is being wasted when it could be conserved. All these actions are easy to implement and they do not cost a fortune. It is a no-brainer, so to speak. It seems that if the delegation has to call for them, this indicates there is not adequate action from the political establishment on those issues.

I will choose my words carefully for my final point as I do not wish to be misinterpreted. One of the complaints I hear in the north east where I live is that local contractors competing for State contracts, including refurbishment works in schools, find they are priced out of the market by competitors from Northern Ireland. I am not sticking my head in the sand on this matter. People are saying they cannot compete on a cost basis. One contractor told me he had to let go 50 or 60 men. He made them redundant. He moved his company to Northern Ireland and he re-employed his employees. They were then responsible for their own tax arrangements. The only way he could compete was by closing down his Irish operation and setting up in Northern Ireland. His workers are paid at lower rates but at least they have a job. I ask the delegation to comment on this issue. Irish contractors cannot compete in their home town because of costs. This is an issue that must be addressed.

I welcome the members of the delegation and I apologise that the committee took so much time earlier. I have a number of questions and I will try to be as succinct as possible. We do not know the condition of the existing building stock of the 3,200 primary schools or the 750 secondary schools, let alone the new schools that have to be built. The Department of Education and Skills has had two years of harassment from me and perhaps from within its own reaches asking for an audit of buildings. The committee will have an opportunity to speak to the Department later. Does the delegation know the up to date situation? The per capita primary school sector grant pays for approximately 50% of the running costs of a typical school of 100 pupils. Energy and water rates are two elements that could be improved. Has the delegation a view on how the existing stock of buildings could be retrofitted effectively and efficiently?

I regard the stages for the building programme as being a form of rationalised rationing. The Department in Tullamore — through no fault of the officials because this is a political decision and not a bureaucratic decision — is about as transparent as either the Kremlin or the Vatican. What is the delegation's collective experience of dealing with the system? A building project on the books for eight to ten years makes Franz Kafka look like Walt Disney. That is a nightmare situation for anybody and it is no way to run anything. Has the delegation any suggestions as to how this might be improved? I am speaking as a politician and as an architect and I like the idea of individual design but since the last century we have worked from generic designs for school buildings and they have worked.

Coincidentally, last Tuesday I was in the very school to which Deputy O'Dowd referred. This school had an extension completed in three months but the complaint was that the building was too hot; in other words, the teachers were not used to working in an insulated building. The delegation has translated the numbers into 250 schools but between primary and secondary schools, this means 2,000 extra classrooms within five years. A child born next year will be hoping to sit in one of those classrooms and there will be 600 extra classrooms in the post-primary sector. How can better use be made of the existing infrastructure of school buildings? A total of 25% of primary schools cater for 75% of the 500,000 pupils going into post-primary education. There is an extraordinary mismatch between demand and supply in terms of infrastructure. Sadly, very few children walk to school either in urban or rural areas and it may be necessary to re-examine the catchment areas. It is not politically viable to close down schools but how can better use be made of the infrastructure in the 21st century?

I thank Mr. Keogh for his presentation. A significant concern is below-cost tendering. I have seen examples in County Mayo. A large number of local builders will compete for projects costing €1 million or less and the job will be completed to a high standard. However, when a project costs more than €1 million, the competing interests come from all over the country and beyond. This is when the problem of below-cost tendering arises. What is the advice of the delegation on this issue? I have known cases where a builder or a sub-contractor has gone bust but I did not realise the situation was quite as widespread as indicated by the delegation. I will be putting this question to the departmental representatives. I ask the delegation to give some examples of how this practice can be counteracted because it is a concern. From the outset of a project it is very clear to the architect that someone, somewhere along the line will not be paid. In many cases when the main contractor is tendering one would wonder whether it is the plan that the sub-contractors will never be paid. The Department will need to take this concern into account.

The proposal for an internship programme for unemployed architects is an excellent idea. This would benefit the many unemployed architects and the improvement of the schools building stock. The generic design for school buildings is a cost-saving mechanism and building prices are coming down. However, architects' fees are a significant factor. Have these costs reduced when compared with building costs? What can be done to bring down the overall project costs. So long as architects' fees remain at the current level, the generic design will always be a quick option and a cost-saving mechanism which the Department will be forced to consider.

I welcome the delegation and compliment the presentation. I expect the highest quality of construction, including energy standards and space. I wish to deal with the cost of building. For every euro spent building a school in 2006 at the height of the boom, how much would a similar project cost today? Will it cost the State 60 cent now? I ask the delegation to bear in mind we do not want below-cost tendering whereby people are not paid for their work. The issue of sub-contractors going bust and being unprotected by the law is widespread. The main contractor or the key developer may have gone into voluntary liquidation leaving the sub-contractors hanging. I want to know the real cost, bearing in mind that we wish to protect everybody in the building project.

How could this be funded by the State? The delegation has stated that 250 schools will be required over the next five years. Ireland the builder as we knew it is over and now we must talk about Ireland, the builder in terms of a schools programme based on the needs of the smart economy. We must also think of Ireland the builder in terms of primary health care centres. Has this been considered by the delegation? The delegation referred to the Space for Learning project and the school of the future competition. This is a good idea. Will this provide a new generic model for school buildings?

I have no difficulty with the concept of a generic classroom or a generic building. I saw the very same thing happen in Merlin Park and Doughiska this summer. In three months we had a new building up and running in an area of 8,000 people which had no school for years. I do not have anything against the generic classroom as long as it has decent space for learning.

At present, approximately 700 apprentices are unable to complete their courses because they do not have practice opportunities. Will the CIF allow this to happen under a national school building plan? To back up the question asked by Deputy Ruairí Quinn on how we can make better use of existing stock, would this be cost-effective? Sometimes it is better to build a new building than to do up an old building.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I will ask Mr. Martin Whelan from the CIF to deal with some of the economic issues.

Mr. Martin Whelan

The first issue to which I would like to respond is Deputy O'Dowd's reference to the north-east and the issue of competitiveness vis-à-vis Northern contractors. It is a major issue for our industry. Construction in Ireland is governed by a registered employment agreement which guarantees rates of pay in excess of any minimum in the Irish economy, but well in excess of anything applying in neighbouring economies. The CIF has been engaged in a process with the construction group of unions on certain changes to that agreement and I do not want to pre-empt their deliberations on it. However, I would like to state that there is an issue on compliance. The registered employment agreement applies to every individual or company undertaking construction work in the State. However, it seems to us — and we have a major issue with this — that it is easier to identify and seek enforcement against Irish-based companies, that is companies based in the Republic of Ireland. We have been told by the enforcement authorities that they find it practically impossible to seek similar enforcement against contractors outside of the State.

Will Mr. Whelan elaborate briefly as to why there is that difficulty?

Mr. Martin Whelan

There are difficulties with regard to law, on which I am not an expert, and on identification. There are weekend blitzes whereby people arrive, work over the weekend, leave the State immediately and are not identified. I must be careful in what I say; I could stay here all day and discuss this anecdotally.

There is an anomaly. We have a registered employment agreement. The CIF believes, along with the unions, that it gives protections and rights to workers which we should be slow to limit. However, we need to find competitiveness within it. We are being asked to enforce this at a time when we are competing against companies with a completely different cost base. That is something we need to look at as an economy. Blatantly flouting the law of the land in the building of public infrastructure seems to us to be an appalling vista, whereby Exchequer moneys are being used to employ people who do not comply with the law and therefore discriminate against potential employment in the State.

I echo Deputy O'Dowd's concerns. It is a major issue in the CIF. We continue to highlight it and continue to speak to the enforcement authorities. I do not believe that tearing up the rights of workers in the State is the way to deal with it. We have to deal with it in a way that leads to proper enforcement and the assistance of the Houses of the Oireachtas in this regard would be extremely welcome.

What does Mr Whelan suggest? Basically, one can bootleg one's labour over the Border in some cases, notwithstanding the fact that one is obliged to be totally transparent about pay rates in one's company accounts. Clearly, it is having a very adverse impact. I have spoken to the State agency which investigates this. It did not go as far as Mr. Whelan did, as he stated that it cannot deal with it. We, as the Oireachtas, must deal with the issue. We have to ensure a level playing pitch. It is all about fair play for everybody. However, if people abuse the system, clearly compliance, and investigation of that compliance, is the key issue. What Mr. Whelan seems to say is that we need to do more out of hours inspections, particularly during weekends and during the summer period of longer days. Would this be helpful?

Mr. Martin Whelan

I think so, but we also have to give additional teeth to the enforcement agencies. There is no example of a contractor from outside this jurisdiction being held to account for non-payment. Also, I would have thought that in the deployment of very scarce Exchequer revenues, there must be in-built mechanisms to ensure they go to compliant companies from whatever jurisdiction. This must be within the remit of the State in terms of the contracts it delivers to the economy. I am sure we can make recommendations in this regard.

We will move on. That point was well made but other members have asked questions and we have to move on.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I will touch on the question raised by a number of people on the cost of design and the issue of one-off versus generic designs. Deputy Quinn is absolutely correct; we built very fine generic sites throughout the country and one which I know very well is in Robertstown, County Kildare, which was built in the 1960s. We did two extensions to it. They are much loved buildings.

Government policy on architecture sets down specific objectives on schools. Schools are important public buildings in the community. We look at the generic designs and we look at some of the award-winning schools that have been built throughout the country and members are familiar with some of them. We can build the very best schools. We should now use the generic design in an emergency, as Deputy Quinn stated. It is quite right that generic classroom designs exist and we all use them; we do not develop them from scratch. However, there is capacity now, with so many architects unemployed, to look at the generic design and see whether we can do better. We have been speaking with the Department on having a schools design competition, which presumably would be for a generic design.

In the community, schools must be an object of civic pride and this possibly means that schools might be different in various communities, and that there is the possibility for architectural quality and innovation. It is not necessarily the way to go to have every school building throughout the country aesthetically the same, built with the same materials, with the same roof, windows and walls. Even within the generic design, it is possible to have variety, as we find in earlier buildings.

Deputy Flynn asked about the impact of the cost of design. As it happens, I brought along a PowerPoint presentation which cites a 1998 study done in the UK by the Royal Academy of Engineering on a typical office building. I will not present it to the committee. It is very interesting; if one takes the capital cost of building a building, be it a school or office, at 100%, the operation and maintenance costs of that building over its life span apparently amount to approximately 500% and the total design cost is 15%. This survey calculated that over the life cycle of a building, the design costs amount to approximately 2.5% of the overall cost. It is a minuscule proportion; it is just a little red piece in the diagram.

On the specific question, architects' fees in the old days were generally negotiated by the school authority at 6% of the construction cost. I understand the lowest kamikaze fee levels being tendered now are approximately half of that. The decline in construction costs means they are approximately 60% of what they were in 2007. This is the point made by Senator Healy Eames. This means the cost of design is one third of what it used to be.

We did a survey which showed that average salaries in architectural practices of approximately €25,000 would deliver at that level. I read in The Irish Times that Senator Dan Boyle wrote that the average public sector salary is approximately €45,000. The level of fee-tendering is totally unsustainable and there have been high-profile redundancies and liquidations in consultancy practices. The real issue this raises is quality. Making Ireland an innovation island where we build better buildings which perform better environmentally and aesthetically will take time and investment. I do not state that the Department is using price as the only criterion because in the discussions we have had with it, it examined the balance of price and quality in public procurement, and that is positive. We must prioritise quality. Does that answer the question?

Can Mr. Keogh send me a copy of his PowerPoint presentation? I am interested in his slides.

Mr. Paul Keogh


It will be circulated to the clerk and all members will receive a copy.

Mr. Martin Whelan

Regarding the comments of Senator Healy Eames on apprentices, we engage with FÁS and other State agencies about using our companies to facilitate finishing the training of those left in midstream, which is totally unsatisfactory for everybody. That is under way and we would like to see more support for it in order to support our companies in that regard.

The other issue is that new apprentices are not now being trained. At some stage in the future, when Ireland needs a cost-effective and viable construction industry, we will end up where we were ten years ago in a mad catch-up phase in terms of labour and resources. Some mechanism to ensure continuity in the training of the workforce will be sought from the CIF.

How many apprentices is Mr. Whelan supporting now and how many does he estimate need support?

Mr. Martin Whelan

I have heard the figure of 700 but I estimate it is higher. There may be 1,000 people at various stages of training without having finished apprenticeships. Of that, at least 500 remain in limbo. I can talk to our training team and they can elaborate on the figures. There were mechanisms in the previous scheme where, if the company had let go any worker over the previous period of time, it could not engage someone under the scheme. That was a major impediment and barrier given that all construction companies have let go workers. We have sought to have a more practical view but it remains a major issue.

I ask that Mr. Whelan's colleagues communicate with the committee. Clearly Mr. Whelan does not have information to hand but it is relevant.

Mr. Paul Keogh

Deputy Quinn raised the question of the condition of buildings. I welcome the support of Deputy Beverly Flynn for the internship programme and the asset register. Reference was made to 4,000 existing schools and how they are retrofitted. The building unit has started work on the asset register with an audit. It should be comprehensive. My experience as a practising architect is that a two-classroom extension is built onto a 1960s school, then there is the summer works scheme and another devolved grant for another classroom followed by an application for another devolved grant for a teachers' room. Meanwhile, the existing building remains as it is. Another example is where the summer works programme to replace the heating system clashes with an emergency works programme to provide science accommodation and classroom accommodation in a building that had its windows replaced three years ago and which needs its roof replaced and repairs done.

A comprehensive audit is needed. In some cases, the buildings on which we carry out summer and emergency works are past their sell-by date. We need to know that. What is the quality of the existing stock and what is fit for purpose for the next ten, 20 or 50 years? We can then plan for that. There is major under-employment in all professions and in the construction industry.

Deputy O'Dowd said the generic design worked in emergency situations but there is time to plan. An advertisement for a school project will attract responses from 50 architects and they will bite hands off to do it.

Will they do it for free?

Is Mr. Keogh suggesting the emergency work will not be done? I am aware of an example where there is a plan for a new school, which is needed, but the windows are falling out because of subsidence. Replacing the windows and bolstering the building needs to be completed under emergency works. It had to be done because trustees of the school have legal liability to ensure students are in a safe environment. From the point of view of the Department, it does not want to fund emergency works if there is a plan for a new school in the offing. It is difficult situation and one sees money being spent where it could be saved.

Mr. Paul Keogh

Privately, architects say every school should have a long-term strategy. We should not be in a situation where we put three classrooms on this year and another next year. There should be a long-term plan that starts with the consideration of whether the school is fit for purpose, what needs to be done to the existing building, whether it is accessible, whether an energy audit has been undertaken, the condition of the building and its long-term future. Each must be taken on a case-by-case basis.

In an ideal world, Mr. Keogh is correct but these matters are governed by the availability of funds. There are so many competing demands.

We will move on because a number of other speakers indicated. I issued a warning about mobile telephones. If it is too much to ask members to switch them off, can we at least have them well away from the microphones because it causes interference with broadcasting both in terms of the Internet and recording and reporting?

I welcome the representatives of the various groups. Regarding the audit and the availability of so many unemployed professional people at the moment, the Department of Education and Skills has a building inspector. With the length of time it takes for that person to arrive on site and deliver a report, it is no wonder some projects are on the books for eight to ten years without any movement. Has there been any response from the Department or has a proposal been made to the Department with regard to the availability of those people to carry out an audit nationally? There are so many schools in rural Ireland whose condition has been logged. Some of these were built far back in the last century and there is no sign of anything happening for ten or 20 years. If the suggestion is that these people could work in schools where there has been a request for refurbishment, extensions or new schools, it would make a big difference.

Senator Healy Eames referred to cost. Can the witnesses provide a comparison between cost per unit five years ago and now? This will give an indication about what we were told by departmental officials that now is the time to go ahead with projects because there is value for money. The reality is that none of those projects have materialised. They have been announced and announced. In terms of cost, the outturn of all the public private partnerships has been far greater than the traditional way of proceeding with building projects. Are comparable figures available for those?

If we are serious about providing employment, it is important to realise that the Department has sent millions out of this country by importing prefabricated buildings from Britain through Northern Ireland. A series of new companies have developed and they cannot compete because of the tax advantages in the North. If the Government is serious about levelling the playing pitch in favour of industry in this country, I do not see why we persist with the importation of these prefabricated buildings. They are supposed to be temporary but they last a lifetime until they fall in on top of everyone.

I wish to return to Mr. Keogh's reference to the generic build design. He said we do not need to resort to generic build design and I was taken aback. I understand where he is coming from, being involved in the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. Our concern is to construct school buildings in our communities as fast as possible in order to provide accommodation for the children we represent. I live in the fastest growing community in Ireland, Ratoath in County Meath, and 33% of its population is under the age of 18. We had no option but to move fast on the school building programme and we are eternally grateful to the Department of Education and Skills for the generic build-design and the RAPID school programme.

I accept that children need school places five years after they are born but 30 babies born to my community one year became 120 five year olds and 180 eight year olds. Just because a child is born in a community does not mean he or she will continue to live there. It is not as simple as saying a child born today in Holles Street will go to school in five years' time. Where will he or she go to school? The challenge for the Department is tracking this movement of population. Over the past few years, 2,000 primary school places were built in my community along with seven strands of entry for five year olds. Five years later, we discovered we only need six strands.

We were impressed by the Department's generic build programme. I agree that a generic design can always be improved. We do not have to live with the design developed 40 years ago but the generic design is fantastic. We visited a lovely two-storey, 16-classroom building in Bray and decided it was perfect for our needs. When our school was constructed, people from Laytown, County Meath, came to inspect it and decided it was exactly what they needed. This generic build school is on the road on which I live and I cannot praise it enough. I was taken aback by the comment that we should only use generic builds in emergencies. Two minutes later Mr. Whelan referred to the current climate of scarce Exchequer resources. Architects come back into the equation when we need to modify existing schools or improve energy efficiency but the generic design is the way to go for new schools. I was glad to hear the comments of Deputies O'Dowd and Quinn. We are in the business of helping communities to build school places and the Department is under pressure from us to provide them.

Mr. Keogh stated that we do not need to go the RAPID route. Perhaps he was thinking about the babies who will begin school in five years' time when he made his remark. The RAPID programme is a lifeline when children and their families arrive in new areas. I acknowledge the climate over the past ten years has changed in respect of new housing estates and development plans but, in the real world, we are thrilled with the RAPID programme and generic design. That does not detract from the issue of existing schools.

The public capital programme has importance beyond the building industry and architecture profession. When the building programme on my road was under way last summer, we noticed that the jumbo breakfast roll man was back in the queue in the local Spar shop. The spin-off turns into jobs behind the deli counter.

I do not know where the witnesses got the figure of 250 schools over the next five years. Do these comprise 250 eight-classroom schools or 125 16-classroom schools? Our school was originally intended to have eight classrooms but it expanded to 16 and then 20 classrooms. It may assist us to have figures on the matter.

I would like to speak to the appalling vista to which Mr. Whelan referred. One of the causes of this problem is the requirement under European law that all substantial contracts be tendered for across the EU. Would breaking up the contracts offer a potential solution? I do not know if other countries in Europe allow great numbers of companies from other jurisdictions to get involved in developing schools. I imagine a revolution would ensue if Italians or Belgians built schools in France. The notion that the French accept all these rules and regulations is laughable. How many contracts have been won by companies from outside our jurisdiction, particularly over the past year?

It is one matter not having money but another not spending the money. Last year we had the appalling vista whereby €80 million allocated to the school building programme went unspent by the Department. That has now been piled into the €578 million for this year. What are the assessments by the witnesses as to why that money was left unspent? How could it possibly happen during a time of mass unemployment in the construction sector? In the first six months of this year the Department spent less than one quarter of the budget allocated for the year, which is another appalling vista.

Principals and boards of management will argue that one of the most cost-effective means of getting new classrooms up and running is the devolved scheme. In 2008, we built 1,000 new classrooms between permanent buildings, extensions and the devolved scheme. Less than half, or 410, came under the devolved scheme. Last year, however, 364 out of 614 new classrooms came under the scheme. In capital terms, expenditure on the scheme is significantly lower than on other schemes. Why are we getting better value for money on the devolved scheme? It appears the answer is straightforward. When one takes the Department in Stalingrad, Tullamore, out of the equation and gives control to local communities which are able to deal with local builders and architects, we achieve better value for money. Buildings are completed on time because by and large they are constructed by local developers whose children attend the schools concerned. The developers are under pressure to complete on time. When Stalingrad is involved, costs and delays increase and the money cannot be spent. I ask for the witnesses' views on that.

An interesting report about academies was published recently in the UK, in which it was shown that when Mr. Blair, in one of his better policies, took over comprehensive schools, effectively giving them new academy status and putting private money into them, not only did it radically improve the learning environment for the children, it also improved their educational outcomes. The connection between architecture, learning environment and good quality spaces for children ultimately makes a major difference in improving attainment.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Mr. Keogh stated that the investment in school infrastructure in Ireland is 4.5% of GDP compared with the OECD average of 6.2% of GDP. Do they know what the equivalent figure would have been five years ago? How has it changed since the recession began?

The witnesses said one of the effects of below-cost tendering was a lowering of standards. Are they suggesting this is manifesting itself — apart from builders going out of business — in the standards of our school buildings? What shortcuts are being taken?

Other speakers mentioned temporary accommodation. I know of schools in my constituency of Mayo that comprise temporary accommodation provided over the years. What are the views of the witnesses on value for money in this regard? It seems a crazy waste of resources. Some schools are renting accommodation at up to €70,000 or €80,000 per year, which the Department is paying on their behalf. I agree with Deputy Hayes on the summer work scheme and the devolved scheme which have provided value for money, local employment and better schools for our children.

Mr. Keogh stated that high quality school infrastructure attracts inward investment, which I found quite interesting. If that is true, is the inverse also true? What evidence does he have for that statement? What was it based on?

Other colleagues have mentioned the rental of prefabricated buildings. I know of one school for which, last year, the cost of rental was €170,000. Is there any way some of that cost could be made available upfront so that the money that would be spent over a number of years could be used all at once instead of being drawn down over a number of years? This proposal has been put to the Department by one school I know of, but there has not been any response. It seems to be quite an innovative proposal which would mean that the same amount of money would be expended, but the school would end up with a solid, properly designed construction.

The witnesses also mentioned difficulties with local area plans, zoning of land and so on. My question relates to transport infrastructure. The Chairman is probably also interested in the idea of encouraging children to walk or cycle to school rather than being driven to school. The design and location of schools are important in this regard. Do the witnesses have a view on that? What are their views on the new geographical information system established by the Department? Do they have any involvement in that area?

My final question is about the way schools are being built at the moment. I have noticed there is a move towards a modular, precast type of construction which cuts down on the wet trades. Do the witnesses have any views on that approach?

Perhaps I am old school or new school — I do not know — but I tend to differ with many of the comments on generic builds. There have been emergencies in which there has been a need to build something quickly in the middle of a new area. This is often done without reference to how the community is going to develop and where the other schools are going to be. If the primary and secondary school are not close to each other, for example, parents in urban areas will have to drive Johnny to one school and Jane to the other, while also perhaps bringing a child to the crèche if they are prolific parents.

Multi-use buildings are something of a green policy but what are the witnesses' views on them? The Department officials will have a chance to respond to all the questions raised because some of them were directed at them. When I asked them about multi-use buildings previously, it seemed they were talking about a campus that might contain two primary schools or a primary and a second level school. The reason it will not be possible to have generic schools in the future is that when planning a community, we must plan buildings that work for that community. That means planning a crèche, a primary school, a second level school, a community resource, or a sports facility that is shared by all.

Even in older communities, new buildings should be designed with the whole community in mind. They can be modular inside. This is a bit of a rhetorical question but I want to hear the views of the witnesses. If the building is big enough and modular enough on the inside, one can be as creative as possible with the architecture. For example, when we had a discussion about energy efficiency in school buildings, the Department officials mentioned that the modular buildings tend to face east because the sun provides passive heating from the time the children arrive in the morning until they finish at 3 p.m. This makes sense for the children in the classrooms. If one is trying to use a building efficiently, however, having it face east makes no sense. South would be the optimum direction if the building is to be in use all day, especially if solar panels are to be used for heating water or if solar heat is to be circulated around the building. What are the views of the witnesses in terms of the schools of the future?

The witnesses mentioned whole-life cost efficiency. To me, that includes whether the school has the scope to produce its own energy, or at least heat its own water, and whether it can store water. In terms of design, are all these issues being pushed by the constituent members of the representative bodies? They not discussed enough.

I also wish to mention the issues of retrofitting and audit. I am interested to know what response, if any, the Department gave to the request that was made. Did it give a response in writing? We can ask the officials about that later.

Members asked about the price of building now compared with the price a couple of years ago. The Department officials said there was a saving of 20% to 40%. I would be interested in the witnesses' take on how cheap it is to build without undercutting. This was asked earlier by a number of members but the witnesses did not get to it, so I would like to emphasise that question.

The question of multi-annual programmes over five years is one for the Department but I would be interested in hearing the views of the witnesses on how multi-annual programmes would benefit planning. Would there be an improvement in responsiveness in terms of providing cost-effective solutions? If they know about projects for which money is carried over for a number of years, does this improve their ability to provide a lower price or even project a lower price two or three years down the road? That is a valid question in a falling market. Deputy Hayes pertinently pointed out that where money was provided to schools, it was passed over and the schools were not built, which is a major waste. Multi-annual provision, as I mentioned, would solve this problem. Now is our opportunity to make the investment for the schools of the future. On the issue of retrofitting, one person asked a question about demolishing schools. Is it practical to retrofit a 1960s-type building? I am referring to the bungalow style of building that one sees throughout the country. Is it possible to retrofit such a building to a given standard in terms of the cost? Would it be better to demolish it over a period and put in place something new? I am a supporter of the idea of building multi-use schools in communities which fit such communities for 40 years. As an advocate or supporter of this idea, the devil's advocate's question is whether modular schools can be built in a community quickly because they are needed. How quickly can a properly designed school be put in place? Queries have arisen about a delay.

Perhaps a compromise would be to have a template of designs. They could be modular in the sense that they could be ready to go. If ten or 15 models or designs were produced as part of a competition, it could form the solution. There may not be such a need for new designs but there is an opportunity now, a time of economic retrenchment, for architects with this level of creativity to buy into something at present. Would the deputation be open to a suite of generic models? The time concern is significant.

I realise that amounts to many questions for everyone. I call on the deputation to be as brief as possible in answering because the Department officials have been quite patient.

So says the Chairman.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I call on Mr. Rudden to deal with some of the issues about water and energy from an engineering perspective because that is important.

Mr. P. J. Rudden

Deputy O'Dowd referred to this, as did the Chairman. The Chairman is correct; water conservation is remarkably important. We want our current and future schools to be green, sustainable buildings and to be part of the energy efficient building stock. Hearing that people are too warm rather than too cold boggles the mind a little. The whole infrastructure is important. As an industry and a profession we realise the importance of the whole learning process. We are trying to revolutionise how subjects are taught. For example, how can one feed into the new process of mathematics learning if one does not have proper information technology and broadband facilities, especially in secondary schools? This is something of which we are rather conscious. Someone referred to good spaces for learning. We want to build and retrofit good spaces for learning.

While there is substantial funding for water conservation, it is more or less on the streets and not in the schools. It is needed on the streets as well but a small amount would go a long way in terms of the schools. I realise it is a part of the green schools programme and there has been much progress in that regard. Generally, one cannot build accommodation without proper infrastructure. The engineering profession, whether civil, mechanical or electrical, will not be found wanting in that regard.

Mr. Martin Whelan

On Deputy Hayes's comments in respect of the 25% underspend this year, I suggest, and our research will back this up, that the bulk of the current public capital investment programme is directed at existing programmes, programmes that are coming to an end, such as the motorways, or programmes which are finished. The moneys that have been expended this year are contractually committed. The 25% shortfall relates to new starts and we have not seen new starts coming through the pipeline in the past 18 months. This is clear from the Government's e-tenders website. There has been a paucity of new starts in terms of projects and there has been a paucity of new tenders. This is why the entire pipeline has been interrupted. We are facing a potential hiatus unless there is an immediate commencement of new works. The large spend this year will overwhelm——

When Mr. Whelan refers to the paucity of new tenders, does he mean a paucity of invitations to tender?

Mr. Martin Whelan

Yes, absolutely.

May I clarify the point? Mr. Whelan is referring to projects that have gone to tender. In such cases, a tender document has been sent in to Tullamore and those involved are awaiting a decision to proceed.

Mr. Martin Whelan

The reference to 25% was across the entire capital investment programme. As the Deputy is aware, one finds that projects come to an end and projects start in any multi-annual capital programme. However, the replacement projects are not taking place. I refer to the 25% figure. People maintain it is only for one quarter or it is the weather or whatever but ultimately it is a failure to commence new projects. That is exactly what it is and we have been pointing this out. This will now become a reality. When we have suggested this, people have been able to say they have spent X amount. That is because projects are in the ground and committed to or finished.

I refer to the Government commitment in place now, the new €5.5 billion, of which approximately €3 billion is for infrastructure. The relationship with OECD averages is somewhat disingenuous because we use different accounting mechanisms when one compares national accounting mechanisms for construction versus capital. In the case of the Irish capital investment programme, approximately €3 billion is for infrastructure and €3 billion is for construction. We believe, based on the current tenders and invitations to tender, that of that €3 billion allocation, the programme is running at half the pace required to sustain the programme through next year and the year after. That is my concern with regard to the 25% figure and new starts.

Construction projects and tenders are relevant as well in the sense that one gets more bang for one's buck. On average, contractors — I am referring to my side of the house — are tendering between 25% and 35% below cost. This is not sustainable. The idea that, over a six-year multi-annual programme, one can sustain 35% below cost tendering and therefore achieve greater bang for one's buck does not add up either. This is already resulting in significant company failures. There is a real need to get under the capital investment programme to determine what is commencing and what is in the pipeline. We have been meeting Secretaries General of Departments and we have found them to be remarkably positive. The announcement from Government is positive in the sense that it now believes budgets are in place. Only now are we beginning to get any sense of what projects might be behind the figures.

The primary and post-primary capital budget was €579 million this year. As of the end of August, the spend was €241 million. The Government is telling us it can spend the balance between now and December. The balance is €338 million in accordance with traditional profiles of back-ended spend. What is Mr. Whelan's view?

Mr. Martin Whelan

While all that is taking place, companies waiting for that €338 million are going out of business. Without a shadow of a doubt there will be an extra 50,000 job losses in my sector next year if the current pipeline of projects remains as is.

Can it spend that money in three months?

Mr. Martin Whelan

Unless it is on existing contractual commitments, I cannot see it.

Mr. John Curtin

Senator Healy Eames asked how much it costs to build compared with during the boom. The statistics compiled by the Society of Chartered Surveyors indicate that if one had spent €1 in 2007, the year following that mentioned by the Deputy and the time we have identified as the height of cost, the equivalent cost would be 71.5 cent now. That is a statement of tender levels rather than cost. It does not indicate that tender levels are above or below cost. Anecdotally we understand the figure to be below cost.

Is Mr. Curtin suggesting the 71 cent figure is below cost?

Mr. John Curtin

We believe so but we do not know by how much. The difficulty for the Department when it comes to accepting tenders is that while it can reject economically unsustainable tenders, it must balance the good of the public purse, the nature of our capitalist society which drives us towards good competition and the fact that in the event that it incorrectly rejects a tender, it will wind up in a very expensive legal situation. A difficult, knife-edged balance must be struck by the Department and it is not easy to get that right.

Senator Healy Eames and Deputy Burke commented on funding. The public private partnership, PPP, model is a methodology to move procurement forward. To the extent that it operates with external finance — I am referring to the design, build, finance, operate and maintain system — one can draw on international financing resources. A statement was made to the effect that the PPP model is a more expensive way of procuring buildings.

As per the Comptroller and Auditor General's report it is 13%.

Mr. John Curtin

The Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the criminal courts complex identifies the PPP mechanism used as between 6% and 8% cheaper than traditional procurement. The report on schools identifies it as more expensive. I wonder how that report was compiled. I do not believe there is a valid database that identifies the maintenance costs of schools. The difficulty with comparing PPP with traditional procurement is that one involves an operator and one is procuring for 25 years of maintenance as well as the capital cost. The upfront capital cost most certainly will be higher for the consortium because they will procure more expensive but more sustainable materials. That is fundamental to the PPP process. There is no database of maintenance cost of schools because maintenance is, by and large, done by local communities and it is not accurately compiled. I challenge people not to move away from the PPP model without further consideration. There is one other issue that is of interest with regard to the PPP process.

Who supervises the maintenance after the builder and contractor has gone off the site?

Mr. John Curtin

The builder and contractor.

Is it the headmasters in the schools or the boards of management that say they need this or that?

Mr. John Curtin

The consortium that will deliver the project will have a maintenance company on site which will have annual planned, preventative and emergency maintenance commitments. One is delivering a whole package. It is almost like buying a car with a 25-year guarantee.

What happens if that consortium goes into liquidation?

Mr. John Curtin

The consortium will be bonded. There is a bank behind the consortium, invariably an international bank. I note the Senator is smiling. After that there is a third gate and obviously then it falls to the State if the system collapses entirely. That is the nature of our economy.

Regarding construction costs and retrofitting, Mr. Paul Keogh outlined that the overall construction cost might represent 20% of the life cycle cost of a building. On the matter of retrofitting, if we cannot build schools, 100 years after we started to build them, that are 20% more efficient than those schools to which Deputy Burke referred, we are in trouble. I suggest we can do it far more efficiently.

Can it be done in the two or three months' summer break which is the window that many of those schools have?

Mr. John Curtin

For sure we can build classrooms, but we will not build a school of the future in three months.

No, I am talking about retrofitting — insulation, heating and so on. That is the problem. The school must continue from 1 September.

Mr. John Curtin

The point I am trying to make is that it may or may not be viable to retrofit schools. It may in some instances but given that schools may have been built 100 years ago, modern techniques——

Does one have to rip it up and start again?

Mr. John Curtin

If we cannot do it 20% more efficiently now we are in trouble. Retrofitting is like sticking a finger in the dyke.

On that point, what is the differential between the cost of maintaining such a school over five years versus the cost of replacing it?

Mr. John Curtin

I do not have those figures to hand.

That would inform the departmental officials.

Mr. John Curtin

Yes. I do not have those figures to hand.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I do not have anything else.

I think Mr. Lombard wants to come in.

Mr. John Lombard

Generic designs do not necessarily suit every site. There could be a difficult site or a sloping site or constraints where one would have to tie in with existing buildings. It is not always the be-all and end-all and, in general, people will accept that.

One can replace flat roofs with pitched roofs and so on but many of the older school sizes would not necessarily comply with the Department's requirements today of minimum standards and minimum sizes. One can knock down walls and add on to bring them up to the basic plan size. It is not simple to retrofit and reuse the materials that are there.

What Mr. Lombard is saying, to paraphrase Deputy Hayes, who has used the word Stalingrad in relation to myself in the past, is that——

Mr. John Lombard

He is enterprising.

We came back from the front. Is Mr. Lombard suggesting some type of Stalinesque five-year plan to rebuild the old schools which would create jobs?

Mr. John Lombard

The Department has minimum classroom sizes, standards have been upgraded and there is also the issue of quality of design. The Department knows a lot more about that than we do. There are constraints rather than just retrofitting the school. My colleague, Mr. P.J. Rudden, touched on a point raised by Deputy Fergus O'Dowd about water retention in schools. As members will be aware, part of the planning requirements for schools provide for attenuation tanks underground to control the surface water run-off. That water could be recycled back into storage and split into clean water and grey water used for recycling. As engineers, that is something we are capable of doing and that could be taken on board within the schools programme.

Mr. John Curtin

Deputy Wallace asked about the trickle-down effect of the jumbo breakfast roll man arriving back in the local Spar shop in Ratoath.

No, that is the ten o'clock tea break.

Mr. John Curtin

Go on.

Surely Mr. Curtin, being involved with the building industry, will be aware there is always a ten o'clock tea break.

Mr. John Curtin

One of the central tenets of our manifesto, issued in 2009, was that if €5 billion was spent in the construction industry, approximately €2 billion would come back in taxes, whereas the alternative is 70,000 people on the dole costing the State in or around €2 billion. Construction is about inward investment and the infrastructure is provided for much less.

I want to speak about the jumbo breakfast roll man. I see him in reality. We talked about him so much and about the queues in the different shops during the Celtic tiger, but then we saw the lull and he was not there any more. The high visibility shirts were gone, as was all the business. We all used to say we had better get down to the shop before the ten o'clock rush. It was amazing to see him back in town again. Obviously we were thrilled and the local shop had signs up seeking more workers at the deli counter. It did have an impact and it was very important.

Mr. John Curtin

Yes, absolutely.

I did not get an answer from Mr. Paul Keogh to my question on the 250 schools.

Mr. Paul Keogh

The most recent figures that I have from the building unit are that the projections would be 60,000 primary school places and 20,000 secondary school places.

Where did the 250 figure come from?

Mr. Paul Keogh

It depends on how one calculates it. On a simple average, 40 children would give a figure of 2,000 classroom places and an eight-classroom school gives 250.

Mr. Keogh was talking about an eight-classroom school when he mentioned the 250 schools. We might end up building 150 new schools but some could be 16-classroom schools while others could be 20-classroom schools. In my community we build 20-classroom schools. I have no issue with the other figures, only with the 250 schools, which he was averaging across an eight-classroom school whereas in growth areas we would have 16, 20 or 32-classroom schools. We could cater for the same number of children in 150 schools so the 250 figure is a guesstimate and there is nothing accurate about it.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I am glad the Deputy raised that point because I want to clarify the issue about the generic repeat design schools. As the Deputy pointed out, they have been successful, economic, speedy and they work. Mr. John Lombard said, and the Chairman alluded to this, they are not suitable in every instance. For example, where one is dealing with an urban infill, one seldom gets a site that is suitable for regeneration. The Chairman made the point that if we reimagine what the school might be in the community, where it might incorporate some sports or crèche facilities, one might say that every school needs to be unique. Our experience of dealing with an urban infill in, say, Bray, Robertstown or Swords, where the school has been built in an existing urban community, is that one would definitely not find a use for a generic repeat design in such circumstances. The point I was trying to make was about the urgency of the RAPID programmes. The Deputy spoke of rapidly developing areas where finding sites for schools in those areas was almost the last thing that was thought of——

I did not say that. I want to clarify that.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I am making that point.

We have the sites in my area.

Mr. Paul Keogh

I am making the point that the building unit has had difficulty over the years in securing sites but with the new planning Bill and more emphasis being placed on local area plans and de-zoning, when the refreshed spatial strategy is published and the housing statistics are known we will have the opportunity to plan sustainably for the future and decide on the way we want this country to grow. The lesson to be learned from recent years is that we cannot afford to take the "one for everyone in the audience" approach and build houses all over the country. We must be more focused and we must plan. That means the school must be integral to the planning process from the outset. We may have to reconsider the role of the school and ensure that we do not end up in emergencies where RAPID areas grow unsustainably without services and infrastructure, whether it be water, transport or whatever. Schools are part of that delivery.

Deputy Stanton made a related point on what we know about the relationship between schools and inward investment and economic competitiveness. I refer to the author of the creative class theory who cites a Gallup poll based on a place and happiness survey on a sample of 27,000 people across Europe and the United Kingdom. It was stated that the important factors in terms of attracting inward investment and talented workforces are infrastructure and services. Schools ranked very high in that survey. In the Celtic tiger days we knew that the areas with the best schools attracted people to live close to them.

The other point to which the Chairman and Deputy Stanton alluded is the question of walking to school. Deputy Wallace raised it also. It is much easier for children to walk to the smaller school in the community.

I do not mean to be argumentative but I did not make that point. I live in a community where everyone walks to school. There are two 16 classroom schools located beside each other, which is 32 classrooms. That is not a small school. Everyone walks to those schools, apart from the people who live two miles out the road who drive, but substantial numbers of people walk to those schools in the community in which I live.

I agree with Mr. Keogh that the built environment is very important. The future local area plans are very important also. It is important that in communities we provide for a site on which we may need to build a school. All of that is correct but where I disagree with Mr. Keogh, and the Chairman spoke about this also, is on the site location and layout issues which do not relate to the design of the building. To go back to the question of generic design build, we can still put the generic design build in Lucan, to which the Chairman referred, on his multi-use campus sites. If he has a multi-use campus site in Lucan on which there is a post-primary school, a primary school and a crèche, that generic building in Lucan will look well in my community. It might be a different site, and Mr. Keogh mentioned sports facilities. The football pitch might be in a different place. We could have different site layout or site location issues but there is nothing to prevent the Lucan-type building being built in my community also. Mr. Keogh is talking about layout and location issues, and I am speaking from experience on that.

Mr. Keogh is correct when he says that when we try to modify the existing school building we must retrofit and so on. The Chairman also mentioned the possibility of demolishing some of the older buildings and starting afresh. We do that in my community in Skreen. We decided to demolish the old building, move the children across the road into the church car park and put them into temporary prefabs, built the new school and moved them all back into it. That does happen.

Most of the issues Mr. Keogh is talking about such as where to put a football pitch are location issues. That does not affect the generic design build. He is right in saying we can probably improve what we are doing in terms of buildings but it is not a problem to build the same building in ten different locations throughout the country. Does he understand what I mean?

Mr. Paul Keogh

I thought the Chairman articulated well the idea that we could have basic modular designs which could be repeated with variations. There are ongoing discussions, and I believe it will happen, on a schools design competition next year, which will be an upgrade. We might get a range of modular designs from that and they might be adapted to particular needs in the way described by Mr. Lombard. We are not in any disagreement on that. The point I am making is——

The important point is that we should not discard the generic design build because it has served us well. I believe Mr. Keogh agrees with that.

That point has been well made by most members. Mr. Keogh has been very patient and we should now allow him to sum up. The officials who are waiting are busy people also.

Mr. Paul Keogh

We have taken up a good deal of the committee's time. We appreciate that the members have given so much time and it is a reflection on the importance of the issue.

If we, as the industry, were to say anything to the members, as politicians and the Government, it is that capital spending must be maintained because it will create employment, help recovery in the economy generally and improve our economic competitiveness. The schools programme is essential to achieving that, which the members will appreciate.

I emphasise that in the past 18 months there has been a positive dialogue between the construction sector, particularly the RAI, and the building unit in the Department and a willingness to work together to improve and streamline the issues we talked about in terms of planning, procurement and delivery of the schools.

I am sure Deputy Wallace agrees with me, as do other members, that the quality of the schools building programme and the quality of the schools we build is fundamental to the education performance of the children, to staff morale and to civic pride in our communities. I thank the members for all the time they have given us to make this case.

I thank Mr. Keogh and the other members of the delegation. It was an interesting discussion. If they have the time to do so they can remain to hear what the departmental officials have to say. The Minister will forward the transcript of the meeting as a matter of course but the officials will respond to questions directly. I thank the members of the delegation once again. We will suspend for about three minutes to allow people take their places.

Sitting suspended at 12.17 p.m. and resumed at 12.22 p.m.

I thank the officials from the Department of Education and Skills for their patience. We look forward to getting an insight from them on this matter. Given the time constraints and the fact that the meeting has dragged on, I appreciate their willingness to take the presentation as read. Is that agreed? Agreed. That gives members an opportunity to ask more precise questions and put the officials on the spot. We have already advised on the issue of privilege before the committee.

I have three questions, the first of which relates to the statement made here by Mr. Martin Whelan previously that, from his perspective, there would be no new starts under the Department's capital programme for the rest of this year. What is the truth in that respect? As stated, last year the Department had €79 million that was not spent. I understand from the statement that it spent 40% of its allocation. How will it spend the remainder of its allocation before the end of the year?

My second question relates to NAMA. The matter of sites is dealt with in a small section of the statement. Are the officials interacting with NAMA on sites that might become available through the Department or the VECs? Have they adopted a hands on policy on the issue? Clearly, if they have, it would be welcome, as it would help to reduce costs.

I seek clarity on whether the Department carried out a value for money audit of its summer works scheme projects. I have heard some complaints about processes and projects that were not proceeding. How effective is such an audit? Does the Department carry out a follow-up audit of such projects?

A related matter is that the Department advertised regarding water conservation projects in schools in October last year. Some 1,500 schools applied, but no money has been allocated in that respect. The impact is that a commitment made by the political system has not been met. It appears that some 1,500 schools wasted their time in applying to participate in water conservation projects.

There is also the important related issue of the burden carried in paying water rates which might be alleviated by participation in such water conservation projects. The cost involved will fall back on parents. I do not have a figure for the cost involved, but I understand it will run into millions of euros.

We have with us Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, the assistant secretary, Department of Education and Skills; Mr. Gavan O'Leary, principal officer, modernisation and policy unit; Ms Mary Cregg, principal officer, planning and building unit; Mr. Tony Sheppard, technical manager, planning and building unit; and Mr. Larry McEvoy, technical manager, planning and building unit. Mr. Ó Foghlú is the lead speaker and I invite him to respond to Deputy O'Dowd's questions.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I thank the Chairman for giving us the opportunity to appear before the joint committee. We welcome the opportunity to hear our colleagues in the various industry federations, with whom there is continuing engagement.

To be fair to Mr. Whelan, his problem concerned the Government's overall capital programme. He did not have figures for the Department of Education and Skills. I will compare the number of large-scale projects under construction last year and this year. We had 65 large-scale projects under construction this time last year; we now have 85. Therefore, we have more projects under construction this year. There has not been a slowdown in projects being put out to tender or under construction. We were aware last year that we did not have as many large-scale projects under construction on site. We have large-scale projects under construction on site in terms of the allocation for this year, which we are confident we will be able to spend. That is not to say, however, that we can be absolutely sure about this. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills appeared before the committee in June. We had briefed her the evening before on the challenges we were facing at the time, about many of which we have heard today, including difficulties with building contractors and various companies in terms of more time being needed to work through problems with tenders or with companies going into liquidation arising from the slowdown in the economy. We are examining options for major projects we have identified where the spend will not be at the level we might have anticipated at the start of the year. I hope we will be able to realise these options which we are discussing with the Tánaiste.

On the issue of water conservation projects——

Mr. Whelan said there would be no new starts. I presume he was talking about the provision of schools when he said this.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú


Am I right or wrong? What is the position?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

My understanding is that he was referring to the Government's overall capital programme.

Was he? Fair enough.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

He said the number of major capital projects——

Specifically, Mr. Whelan was saying that, while Mr. Ó Foghlú could point to a 30% increase or more in major projects under construction on site this year compared to last year, the projects on site had been tendered for last year at least. He was saying there had been a significant drop in the number of tenders in the current year.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We have 47 projects being tendered for.

What is the number for last year?

Perhaps Mr. Ó Foghlú could give us a call to confirm the number after the meeting?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We can give the committee the list. We can also provide details of the various tenders and a list of the schools involved. We have 49 projects under construction and 42 have been substantially completed.

On the issue of water conservation projects, it is intended that there will be an announcement in the near future in response to the request for submissions. There has been a minor delay in progressing the matter, but I hope we will be able to make an announcement in the next few weeks.

Given that many of the works have to be carried out during the summer break, if such an announcement is made, does Mr. Ó Foghlú expect much money to be spent on them before the end of the year?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We expect the money to be spent before the end of the year because such projects involve much more minor works than summer works scheme projects.

How many of the 1,500 schools which applied to participate does Mr. Ó Foghlú anticipate will be allocated funding?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I will not be in a position to comment until we make the announcement, but the likely outcome is that all schools which meet the requirements will receive funding. However, I cannot give the Deputy a precise number.

My third question was related to NAMA.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Yes, there is engagement with it. We met its chief executive and members of the board in July to discuss the issue of sites. We gave them information on where we would be seeking them. Obviously, they have to engage to take ownership of sites, but there is active dialogue with them and hope that something will be realised from it.

Effectively, that should result in significant savings to the taxpayer.

I think the Deputy means refunds to the taxpayer.

Sorry. Roughly, how many can——

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We would have a list of areas where we are looking for sites which we would share with the local authorities. We have also shared it with NAMA. It would be the typical areas on the eastern seaboard where we are developing at the moment and in urban areas, especially where we do not have enough sites already. We have not engaged with NAMA about whether it will get sites in those areas. It is aware of what they are. We would have to make a decision as to whether we think a site is appropriate for us having regard to whatever other options we have in the same areas.

Roughly, how many sites are there?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We have a list of more than 50 areas where we have an interest in the medium to long term——


Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

——in regard to sites.

I appreciate Mr. Ó Foghlú's attendance, the fact that he has been delayed and that we will not have the quality of interchange we would like. With that in mind, I will ask three short questions and I hope brevity is not taken wrongly.

Is Mr. Ó Foghlú aware of the extraordinary frustration across the educational community about the lack of transparency? There have been humorous or perhaps black references to the Vatican and the Kremlin and transparency. Am I correct that it is a political decision by the Minister of the day not to reveal the waiting list of schools? I understand that on a previous occasion, the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, published a waiting list where people could see whether they were in year one or year three.

Principals, boards of management and parent-teacher associations are driven demented and I suspect the productivity in Tullamore must be seriously affected. Anecdotally, two decades ago when we could not get replies to questions on social welfare, we clogged up the parliamentary question system to such an extent that the Department responded. The Department of Social Protection has now been transformed in terms of inquiries. If Mr. Ó Foghlú would like us to clog up the parliamentary question system to get a response, he should tell us. He might just inform us in that regard. I say that as one citizen to another.

Can Mr. Ó Foghlú describe what his inventory of stock actually means? He knows the point I have made over time, so I will not repeat it. Will he describe what he is doing, how he is doing it and what kind of answers he is getting? When will we have a picture of the inventory of what we have in the primary and post-primary sectors. The primary sector, because of its scale and size, is very significant, as is the fit, in terms of usage about which I spoke before — that is, getting efficient use of the infrastructure.

I was in a school in County Louth on Tuesday. A new prefab had been built in a very picturesque area. Underlined in black was this €100,000 for the purchase of the prefab. It can only be used for the purchase of a prefab and not for a permanent building. Will Mr. Ó Foghlú explain the logic of that decision? The school would have got more than the classroom contained in the prefab for less than €100,000.

In regard to the first question, Mr. Ó Foghlú might be precluded from commenting on policy but he might be able to clarify if he is aware that the non-publication of future lists is a policy decision.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We publish the information in regard to the priority attached to projects on our website. A list is published on our website and it is publicly available. We have, effectively, an annual process whereby within the Department we must identify where everything is at in terms of planning and advancement in the various stages of architectural planning. There are two key transitions, as members will be aware. The first key transition is to get the go-ahead to go into architectural planning and the second key transition is to get the go-ahead which will lead to construction.

A number of factors must be taken account in that process. A primary factor, which has come very high on the agenda in the past three or four years and about which there has been much discussion today, has been the demand in the developing areas. As a result of that, some schools are even advanced through both processes at the same time in the rapid process.

We are aware there is some frustration. If one tries to classify where the frustrations are in the system, I do not think the same frustration would be there in the developing areas where there would be a recognition that we must put the places in. There may be difficulties and challenges in the developing areas with planning permission and so on but the bigger frustration is the overhang of refurbishment from the past going back historically to an under-invested system of capital investment.

Schools would be aware of where they sit in the prioritisation and they would feed into the decision. In that sense, it is very difficult because choices must be made depending on the progress of projects and on the priority of whether it is just a refurbishment or a refurbishment combined with additional numbers, for example. All of those decisions are very much informed by the prioritisation criteria we have, which are also published and available in detail.

Mr. Gavan O’Leary

As Mr. Ó Foghlú said, the publication of the information on the website gives a snapshot of where the project is at, the status of the application and the band rating attached to it. That information is there. Similarly, the announcement made by the previous Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, in February outlined the projects that would move into architectural planning in 2010. It also outlined the projects that would progress to tender and construction in 2010 and 2011.

On the frustration mentioned by members, we recognise that there are delays and a lack of progress. At a very early stage when schools apply, they look for a firm commitment as to when their project will be completed. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to give that. In some cases, it is because of the nature of the process. It is not always possible to put a definite time on the planning permission application and so on. In other cases, it can be the availability of resources and that we are making commitments in regard to expenditure in future years.

In recent years, the rapid change in demographic pressures in some areas has meant that it has been necessary to prioritise other applications. We understand the frustration on the part of schools which feel they have been somehow leapfrogged over, if I can use a term like that. In many cases, it is a question of hard decisions. While there is no question about the validity of a project, say a refurbishment project, given the choice between trying to provide needed additional accommodation as opposed to refurbishing existing accommodation, it sometimes means it is not possible to progress the refurbishment project as quickly as some of the others. We accept that it leads to frustration on the part of schools.

We accept there is more demand than resources. The problem is that people are not told it will not happen for five years. They could get on with the rest of their lives if they were told that the Department does not know and it will get back to them. It is about uncertainty and lack of information. Is that a political decision or is it the Department's decision? It is about not having a concise answer. If people were told it would be 12 months or 12 years, they would hate it but they would know. The Department has put them into Kafka land.

Mr. Gavan O’Leary

While schools request that we be honest with them, if we inform them that nothing will happen for five years, the reaction can be strong. We try to provide them with a realistic picture of the scale of the demand and also outline the implications attaching to the band rating assigned to various projects. If a project has a band 4 rating, we will be open with it and inform it that, in the context of a system where there are X number of projects with band 1, 2 or 3 ratings, we would not foresee its project proceeding within a reasonable timeframe. As the Deputy stated, schools do not like this. In some cases they accept the Department's line, while in others there is a feeling that the schools involved need to try harder and that they will somehow convince us that the band rating is incorrect or that a different rating should apply. The publication on our website of the information on the number of applications in hand and the band ratings attaching to them means that schools have a more realistic idea of the likelihood of progress in the short to medium term.

Is Mr. O'Leary stating certain projects are being delayed as a result of the RAPID programme? Ministers have come before this committee and informed it that progress on projects in areas outside the RAPID programme is not in any way affected. Mr. O'Leary appears to be indicating that projects in the rural constituency I represent, to which RAPID programme designation does not apply, are being delayed because preference is being given to projects designated under the programme.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

To be fair, I do not believe that is what Mr. O'Leary meant to imply. We are stating that, in respect of certain projects, each year we need to put in place not just additional classrooms but also sometimes entire schools. In parallel with this, a number of other projects are also given the go-ahead. There are so many other projects that not every one from the different groups can proceed. In the light of our prioritisation and rating systems, we must proceed with a high proportion of the projects at the top of the list. However, there are always one or two others. For example, a number of second level schools do not have PE halls. It is regularly the case that a project relating to one such school might be on the list, but ten projects of this nature would not appear on the annual list at the same time. We are obliged to try to take a balanced approach and allocate resources while having regard to the overall picture.

I wish to allow a number of other members to contribute.

I still have not received answers to the questions I posed in respect of the inventory of stock and why prefabs are used instead of permanent buildings.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

When the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills last came before the committee to discuss the Estimates, she announced that the system relating to the inventory of stock had just gone live. Members have expressed a keen interest in this matter and our thinking has been informed by the ideas expressed. The system went live for schools — in other words, they were able to provide the relevant information on-line — on 28 May. To date, just over 2,500 schools have either provided or are in the process of providing the necessary information on-line.

Are these primary or post-primary schools?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

It is a combination of the two. Approximately 1,700 schools have transferred all of the information and a further 217 are in the process of doing so. Some 610 are awaiting school approval. They are at various stages. We are sending reminders to schools to encourage them to provide the necessary information. In addition, we are involved in separate dialogue with the VECs to ensure they provide the information required. In the context of the discussions in which members engaged earlier in the meeting, we will be informed by this in respect of the nature of all of the buildings in schools, the age of these buildings and whether they are rented or purchased prefabs. The database relating to this matter has been in place since 2008. The information it provides will feed into our decision-making process. As a result, we will for the first time have information on the overall national picture available to us. Building on the suggestions we heard earlier, we will be in a position to choose the schools, other than those which apply to the Department, we wish to evaluate.

With regard to the other matters discussed, like other Departments, we are examining the option of involving unemployed graduates in our work. The suggestions made come into play in that regard. We are certainly considering the options on the technical side. It remains to be seen whether anything will be realised, particularly as there is a process which must be gone through. We are examining any options relating to how we might maximise the resources available to us, while also maximising the work experience of relevant graduates.

I do not understand the issue the Deputy raised in respect of prefabs. The Department's policy in this respect is different.

Mr. Gavan O’Leary

If the Deputy provides us with information on the school in question, I may be able to revert to him on the matter. There may be particular circumstances which arise in the context of site layout and master-planning. However, as Mr. Ó Foghlú stated, our generic policy is that schools have the option of either purchasing or building. In many cases they choose the option of building permanent classrooms, particularly in the light of the value that can be achieved in the current market. The schools notify us that this is the option they are pursuing. The policy in this regard was introduced by the previous Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, in mid-2008. Without knowing the details of the particular case, it may be——

I will check with the principal of the school before I provide Mr. O'Leary with the information. I do not want to hang the principal out to dry.

Mr. Gavan O’Leary

That is fine.

The position can be clarified for Deputy Quinn when he has provided the relevant information.

I welcome our guests and apologise that I was obliged to leave the room briefly at the beginning of their presentation. I do not know, therefore, whether other members queried why there was an underspend last year.

Our guests replied to that question.

Perhaps, in the context of what I am about to say, they might elaborate further on the information provided. I am aware that schools are experiencing great frustration as a result of the fact that projects have been on the relevant lists for many years.

The word "frustration" was also used when the original question was put to our guests.

As Deputy Burke stated, certain schools have been waiting ten or 20 years for additional buildings to be constructed. The Holy Rosary College in Mountbellew has been waiting for a gymnasium to be built since 1968. The authorities at the school asked me why, in the context of the underspend last year, such a gymnasium had not been provided. I would appreciate it if our guests would provide an answer.

The Department is way behind its own reports. For example, a school accommodation report was compiled in respect of the position in south Galway in 2007. It showed that there was a need for 1,000 additional places which have still not been provided. The new building project at Seamount College did not proceed. Six additional classrooms, five of which are in prefabs, were provided at St. Calasanctius secondary school; therefore, it has a total of one new classroom and the school is in a holding position until 2011. South Galway is a disaster zone when it comes to the provision of the extra school places required.

As Deputy Brian Hayes stated, the devolved scheme has proved its worth. Has the Department considered extending the scheme to larger school projects? In the context of speed of delivery based on need, the Department's record is not good. Its system of delivery is driving members mad. We are tired of being obliged to meet parents and school authorities immediately after the commencement of the school year. The position at Coláiste na Coiribe in Clifden is similar to that at the two other schools to which I referred. We are not engaged in what we should be doing in education, namely, focusing on learning outcomes and improving standards. I want our guests to address my concerns about this matter.

There is one other question I wish to pose. Our guests from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and Deputy Flynn both alluded to the need for emergency funding to be provided in instances where windows were in a bad state or disrepair or where a roof was leaking. I am aware that the Department spends a great deal of money in this regard and fair dues to it. In a way, however, this represents bad value for money. It all comes down to the fact that all schools are run by voluntary boards and principals who are extremely busy. Principals are often obliged to run around placing buckets under leaking roofs, while at the same time trying to introduce curriculum change. It is an absolute joke. This position obtains across the country, but the example to which I refer of leaking roofs relates, in particular, to a school in Portlaoise. Could the Department provide all schools with a source of expertise in terms of architecture and maintenance which would allow them to predict their needs? This, as opposed to a sudden need for emergency funding, would ensure better value for money in the future. Does the Department have in-house expertise like this which is available to schools? I do not believe it has. I would appreciate a response to those two questions.

I would like some clarification on the figures in the submission. Am I correct that the figure of 49 schools in respect of which projects are under construction, nine of which have been substantially completed, comprises new schools and those to which there have been major extensions?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú


What is the difference between the new schools and those with major extensions?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I do not understand the Deputy's question.

Of the 49, how many are new schools?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Perhaps I can respond to that question when replying to all questions.

In 2009, 20 new schools were completed and six large-scale extensions were completed, which makes 26 big jobs. The figure in this regard for the previous year was 77. Does Mr. Ó Foghlú suggest that at the end of this year 49 new schools or large-scale extensions will be completed? If not, why are we not getting bang for our buck? The Minister's argument in the Dáil was that with 30% less we can build one-third more and so on. If this is the case, why are we not getting more completions?

I welcome the departmental officials. Can Mr. Ó Foghlú give us an example of value for money in respect of prefabs, rent, lease or purchase? Is it the policy of the Department to continue providing this type of accommodation? I ask that, accepting that emergencies arise requiring their provision as a matter or urgency. There is a huge imbalance countrywide in expenditure of the capital allocation. There are major growth centres outside the greater Dublin area that have not been recognised. The demand for accommodation in these areas has not been met. The last thing any board of management or parent wants is sanction for the provision of an additional prefab.

Why does the Department continue to import prefabricated buildings from outside the State given the need to retain jobs here? As Deputy Hayes stated, we should adhere to European laws and regulations in regard to tendering and so on.

I support the Department's work in identifying for NAMA and the local authorities the locations wherein we need school sites. A key aspect of this work is identifying the number of acres required given different acreages are required for primary and post-primary schools. As the Chairman stated earlier, in some cases sites are required for both in developing areas. This is important work which needs to be progressed. Sites are required in some areas for next year. I do not know if the process will progress fast enough to allow acquisition of those sites. A new primary and post primary school is required for next year in my constituency of Ashbourne, County Meath yet no sites have yet been identified.

Deputy O'Mahony and other members referred to banding. I support banding given my area, which is rapidly developing, benefits from it. Life in a rapidly developing area is not a piece of cake. We also have projects that are in band 4. There has been much talk of school building completions. While there have been fantastic achievements in the area I represent, one school in my area is made up of 20 prefabs and no building. In the scheme of things, this type of need must receive priority and it is for this reason included in the rapid building programme and will go through both strands at the same time. Mr. Ó Foghlú referred to the architectural planning and construction strands. This project will go through both strands together.

The provision of a sports hall at a post primary school some two miles away from this project was mentioned. It was stated that this project has not been progressing because it is in band 4. As Mr. O'Leary stated, some communities do not accept their projects' banding. We accepted what the Department told us, namely, that the project is in band 4 and that we should move on and do something ourselves, which is what we did. While we have done great work we still do not have the sports hall but have €900,000 towards building it. More work needs to be done. We entered into an arrangement with the Department of Education and Skills on a number of projects, including a combined arrangement for the community hall next door to the school, which worked well. The Department can support alternative options that are cheaper for the taxpayer, such as a project which provides a building that acts as a sports hall during the day and a community centre at night.

The banding system is good. It lets people know that projects are in band 3 or 4 and may take some time. I accept what Deputy O'Mahony said on rural areas. However, one must provide school accommodation for five-year-olds who have none. Many speakers suggested that we will be faced with more of this in the five years ahead.

That should not be at the expense of rural communities.

I am making that point. A project must be assessed and band rated. If it is placed in band 4, as is the case in respect of the sports hall project in my area, one must accept that the project will not be completed at the speed of new classrooms. The Department is doing a good job in a difficult area. There is more to be done in the next five years. Much more school accommodation is required and we must work on this. I have noticed in recent years closer liaison with the local authorities in terms of identifying sites, which is good. If a site is identified early, there is some hope. If we know we may need a school in a particular area it is important to identify a site in that area. The Department's work with NAMA and the local authorities is important and I encourage it to continue to focus on that.

How much does the Department rely on the geographical information system in terms of planning and how reliable is it given that it is quite new? I am aware that in my area of east Cork, where there has been huge growth in population, all of the secondary schools are virtually full. I note from the Department's documentation that my area is marked in red yet there do not appear to be plans in terms of provision at secondary level. I have been told that there is a danger students will be turned away next September. The Department's documentation states that by 2020 we will need an extra 1,863 second level school places in east Cork. Does the fact that the geographical information system illustrates a place in red mean the Department is moving quickly on that project? Where is the evidence of this? I do not see it in my area. People are panicking. Schools in my area are bursting at the seams. Progress appears to be dependent on this system.

Does the Department apply for planning permission to build schools? If so, is it true that if the Department does not name the school in the application it must pay planning fees, which in some instances can result in an extra cost of €18,000 to €20,000? I recently came across that information and would like to know if that is the position. If it is true, what are the statistics on it? For how many schools has the Department applied, in the name of that school, for planning permission? What is the number of schools for which the Department has applied for planning permission and to which planning authorities has it has applied? How does it decide on the issue of patronage of schools? I believe this is a new procedure.

What is the Department's policy on the location of schools to allow for children walking or cycling to school rather than being transported by car, which increases road congestion? Is this a consideration when it is deciding on the location of a school? I know of one town in which permission has been requested to build two 16-room schools on the outskirts but where the local infrastructure is dire. The town needs a school but perhaps not of the size mentioned. I can foresee major traffic problems in the years ahead. What is the Department's policy in such cases?

St. John the Baptist primary school in Midleton made an interesting proposition to the Department some years ago. The school proposed building classrooms and paying for them with the money that would otherwise be used to rent prefabs. It has not received a response to this proposal from the Department and planning permission is about to run out. How many schools have received planning permission which is nearing expiration? If it expires, they will probably need to go through the planning process again, incurring extra costs, entailing worries and concerns, as other members noted.

Is it typical for the Department to pay up to €170,000 per annum to rent classrooms and buildings for a period of ten years? I know of such a case. Could this be regarded as achieving good value for money for the taxpayer? If the money was used to build a proper school building, it would be better for the children who should be our primary focus. Instead such conditions are tolerated for some time.

Given the time constraints, I will waive the opportunity to ask questions.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

I will begin with the questions asked by Senator Healy Eames about the underspend in 2009, a subject the committee dealt with on a previous occasion. The main reason for the expenditure figure being lower than originally anticipated on major school projects is that it took longer than initially expected to progress them through the tendering stage and on to construction. The delay was due to the new public works contract put in place last year. The other significant contributory factor was declining costs. When projects were put out to tender, the costs significantly lower than the Department had estimated at the beginning of the year. That money has not been money lost, as it has been spent this year under the school building programme. The capital programme has been designed in such a way as to allow this to happen. I agree the activity did not take place last year, but it has taken place this year and at lower prices than last year. Therefore, there is better value for money.

On the question of new places for future pupils, the GIS system is working well. Members of the committee encouraged the Department to put the system in place. It allows us to look at the birth rate and child benefits statistics to learn where children are living. Obviously, we are unable to predict which school they will attend, but we can learn the number of places required and work on that basis. To date, we have only used this information in the establishment of primary schools. This means that the primary schools which are in the process of being constructed or have been constructed will have the capacity to meet future demand, although not all. The Department is carrying out further work in this regard. We are working on a multi-annual basis and between now and the end of the year we hope to have figures for the next three to five years for both the primary and post-primary sectors indicating the areas in which there is demand. I refer, for instance, to east and south Galway and areas in Cork. To date we have been working under a system under which post-primary schools come to us but that approach will be changing. The Department will identify areas in which new schools are needed. Because we will know what the numbers will be in the future, we will ask schools to accept extensions.

Did Mr. Ó Foghlú say this will take five years to complete?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

No, I did not say that; I said we would be planning for the next five years. The children who will attend post-primary school are already in primary school.

I am referring to cases in which there is an urgent need to provide accommodation within one year. How will this issue be addressed by the Department?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As the Department did not have the details of the GIS system, schools came to us and we engaged in dialogue. We will continue to engage in dialogue, but we will be doing so in a more informed way. The Department will be more proactive. We adopt a systematic approach at primary level in identifying areas and asking schools to accept extensions. We are moving towards adopting that approach in the post-primary sector.

The GIS system has been available to the Department since at least last year.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The GIS system has been developed, but we have to update and process the numbers for both the primary and post-primary sectors. It is not just a matter of pressing a button but of our forward planners working through them with information from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authorities. It is a very useful database. We cannot be certain of anything or about what will happen in the future, but we have a very good idea what will happen in the next few years. I gave the estimated number of births for last year to the committee; in fact, there were 1,000 more births. To date, emigration has not been a major feature in terms of having an impact on school planning, but that is not to say this will not change. It will have in the longer term. The Department knows what the numbers will be in the next five years.

A question was asked about patronage. I will deal first with the issue at primary level. The commission on school accommodation is reviewing the matter and the Tánaiste indicated she hoped its review would be completed before September. However, the commission has asked for further work to be done by the technical working group. We had bilateral meetings with the various bodies during the summer and are working on a final report. We had processes in train last year to consider who should be patron in cases where we had identified the need for new schools. The Tánaiste also announced at the end of July a new process for the making of decisions on the issue of patronage of post-primary schools. She is establishing a post-primary patronage advisory body with general criteria to be set for it. In advance of its establishment the Department will make a decision in the case of the school in Gorey. In that regard, we are conducting a survey in Gorey to identify potential patrons. We held a public information meeting in the town on Tuesday night last.

How many attended the meeting?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

It was attended by approximately 250 people and was a very good meeting.

I believe the school has 1,000 pupils.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Gorey community school has 1,600 pupils.

That means one quarter of the parents attended the meeting.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

Not necessarily, as the parents of future pupils were included. It was only an information meeting; we were not at the hustings. We also gave Educate Together and the VEC an opportunity to indicate what kind of school they wished to have. We should have all the information we need from the survey by mid-October. With the other criteria to be considered, we should have a decision from the Tánaiste in late October or early November. This will serve as a model for what potentially could be the process to be followed in making decisions on patronage. As we are all aware, the issue of is complicated. I am speaking only in the context of the establishment of new schools where a demographic need has been identified. There are further issues arising in cases in which there are demands for diversity within communities and there might already be a sufficient supply of schools.

The Department agrees schemes in which responsibility is devolved work well where relatively small amounts of money are involved. However, there is a limit to the responsibility we should give to boards of management. The committee has appropriately highlighted the voluntary nature of boards and the role played by the principal; therefore, there is a balance to be struck. The Department would not consider asking boards of management to run major projects——

Is that a reasonable attitude to adopt? The reason might be that the Department does not want to transfer a centralised power.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As it happens, we are in the process of devolving responsibility for the building of projects. The Tánaiste announced last week that she was open to the IVEA extending the number of VECs involved in building. County Kildare VEC has built a gaelscoil in addition to a school for itself. We are in discussions with County Monaghan VEC about a further education centre in addition to a school. The Tánaiste has announced that Louth County Council will be building a primary school on our behalf. We are, therefore, considering diversifying the manner in which we——

I presume this will be done on a statutory basis and that the legal context for patronage for VECs will be published at some stage.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

This is not about patronage but physically building schools. The patronage development will be happening in parallel. The schools in question are the ones in respect of which the issue of patronage has been decided. It is not a matter of deciding and giving patronage to the VEC.

The PPP schools — for example, the school in Gorey — will, I hope, be completed by September 2013. There are a number of delivery mechanisms. We recognised that we could not organise everything in the same way we had always done from Tullamore and, prior to that, from Dublin. We need ways to diversify our approach. For example, the emergency works have been highlighted. These represent a responsive mechanism that works. We can be responsive and indicate to schools quickly that we can give them the go-ahead where there is a real emergency.

The discussion of this issue is linked with the discussion of how we can plan for a refurbishment and additional numbers at the same time. It is a matter of schools planning and having regard to their position in the priority rankings. This is linked with the summer works scheme which works very well because it gives schools ownership in choosing to do the windows one year and the heating system in another. This can work well for some schools, but legitimate questions arise as to whether it is appropriate for all schools, particularly older ones. The roof of a school may need to be replaced every 30 years but not the entire school. The scheme works well in this instance. It is certainly a useful tool in our armoury of approaches.

We have limited technical expertise, but officials visit schools and assess need. As we develop the inventory and identify which schools are the oldest, we can talk to them. Everything is a matter of prioritisation within our budget. It is a question of the new numbers versus the older stock.

In the light of the Department's use of the VECs to manage projects on its behalf — obviously, the Department is in control — is it possible, given the necessity for lateral thinking, to use the technical expertise of a local authority or VEC where it is spotted in the first departmental survey that the school in question needs to be examined by a competent technician? Rather than allowing circumstances whereby the limited resources of the section in Tullamore result in a queue, could the Department use the local authority infrastructure or specifically the VEC infrastructure with a view to saying circumstances are as bad as they are said to be or otherwise?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

That is certainly an option. Typically, the VECs do not have building expertise, but some may do. It is certainly an option for their own schools. As the Tánaiste indicated to the IVEA last week, she is considering what roles the VECs can play beyond the current ones——

Is that in respect of all the schools in the area?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

——as she comes up with plans, on which she is working, to reduce the number of VECs. There are certainly options for the future.

What about the 49 schools?

Ms Mary Cregg

Nine have been completed to date and one further project was completed since the opening statement. Sixteen projects commenced on site either late last year or early this year. Assuming there will be no issues with them, we expect they will be completed, given that it is a 12-month contract in general.

With regard to the 47 projects at tender stage, we expect work on 20 to commence on site by the end of the year. It was alluded to that the 47 projects might have gone to tender late last year or at another time last year. The general turnaround time in the tender process is five months, unless issues arise beyond our control. As the industry and professional representatives mentioned, a number of issues might give rise to problems towards the end of the tender process. For example, a contractor might go into receivership or an examiner might be appointed.

Let us be clear about the 49 schools. Is Ms Cregg stating 26 of them will be completed substantially by the end of the year?

Ms Mary Cregg

The 26 will be completed either late this year or early next year, given that some have to——

That is the point I am making. There is no increase. The figures for last year included 20 new schools and six large-scale extensions. Even on the basis of Ms Cregg's presentation, there will be no substantial increase in the number of completions this year by comparison with last year. Is that not a fact?

Ms Mary Cregg

One must look at——

Is that not a fact?

Ms Mary Cregg

It is a multi-annual programme. It takes from 12 to 18 months to build a school. Forty-seven projects are coming through the tender process.

I know all that, but the bottom line is the number of completions. Last year there were 20 new schools and six large-scale extensions. The evidence Ms Cregg is giving to the committee is that there will be roughly the same number this year.

Ms Mary Cregg

That is correct, but one must consider what will happen in the early months of next year to put the matter in context.

As Willy Loman said, "The woods are burning." The net point is that there has been no improvement, despite all the money we are spending.

Ms Mary Cregg

If one considers the number of projects on which work had commenced on site last year and the number this year, one will notice a significant improvement in the order of approximately 40%.

In 2008 there were 77 completions, including new schools and large-scale extensions. Last year there were 26. Ms Craig is telling me that there will be 26 in 2010 and that in 2011 there will be a radical spike. Is that assessment correct?

Ms Mary Cregg

As I said, there are 47 projects at tender stage, in respect of 20 of which work is expected to commence on site by the end of the year. More are following through the different stages of the process. This relates to the circumstances that arose in the changeover to the new contract.

I accept that. It was in 2008.

Ms Mary Cregg

It takes time to go through the system. By the time the projects were ready to go to tender, the delay had affected them.

Prices are down by between 25% and one third, but we are producing the same number of schools as in previous years.

The money from 2009 is being carried over into 2010. It was not spent. We should be doing an awful lot more this year. Deputy Hayes is correct.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We are doing an awful lot more this year because the expenditure does not only relate to major projects. I agree on the importance of major projects, but, for example, there has been significant investment in summer works this year. There are a number of elements.

However, in overall terms, the number is small. I know the figures. The figures for the summer works scheme are small by comparison with the overall figures.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The summer works scheme figure for this year is over €120 million.

Yes, because in the previous two years there were no summer works. The allocation had to increase.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

When one is running a capital programme, one must have balance and different initiatives at different times, having regard to need for and the progression of projects. We are maximising the number of major projects to ensure we will have them built. Those which have proceeded to tender represent very good value.

I thank the witnesses.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We hope at this stage that our engagement with NAMA will realise something in terms of sites, but at the same time we cannot work on the basis that this will definitely be the case. Our major approach does not involve NAMA but co-operation with local authorities, on which we are progressing well. If local authorities assist us in the identification of sites, we can work from there. That assists in dealing with all of the associated transport issues, and so on. I recognise that we have been through such a process in the past. We have already bought some sites we identified and got outline planning permission for them but the anticipated residential development around them has not occurred. The Department likes the idea of a campus space for a school but it can be difficult to get a suitable site except for those on the edge of towns and urban areas.

Mr. Tony Sheppard

Deputy Stanton raised the matter of planning fees where the Department itself applies for planning permission for a school. The planning Act allows for applications from voluntary bodies and those for educational or community use to be exempt from planning charges. The Department will successfully argue that where it applies for a school planning application, it does so on behalf of a future board of management.

We had difficulties in the Deputy's area in east Cork where the local authority interpreted the regulations otherwise. In the case of the Star of the Sea primary school, the Department paid the charges for the planning application and a fire safety certificate. The Department has met Cork County Council about several matters and it is hoped the matter of these charges will be addressed.

Did all those charges relate to planning permission?

Mr. Tony Sheppard

No, I refer to planning application fees rather than development levies.

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

The Department has come to agreements with county and city councils. Recent legislation will provide for sites for school buildings to be part of future planning permission arrangements and conditions.

Essentially, will the Department purchase the sites or get them for free?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

In the current economic position it is difficult to envisage the latter happening but it is written into the law that local authorities can require a developer to provide a site or buildings for a school. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will normally issue guidelines on planning conditions. Our Department is in contact with it on these.

While it might be difficult to envisage now, we must plan for the future if and when there is substantial additional development. The Department will then be in a place to plan schools in an even more joined-up way with local authorities.

The Department changed its policy on prefabs in 2008 in response to value for money concerns. The Department is concerned about the costs for renting prefabs and is seeking to reduce them.

What is the Department doing precisely? The problem is that the school is the contractual partner in the rental arrangement. In other rental sectors such as shopping centres, some users of retail units have told their landlords they cannot pay the current rents as they are simply not market friendly and have asked for a reduction of 20%. Can the Department instruct a school to ask the owner of a prefab to reduce his rent by 20%?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

We have asked for at least a 10% reduction in rents.

What leverage does a school have, however? A retailer, for example, can leave a unit. What can the board of management say to the owner of a prefab if he refuses to reduce the rent?

Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú

As far as we are aware schools have been succeeding in getting reductions from the companies renting to them. The overall rental budget has come down and will go down even further this year. However, it is still at an unacceptably high level.

The idea that a school can use the cost of rented buildings towards a capital project is not really dealing with real money because the money we would have to find for the capital project is the money in our capital budget. We have to plan within our capital budget for the schools, but the logic of it is entirely true. If there are high rental costs, we must examine ways of buying them out or reducing the rent.

If there are any outstanding questions, will the officials forward their answers to the committee?

I thank members and officials for their patience as the committee had two concurrent meetings today. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills will be informed of today's proceedings.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.25 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 7 October 2010.