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Belfast Pathfinder PFI Schools project

Category: Schools

"The buildings occupied by both schools and the Regional Teacher Training Unit were extremely poor by any standard that would be applied. The schools would acknowledge that what they now have is new, fresh and bright."

Brendan O'Reilly, Belfast Education and Library Board

November, 2006

The Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland set up a Pathfinder PFI project to explore the extent to which PFI could be used to complement conventional procurement to improve the educational estate.

These six pathfinder projects, with a total capital cost of £67 million, comprised Balmoral High School, St. Genevieve’s High School, Wellington College, Drumglass High School and the Belfast and North West Institutes of Further and Higher Education.

The PPP Forum interviewed Brendan O’Reilly, Health, Safety and Security Manager and the Board’s Contract Manager (PPP) at the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) in Northern Ireland.

Brendan became involved in the project in 2000, after the process had been going on for quite some time. He was offered the role of Board’s Contract Manager in what was one of the first schools PFI project in Northern Ireland. Brendan was involved in two of the post-primary schools – Wellington College and Balmoral High School – and the Northern Ireland Regional Teacher Training Unit.

From my perspective it was a very very steep learning curve. The contractor, for example, was already on-site, digging holes and modelling ground by the stage I became involved. The entire 14 month build period was extremely busy, I can’t underestimate the amount of time and effort expended, quite literally there were not enough hours in the day. It was the biggest capital school building programme that the Belfast Board had initiated and even today 5 years on, I don’t believe the Board has built anything as comprehensive.”

The Northern Ireland Audit Office published a report into these PFI projects which found that the construction phase was shorter than in conventional projects.

The buildings were handed over in January 2002. To be fair to the consortium it was an incredibly tight construction window. It was 14 months to build two new schools and the Northern Ireland Regional Training Unit, a considerable undertaking. There were issues at handover - it wasn’t 100% ready to go but hard work and effort by all connected parties allowed the schools to open on time. Furniture and equipment in any PFI/PPP can be problematic and we had our fair share of furniture, equipment and building related issues. I think the consortium would be the first to admit that it had little experience in the procurement of educational equipment, and to be fair they were open about this and they worked hard to resolve it. From my perspective that is essentially what I was looking for.”

The contractor on this project is the Northwin Consortium, which comprises some of Northern Ireland's leading construction companies, including Farrans Limited and John Graham (Dromore) Limited.

There is and always was a willingness to make the project work. That’s not to say that we always agree with our partners, we do not, but to date we have been able to resolve difficulties in a fair and reasonable manner. I don’t approach it from an ‘us and them’ perspective and the board and schools have worked hard at making the partnership work to the benefit of all. It is very demanding, challenging and interesting – I have learned a lot in a relatively short period of time.

There is also a willingness on the consortium’s side to make it work and that has helped. We have not for example had to initiate the dispute resolution procedure and this is primarily down to the good relationships that we have established with all members of the Graham Facilities Management Team. To date we have been able to negotiate, talk, communicate and resolve issues.”

The present schools estate (nursery, primary and secondary) comprises just over 1,200 schools and is valued at approximately £2.5 billion according to the Department of Education. At the time there was estimated to be a backlog in major capital works valued at approximately £500 million, and in addition a backlog in buildings’ maintenance work of around £90 million.

The buildings occupied by both schools and the Regional Teacher Training Unit were extremely poor by any standard that would be applied. The schools would acknowledge that what they now have is new, fresh and bright. The school estate in Northern Ireland does require significant investment, the latter likely to be delivered through a variety of procurement routes. In terms of our customer base, parents and young people primarily, their desire is to have 21st Century schools and facilities as soon as is possible. That demand is entirely justified and the Board and in 2008 the new Education and Skills Authority (ESA) will play its part in delivering an educational estate fit for the 21st century.

Graham Facilities Management have worked hard and as their FM educational expertise increased the schools have had to input less. It’s been a learning curve for both parties. My time is very limited as I have other major areas of responsibility within the Board, requiring me to rely heavily upon the FM people to do what they should be doing, and to self-monitor for example.”

The Northern Ireland Audit Office also found that the delivery of the Pathfinder projects compares favourably with those procured through conventional contracts.

I can only really comment upon the construction and post construction phases. Essentially construction is construction, however within a PPP/PFI environment issues are resolved slightly differently. The design of the schools had been previously agreed as was the contract itself. II had to work with what was in front of me, solutions had to be found and by and large we did just that.”