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Carillion construction fallout: Wexford principal fearful new school may not be able to open in time

As the end of the term approaches, Loreto’s board of management and principal are getting increasingly worried.

The new school in Wexford.
The new school in Wexford.

A NEW SCHOOL in Wexford impacted by the collapse of the UK construction company Carillion has been told to prepare “contingency plans” for September in case it cannot open for the new term.

Schools and subcontractors remain in limbo as May approaches, some three months after the Education Minister Richard Bruton said that the closure of the company would not jeopardise the completion and handover of a number of Irish schools.

In mid-January, it emerged that work had stalled on a number of schools after the UK-based firm went bust with debts of £1.5 billion (about €1.7 billion).

Carillion was part of a consortium, Inspired Spaces, hired to build five schools and one further education college in Ireland.

Sammon Contracting Group (which has now entered into examinership) was hired by the consortium to build the schools.

One of those schools is Loreto secondary school in Wexford town, which caters for 900 girls at its current location near the town centre.

The brand new building is near completion and ready and waiting for students.

But as the end of the current term approaches, the school’s board of management and principal are getting increasingly worried, particularly after getting word from the department that come September, students may still not be able to enter the new school.

“When this all happened in mid-January we were assured that it would take three or four weeks to sort out – that is what the Taoiseach said in the Dáil – and now we are three months into it and nothing,” Principal Billy O’Shea told TheJournal.ie.

While I understand that negotiations are ongoing and these things can take time, there are obviously concerns on the ground here in Wexford about the school and the new term.

IMG_7151 Inside the new Loreto College Wexford. Source: Loreto Wexford

With the absence of any progress people are getting increasingly worried, he said.

The building is virtually ready to go, if work were to recommence on site over the summer it would be ready for the start of the new school year, but nothing is happening on site now. So yes, we are all worried.
Contingency planning is underway, but our board of management is very strongly of the view that if contingency plans were to come into effect it would be an appalling, appalling situation to be in.

Not being able to move into the new building would mean a big increase in the use of prefabs, said the principal. That situation would not make sense when there is a brand new building sitting there, he explained.

“It would be an appalling indictment on the whole process if we ended up in temporary accommodation when we have a brand new building there,” said O’Shea.

Our focus now is on the next few weeks and getting into the school for the next term.
We understand that a lot of work is going on in the background, but promises need to be delivered upon now.

O’Shea said he remains hopeful that a resolution will be reached, but in the meantime locals are being kept well-informed about the situation. However, he said the levels of concern are rising as the weeks drag on.

All those concerns can be eased very easily, but certainly if it drags on into the summer, we will be in a completely different ball game.

IMG_7181 New science labs at the new school. Source: Loreto Wexford

O’Shea said he and many people from the community are also concerned about recent reports that local subcontractors have been left out-of-pocket.

A number of contractors expressed concerns about not getting paid as a result of the collapse, with some businesses believed to be owed amounts ranging from a few hundred euro to hundreds of thousands.

“The board of management and staff at Loreto believe it is absolutely essential that local businesses get paid,” said the Wexford principal, who added:

We will be in the old building until the end of the state exams in June. The green light has to be given very shortly. The longer it goes on the more serious it becomes.

Raised in the Dáil

Wexford TD Brendan Howlin raised the issue of Loreto Wexford with the Education Minister in the Dáil last week.

“I still do not have a clear horizon on when the completed Loreto secondary school in Wexford will be handed over. It is ready. It had actually gone through a deep clean before formal handover. It is now lying idle,” Howlin told the minister.

In terms of subject choices, he said the school had intended to expand its range of teachers at the new premises. He said that would be impossible if the new building wasn’t open in the autumn.

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Bruton said the responsibility lies with the contracting party to complete the schools and hand them over.

“In this case that party is now the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, DIF. The State will not be making payments until that handover has occurred. It is DIF that is undertaking the tender for the completion of those works, not the State,” said the minister.

“The State cannot be impotent,” replied Howlin.

“We are not impotent,” said the minister, who said his department is far from idle on the issue which he added is getting “enormous attention”. When asked about the timeline for delivering the new schools, the minister did not answer.

‘Shocking’

Howlin told TheJournal.ie he found the minister’s reply in the Dáil this week “shocking”.

He said the delays in delivering the school project in Wexford, and in progressing projects in other counties, were “unacceptable” and accused the minister of slapping himself on the back for a job well done.

“He sounded like an onlooker when he was giving an update on the schools project, not like the minister who is charge of it all,” he said.

TheJournal.ie asked the Department of Education for an update on Loreto College Wexford and the other schools impacted by the collapse of Carillion, which include:

  • Tyndall College Campus in Carlow, which will consist of a development that will provide accommodation for over 2,000 post-primary school and Further Institute of Education students
  • Eureka Secondary School in Kells, Co Meath – the project involves the replacement of the post-primary school and will provide 800 pupil places
  • Coláiste Ráithín in Bray in Co Wicklow, which is to be replaced with a new building that can cater for 450 pupils
  • St Philomena’s National School in Bray, where 24 classrooms in the school are to be replaced (both Coláiste Ráithín and St Philomena’s NS will be constructed on a single new site in Bray)

In a statement, the department said that as a result of the Carillion collapse and Sammon examinership, the construction and facilities management contracts relating to the Public Private Partnership (PPP) Project were terminated and are now being retendered.

The tender process in this respect is being undertaken by infrastructure fund manager Dutch Infrastructure Fund (DIF) on behalf of the PPP Company, Inspired Spaces.

Contingency plans

“Based on the timeline for tender evaluation, negotiation and appointment of the replacement contractors, DIF has targeted and is working towards having all six buildings operational for the beginning of the coming school year,” said the statement.

Carillion crisis Carillion worker Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Working within this projected timeframe, the department said:

It is considered that the goal of delivering the new building for Loreto Wexford within this timeframe remains realistic; however, any implications arising from the recent appointment of an examiner to Sammon Contracting Ireland Ltd will need to be kept under close review.

However, it acknowledged that contingency planning is being encouraged.

“In parallel to DIF’s work in putting in place arrangements to complete the construction and certification of the buildings, the Department continues to engage with the relevant school authorities in relation to contingency plans,” said a department spokesperson.

These plans would mitigate against any issues arising from delays in the delivery of the new school buildings and represent a prudent approach in the circumstances. The specific contingency arrangements will depend on the enrolment projections for the coming school year and additional accommodation options available for each school.

However, the department concluded by stating that there is a “clear focus” remains on ensuring the delivery of the new school buildings as “quickly as possible so that contingency measures do not have to be utilised”.

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