20 Aug 2008

As every kid in the country already knows, because the Department of Education is incapable of building decent schools, sooner or later they’ll end up a book-learnin' in a Portakabin. In a recent attempt by the Department to reduce levels of frustration and make desperately needed school upgrades possible to achieve within the average person's lifetime, a scheme was put in place whereby school Boards of Management were given the power (within reason) to disburse grants of up to €380,000 on the provision of additional classrooms, school halls, etc. Previously, all school upgrade projects were sent to Dublin for approval where they were left to wither on the endless shelves of bureaucracy. The new system was supposed to be an improvement on what went before and, until lately, people would have said this was the case.

The problem which has emerged is that, no matter how quickly the Department of Education acts in turning the paper work around, school upgrades and extensions still require planning permission. What’s happening is this: the €380,000 grant figure is, in these economically challenging times, fast becoming an absolute maximum – this is despite the fact that it’s widely acknowledged the sum barely covers the cost of two new classrooms and an exercise hall and leaves no margin for unforeseen circumstances. However, when school Boards lodge planning applications for their two-classroom-projects, they are routinely requested by local authority planners to provide additional facilities – parking spaces, play areas, plumbing system upgrades, and so on – which were not part of the original project and for which, crucially, no funding is available. Up until a few months ago, when council planners requested these kinds of additional facilities, school boards could apply to the Dept of Ed to make up the shortfall.

But not anymore. Consultants involved in school extension projects are reporting great frustration with the situation as local authority planners increase the scope of school projects beyond what the Board of Management can afford and then, when the difficulty is pointed out to them, refusing to compromise. One consulting company reports that nine of their projects in the Munster area which were due to begin in March are now at a complete standstill because they can’t meet the planners’ demands (this is where the paranoid types amongst us begin to wonder if the Local Authorities are doing the Department of Education’s dirty work in assisting in a cynical penny pinching exercise, an idea the cultivation of which is likely to affect one’s health. And yet, it’s plausible).

So, not only are hundreds of young children in one of the wealthiest nations in the world receiving education in third world facilities, but consultants who specialise in school building projects are being threatened with their livelihoods (a Midlands office is facing lay-offs (if not more) if their entire slate of fifteen projects continues to be held up) and its understood that a building contractor with exposure to the school building sector is currently under a lot of pressure as well.
One ‘initiative’ which the Department has floated in an attempt to get over the budgetary crisis is for Boards of Management of provide yet more Portakabins. However, In order to ensure 'value for money for the taxpayer', the Dept is suggesting that Boards purchase Portakabins instead of leasing them. But again, the planners have something to say about this – in a couple of cases local authorities have insisted that, whether leased or purchased, Portakabin classrooms can be used for a maximum of five years after which time they have to be removed and replaced (how? and with what?). 
Meanwhile, am I right in remembering that a few weeks ago, John Gormley proposed that building tall wind turbines on school grounds to provide energy for school buildings would be considered ‘exempted development’? So, apparently, you can build the turbine but not the actual school.

Anyway, I’ve only only just skimmed the surface of what’s actually going on. For example, there was a meeting involving a Junior Minister and some planning officials to try to reach a solution to the problem which ended up with the planning people promising to compromise before going back on their agreement. And there are also suggestions that consultants are being pressured into keeping their mouths shut about what’s happening.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 12:38:27 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Another example of two GOVERNMENT departments not communicating with each. Having had a similar experience which Im sure a lot have it is quite frustrating especially when grants have to be drawn down and FIs for planning put the whole plan on hold for another month
Wednesday, August 20, 2008 4:00:47 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Talwin, you're bang on about the departments not communicating. Don't you think that, given how important the matter is, some person in the Department of Education would call a half day meeting with the relevant officers in the planning authorities around the country and come up with some sort of a plan? It seems to me that the people who are given the most civic responsibility have the least affinity for it.
Thursday, August 21, 2008 7:57:50 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)

Actually new Planning and Development Regulations 2008 introduced by J Gormley allow provision of a single storey temporary school building on an existing school site of up to 50% to size of the school. refer to S.I. No.235 of 2008 - Column 1,Class 20B.

Thursday, August 21, 2008 8:20:37 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Cheers Michael. I'll check it out.
Thursday, August 21, 2008 8:20:38 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Cheers Michael. I'll check it out.
Thursday, August 21, 2008 9:14:03 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Michael, just had a look - is the SI actually saying that the use of temporary structures in schools is exempted development? Or that this type of construction is permitted subject to planning or op?
Friday, August 22, 2008 9:03:55 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Again it is considered TEMPORARY Accommodation.
Temporary is a short term soloution.

Most schools have already have taken advantage of the certificate of exemption which states. If the acommodation is less than 40% of existing floor area of the existing school which was built before 2001, the temporary structure is exempt.
But hold on the schools that are requesting additional classrooms are on their second if not third temporary classroom which is not exempt.
Under department of education guidelines a standard classroom must be 76 sqm , and accommodate a unsuite toilet, and 30 minute fire rated storeroom.
Dont be fooled into thinking that you can just pop in a portacabin and forget about it, as services have to be supplied to it.
Your local council will know this, and request the school to upgrade its existing services that may not have been included in the allocated cost of providing a classroom which will be removed after five years leaving the school in a situation no better than it was before.

It is this lack of communication between goverment departments that is causing havoc throughout the country.
Check the planning applications of schools around the country, they would not be applying for planning for a portacabin if this was not required.

Friday, August 22, 2008 6:32:18 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I'm trying to see how the local authorities are the bad guys in this. Ok - say you have the €350K school with no playground or parking ready to go with shiny blackboards and shinier teachers. What's the first thing the parents and teachers going to bellyache about? No safe playground and no parking on or near the school grounds. And to be honest, I could see a blog being written gleefully pointing out that these are essential parts of a modern school and the planners rode roughshod over common sense in order to get any ould school built and make their end-of-year report look good.

Just because England has been selling off older school for development and building new schools without playgrounds because the kids are going to immediately crack their heads open, doesn't mean we have to slavishly follow suit.

If these services aren't provided when the school gets built they're just not going to be provided... unless the school is in Clara or something.
Monday, August 25, 2008 4:17:56 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
The local authorities are not always the bad guys.
But when we go to the local authorities its always somebodies else problem.
Current market rates for buildings are way below the allocated funding given to these schools.
So in a ideal world parking and playgrounds would also be provided.
But in the real world if you asked a teacher or member of the board of mangement what is needed more. a 10space carpark , a playground or a classroom.
Classrooms is always top of the list.
If we go to the local authorities to explain the reason why we cannot provide a carpark set down area etc,
Its someone elses problem.
Schools currently find it hard enough to constantly fundraise to stay alive.
This pushes the schools into the position of giving up on a new school building, and providing a portacabin which will be removed in five years and leave the school €100,000 less for their proposed building works and in a less better state, forgotten about.
All i ask is for the local authorities is to see the bigger picture.
Schools are the back bone of our country and do not just go out just to build shanty towns for the sake of it.
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