Adjournment Debate: The amalgamation of the three Inner-South Belfast primary schools (Blythefield, Donegall Road and Fane Street) on a new site at the City Hospital
Mr McGimpsey: I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this important issue forward. It is important particularly to communities living in south Belfast, and I am grateful to the Minister for being here this afternoon.
In inner south Belfast, we refer to three primary schools that are extant: one in Sandy Row, called Blythefield; one on the Donegall Road that services the Village area; and one at Fane Street that services the Lisburn Road community. All those buildings are long past their useful life. Indeed, they represent buildings from a bygone age, not simply in design but in scope, with small classrooms designed for large numbers of pupils. The proposal, which fits as well into the education strategy as it does into an economic strategy, is to bring the three primary schools together under one roof in a newbuild facility that will service the area. We are looking at a total long-term school population of around 400, which will require a school building with 14 classrooms. According to the Department’s standards, around one and a half hectares will provide the required space for the build.
There have been long discussions in these communities over a number of years to get people to, first, agree to come together and, secondly, to agree on a site in south Belfast. The area is densely built-up and has been partially redeveloped, and it is awaiting further redevelopment. It is one of the most economically deprived areas anywhere in Northern Ireland, and it suffers from severe educational disadvantage. The area is tailor-made for the education authorities to invest properly in the future of the young people there so that they can get the start that they merit in our caring society.
It seems to me that the proposed amalgamation of the three primary schools clearly fulfils the criteria for the Department’s long-term strategy. Indeed, the Department has indicated that it fits with that strategy. One site is available, which is the car park to the rear of Belfast City Hospital. The Belfast Trust agreed to release the site for the local community, and it is almost the required size of one and a half hectares. Sites on Blythefield, Sandy Row, Donegall Road and Fane Street are all less than half the necessary size. Sandy Row is being redeveloped, and the Village area is undergoing a similar process, so there are no other opportunities to provide a suitable site that fulfils the local community’s requirements for access and will mean that they can regard the development as part of their community. Consensus is always the way forward in these issues, particularly when dealing with parents and communities. We need to get that local support on the ground, and we have it for this particular site. As I said, that took many years of discussions, and I am grateful to Councillor Bob Stoker in particular for the role that he played in keeping the issue to the fore. The Belfast City Hospital site has the opportunity to fulfil a basic requirement of those communities: a primary school that is fit for purpose, modern and up to date and that will give an opportunity for serious investment in education and, therefore, in the academic achievement of our young people. A new 14-classroom school building is what we are looking for.
The current problem is that, in April 2010, the Planning Service told us that the only way to absolutely confirm the viability of the project would be to prepare and submit a full planning application, as there were what it referred to as complex planning issues. That planning application needs £16,000, and, to date, the Department has failed to authorise the board to proceed with it. That is very disappointing for me and the people in the local communities, who have invested a great deal of time and effort in the project. That disappointment happened for the sake of the £16,000 that is needed to prove the viability of the project. Once we prove its viability, we can get investment for this area. I do not think that there is a more glaring need for investment anywhere in Belfast than in this community, and I am disappointed that we cannot get any movement on the issue. The Minister wrote to me recently about the project, about which I had written to him. One line in his letter concerns me and the local community:
“There are valid reasons to support the rationalisation of these three schools in advance of a new capital build”.
Again, that fills the local community with concern that, somehow or other, the Department is looking to slip away from what we regarded for a number of years and with predecessors of the current Minister as a commitment. There is a clear need, and, with education, we have an obligation to address that need.
It is also important because the Belfast Trust has agreed to allow a very large car park at the back of Belfast City Hospital, which originally would have been housing, to go back into community use. When we have that coming together of opportunity to use the site for local communities’ needs, are we to be thwarted by not having the £16,000 to allow us to go to the planners to prove viability? I have absolutely no doubt that that viability can be swiftly demonstrated. That will allow us to go forward to the next stage, which is a newbuild. Indeed, the board is all set and ready to go. It has a strategy, as far as design and build is concerned, to rapidly put new buildings on the ground, as it is currently doing with the primary school at Taughmonagh. There is, therefore, a duty on us.
I know that capital is tight and is an issue, but there is an opportunity and a need here. As I understand it, there is also an opportunity coming, with capital being surrendered in other areas, but that is not a matter for me today. I feel strongly that to disappoint the communities in Sandy Row, the Village and on the Lisburn Road on this issue would be a grave error. We would let down not just those communities but current and future generations of children.
We have three primary schools. The one in Sandy Row is well over 100 years old. In fact, it is so old that it is listed. It is an old, industrial primary school, the sort of thing that was abandoned a generation ago. It is so old and so quaint in its build and the standard that it offered that it is actually listed as an architectural oddity and of architectural merit, as indeed is Fane Street Primary School, close to the Lisburn Road. Because it is so old, has been used for such a long time and represents a design that was abandoned generations ago it, too, is listed. The third school, on the Donegall Road, is not in the same state. It was built around 50 or 60 years ago but, as I understand it, we look on the life of any school as being around 50 years. All of them, according to those criteria, absolutely fulfil the need to go forward on that issue.
I, therefore, ask the Minister to revisit that and, in particular, to revisit the permission to the board to go through the planning process to allow us to prove the viability and then to assure the community and our young people that the project will go ahead. He will save money in the long term by putting three schools into one. The Department will save money, the board will save money and, above all, the children will gain the advantage of having a fit-for-purpose primary school to fulfil, over generations, the educational needs of an area that is, as I said at the beginning, one of the most economically disadvantaged areas anywhere in Belfast, if not Northern Ireland, and, indeed, an area of severe educational disadvantage.
The project will also provide a facility for a nursery school, so we will meet the need right from preschool years — those early years, the key years for our youngsters — all through primary school. It will allow us to make the investment in our young people that all communities need to go forward.
I have made my points, and I am grateful to the Minister for being here. I should also say that I was stopped in the corridor by Mr Jimmy Spratt, who said that he could not be here but that he supports us. I am grateful to him and to other Members.