MORE than a third of schools promised by Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe that their major building projects would begin tendering or construction this year have not moved to that stage – with less than a month left to meet the deadline.
The minister announced in February 43 schools whose new buildings or extensions would go to tender or construction, including two that he had added to the list proposed by his department’s building unit.
But only 11 of them have so far either been completed or are under construction, with a further 16 at tender stage in the school building programme’s long process.
The remaining 16 projects – including 11 new schools and five large extensions – have not yet moved to the tender stage despite the promise made by Mr O’Keeffe just four months before the local and European elections. The details were supplied by the Department of Education in the same week it emerged that the minister has yet to spend a quarter of his record €841 million capital budget.
Despite intense speculation of major cuts to capital spending of all departments in next week’s budget, Mr O’Keeffe insists the remainder of the unspent €213m will either be used this month or carried over into next year.
Although the Department of Education had expected to pay out €739m in the first 11 months, it was €110m or 15% behind target, according to exchequer figures from the Department of Finance on Wednesday.
The minister’s spokesman repeated explanations for the under-spend given after the figures emerged in each of the previous two months’ exchequer returns, saying that tenders have been coming in 30% less than in the height of the construction boom, that some bills are still coming into the department and some projects have taken longer to go on site, mainly due to teething problems with a new form of public works contract.
“The minister will spend another €134m this month and carry over €79m to next year, accounting for his full 2009 allocation of €841m,” the spokesperson said.
The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) has claimed the failure to spend €213m would see more than 2,500 jobs lost in a sector already haemorrhaging jobs.
“The department’s argument that it hasn’t had to spend the money because of savings in tender prices points to a worrying mindset. If it spent double this year’s allocations in each of the next five years, we would still have schools on waiting lists and areas without sufficient school places to cater for demand,” said CIF research and policy director Martin Whelan.
“The value for money available to the department is an opportunity to provide for a jobs stimulus by bringing forward additional projects,” he said.
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