A senior Department of Education official has agreed that €400 million is a “rough ballpark figure” for the costs of remediating 40 schools built for €150 million under a ‘rapid’ build programme.
The figure was put to Richard Dolan, a principal officer in the department, during the Commercial Court hearing of the Minister for Education's action against Co Tyrone-based building firm Western Building Systems (WBS), over alleged defects in Ardgillan community school, Balbriggan, Co Dublin.
The landmark action, which continues on Tuesday, is the first of 34 separate actions by the Minister against WBS concerning 40 schools built by the firm between 2003 and 2018 under the rapid-build programme.
In 2018, investigations uncovered serious structural defects in the Ardgillan school, one of 42 built by WBS in 20 weeks under a new ‘rapid’ design-and-build type contract.
The company accepts there are defects in the Ardgillan school, built in two phases in 2009 and 2015 for some €3.5 million, but strongly disputes the cost of identifying and remediating those is €11.5 million.
It claims the true remediation costs are about €2.5 million, that the works have not been done in a timely manner and this has contributed to escalated costs.
In its defence, WBS denies negligence and pleads the department retained its own expert advisers throughout the design and construction process for the school and had a general supervisory role with regard to the carrying out of the works.
It pleads contributory negligence against the Minister, whom it claims knew from the minutes of meetings that site inspections were going to be the guarantee of quality.
Mr Dolan was in the department’s planning and building unit and headed the schools remediation programme (SRP) from late September 2019 until he took up another role in the department in late 2021.
During his cross-examination last week, John Trainor SC, for WBS, put to Mr Dolan that, given the way the programme has been run by the department to date, the costs of remediating the 40 schools would roughly amount to €400 million.
Mr Dolan said he “honestly doesn’t know” what the expected outcome is at the moment.
He said that when he left the programme he had an idea what the total end bill was likely to be but said that was based on a rough calculation.
He agreed with Mr Trainor the “ballpark figure” was €400 million but said that was not based on “solid remediation plans”.
Noting WBS had been paid €150 million to build the 40 schools, Mr Trainor suggested a ballpark figure of €400 million for remediation was disproportionate.
Mr Dolan responded that he was leading a programme which had had to investigate 40 schools, try to figure out exactly what the problems were and then remediate them. There were “very complex issues and very complex builds” involved, he said. The department was trying to ensure the schools remained open for 16,000 children and he was not sure how comparable a greenfield build was to this sort of work, he added.
Responding to counsel’s suggestion that the rapid-build scheme had been an “absolute unmitigated disaster” for the department, Mr Dolan said it had delivered a range of schools and the level of problem with the WBS-built schools was not seen elsewhere.
When counsel put to him that, in relation to the 40 schools which WBS and other professionals were involved in, that has been “a disaster which is going to cost the department at least €400 million potentially on a ballpark estimate and trouble for some years to come”, Mr Dolan said: “Well, yes. These contracts didn’t work well, yeah.”
Mr Trainor said that when 17 schools in Edinburgh, Scotland, were closed in 2016 as a result of problems with wall ties and a risk the walls would fall, all the schools were remediated within some five months at a cost of some €5 million. This contrasted with how the department had handled the problem here, he said.
Mr Dolan said the department had to deal with 40 schools with very serious issues.
This was “a very challenging piece of work” and the department had approached it in a proportionate manner, he said. He denied that fees being sought for the department’s advisers for the SRP were “completely out of proportion”.