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.