Thursday, 20 November 2014

Statement on Firhouse Schools

Statement on Firhouse Schools

Thanks to the many dozens of people who have been in touch with me in recent days – and, indeed, over the last 18 months – regarding the siting of two schools in the Firhouse area. Vigorous campaigns have been organised by local residents and by two school communities. Other local organisations including Firhouse Carmel FC have also made representations.

This has been a difficult process for all concerned. I appreciate the many individual emails and letters I have received on this matter, and the trouble local people have taken to outline their concerns on both sides of the debate.

I am unhappy with many of the processes involved since this issue was first raised. Regardless of this, though, I have involved myself in attempting to resolve the issues as Mayor and as a Councillor, representing Firhouse directly since May’s election.

There are a number of legitimate concerns on both sides of this debate. There is also considerable misinformation and some false claims. There have been simply too many emails over the past 2 weeks in particular to which I have been able to respond directly. Instead, I have decided to try to address the issues in a statement. As many people are raising similar questions with me, I thought a “frequently-asked questions” format would be appropriate. Some of the questions are direct quotes from emails I have received. Others cover the representations in a more general sense.

I appreciate that many people may feel this is a straightforward issue. However, for me as a Councillor, it is complex and detailed. Many people on both sides of the issue are aware of these complexities. Others are not. Therefore, apologies in advance for the length of this post, and for going over what for many will be old ground. None of this is a legal or official interpretation, but my own words.

Who are the schools in question?
The schools are Firhouse Educate Together NS (ETNS) and Gaelscoil na Giúise. Both are primary schools. Firhouse ETNS is a multi-denominational school under the patronage of Educate Together. Gaelscoil na Giúise is a multi-denominational school under the patronage of An Foras Patrúnacha.

Do these schools exist? Are they open?
A number of emails have spoken of possible or hypothetical schools. These schools already exist and have operated since September 2013. Both schools currently have Junior Infants and Senior Infants classes.

Who decided these schools should be opened?
The decision was taken in 2012-13 by the then Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, and his Department. This was on the basis of work done by the Dept of Education in determining where there was a need for new schools. This study was based on population statistics, the pattern of school enrolments and a study of different patronage options. The Dept decided that two new schools were required in the Firhouse area. They asked South Dublin County Council to identify a site for these two schools, with the preferred option for the two schools to be located beside each other (a “campus arrangement”).

Who proposed that these schools should be located on green space in Firhouse?
The Dept of Education, under procedures revised in 2008 and 2012, asked South Dublin County Council (SDCC) to identify and seek to acquire a site for these schools. SDCC planners engaged in a study of lands in the area in 2012. Several of the sites were ruled out. In 2013, they proposed to locate these schools on the green space in question, a patch of green space located adjacent to Firhouse Community Centre, between the Killinniny Rd and Ballycullen Drive. The proposal was in two phases – Phase One, to locate two small temporary schools on the site, and Phase Two to extend this to two larger schools.

Weren’t these plans rejected by Councillors? What consultation took
Not formally. The Council first met with Councillors. Some Cllrs stated that they did not agree that there was any need for new schools for the area (I attended these briefing meetings and raised questions, but broadly accepted the need for new schools). SDCC staff also met at this stage with representatives from Firhouse Community Centre and Firhouse Carmel FC. SDCC then put the proposal out to “Part 8” consultation. There was significant local opposition to the proposals. Councillors such as myself (I was Mayor at the time), in respect of the opposition, asked Council officials to investigate alternative sites. Council officials then deferred the “Part 8” (Phase One of the plan) – it is now back on the agenda.

What happened with the schools?
Both schools had been established with a view to beginning in September 2013. Without the Phase One “Part 8” agreed, they were unable to begin in the proposed temporary accommodation. Instead they tried to source alternative accommodation somewhere else in the area. Firhouse ETNS secured accommodation in the upstairs of Tymon Bawn Community Centre, near Aylesbury. Gaelscoil na Giúise secured accommodation in the upstairs of Firhouse Community Centre. Both schools still operate from these Centres.

Can’t these schools stay in these Centres, at least for a couple more years?
The simple answer is no. The accommodation in these Community Centres is totally inappropriate for schools, in particular given that the pupils are currently infants. As a teacher, I understand that even if the Community Centres could continue to house these schools, the accommodation is totally unsuitable. However, given that the schools are still growing – both will be taking on a new stream next year, and each year after that – the Centres cannot accommodate them regardless.

What did you do as a Councillor to try to seek that these schools be accommodated elsewhere?
I did a number of things.
1. I raised the issue in person with former Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn, and subsequently wrote to him;
2. I supported, despite concerns, the change in the Ballycullen-Oldcourt Local Area Plan to provide school zoning at Gunny Hill (see below)
3. I held meetings with planning officials to seek to advance the potential of the Gunney Hill site and the Victory Centre in particular
4. I sought updates on the situation at meetings of the Council and in my daily dealings with management.

What is the Gunney Hill site?
This is a privately-owned site at the top of Ballycullen, near to Hunterswood, and across the R113 from the Lidl supermarket. Many people have suggested that the schools be located there as an alternative. The schools themselves, and myself, have been open to that idea.

Why isn’t the Gunney Hill site being used? Wouldn’t that solve this issue?
Because the Dept of Education have said “no.” They have said that they will not countenance purchasing the land here for these schools. This has been their repeated message all along, as recent as November 18th.

Can’t the Councillors force them to use the Gunney Hill site instead?
No. This is where the reality of power and the cumbersome system of planning and educational provision are relevant. Councillors, myself included, have zoned this site for school purposes. But the Dept of Education are the ones who make the decision on where they will purchase the land. They have stated that they will not be purchasing the land for these schools. They outline their reasons in a letter on Gaelscoil na Giúise’s blog. Among these are that the school is too far away from the catchment area in Firhouse, and that they wish to reserve this site for a new school if/when further development happens in Ballycullen.

Can’t you put pressure on them?
Councillors already have, to no avail. The Dept have confirmed all along that they will not be purchasing the site.

Can’t you “call their bluff?”
I have heard the statement being made by other political representatives, that the Dept of Education are bluffing and that if Councillors reject the proposals at the site adjacent to the Firhouse Community Centre, the Dept of Education will be forced to reconsider. Nothing in my experience as a Councillor, and nothing in my experience in education in general, leads me to believe that this will be the case. I may not like that the Dept of Education has this particular power, but I accept that as a Councillor making a decision I am required to recognise the reality of this. I also recognise that by continuing to pursue this site despite all the evidence showing the Dept aren’t interested, the chips used in calling such a bluff are the children of these schools.

What about the Victory Centre?
This is a former church-type community facility off the Firhouse Road. It has been closed in recent years. I and another former Councillor suggested this as a possibility for school accommodation. This site was investigated. It was found not to meet Dept of Education standards or requirements. The building would need to be demolished for a school or schools to be built at the site. The ownership of this land and the Centre is being contested in a lengthy court battle. The Dept of Education have again ruled out pursuing this option for these schools.

What about other sites?
In total, the Council investigated 16 sites in the overall area. A report is given on the SDCC site about each of these sites. All but 2 are ruled out for a variety of reasons – not being available due to development, flooding issues, lack of services (roads etc), etc.

What about the Old Bawn Crossroads Site?
This is the only site other than the site adjacent to Firhouse Community Centre which Council planners and the Dept of Education have put forward. It is a triangle of green space diagonally-opposite the Old Mill pub. It is a small site, and would only be able to accommodate one school – as part of any such plan, a second school would be located at the site adjacent to Firhouse Community Centre.

For me, this is not a good option. Traffic and road safety issues are very significant here. The tightness of the site would require an unusual and likely very expensive build, including underground car parking facilities and an enclosed play area on the roof of the school. I do not support the proposal to locate a school at this site.

What is being lost at the site adjacent to Firhouse Community Centre?
Approximately 2 hectares of green space will be lost at the site if the permanent schools are built. The site is owned by South Dublin County Council. Much of it comprises a hill close to the Community Centre itself. The remainder is a flatter patch of ground, including a section which is currently used as a pitch by Firhouse Carmel FC. The non-pitch space is used mainly for football training and the holding of a yearly mini world cup tournament. People also walk their dogs etc at the site. The frequency of use of the site is contested. The school site is approximately ¼ of the green belt between the Ballycullen Rd and Firhouse Community College; it is approximately 1/10 of the green space in the immediate area (including Parklands etc); it is less than 5% of the overall green space in the Firhouse area.

Aren’t Firhouse Carmel FC losing pitches?
No. The Part 8 (the temporary accommodation or “Phase One”) will not affect any existing pitches. The next phase of development would require one pitch to be moved and realigned. Significant works will be required to properly drain and fix this pitch. The Council planners have committed to funding these works from the sale of the site to the Dept of Education.

Won’t this proposal result in increased traffic?
The simple answer is yes. There is no way you could build two 16-classroom schools anywhere in Ireland, and not have increased traffic flows. The same concerns apply to all of the other sites to be considered in Firhouse. This is a legitimate concern of local residents. However, I will be making the case that planning conditions need to be put in place to minimise traffic dropping children to school; different opening hours for the two schools; different entrances; strong engagement from the off with Green Schools programmes to encourage and promote walking and cycling to school.

The location of the site in the centre of Firhouse means that almost all houses are within a 1km radius – meaning far more opportunity for walking in particular. Both schools are cognisant of this as a major concern and are committed to minimising traffic flow.

What’s the difference between a Part 8 and a Section 183?
A Part 8 is a process whereby the Council agrees to develop something on its own land. Councillors are informed, a public consultation occurs, and Councillors then vote for or against. The majority of the Part 8 process for this site took place in 2013 but no vote on the matter has taken place.
A Section 183 is a vote of the Councillors to dispose of (sell) land to a third party, in this case the Dept of Education.

What happens if the proposal for 2 schools at the site is passed on Thursday?
If the proposal is passed, work on the Part 8 can begin in the next few weeks. This would result in temporary school accommodation for the two schools and would secure their future. Separately, a Section 183 will be brought to December’s Council meeting for the agreement of Councillors. If this is passed, the Dept of Education will then own the site. They will then lodge a planning application for the building of these schools which will provide full details of all works. Residents and all concerned can make submissions during the planning application. SDCC will then decide to grant or refuse permission based on planning practice, the County Development Plan, etc. If residents or others are unhappy with this outcome, they may appeal the decision to An Bord Pleanála.

What happens if the proposal for 2 schools at the site is rejected on Thursday?
The schools will be thrown into limbo regarding their future. They have no accommodation, temporary or otherwise, from September onwards. In theory, the Council could seek to pursue another site. My political belief is that no other site is an option for the variety of reasons expressed above. The green space will remain as is. The schools, without the certainty of a permanent site, may be forced to close.

Is there a need for these schools?
Simply put, yes. Population in the area is growing. The birth rate is increasing. More parents are seeking multi-denominational schools or Gaelscoileanna for their children. Even if someone thought there wasn’t a “need” for the schools, they already exist. I believe it is the task of everyone concerned to ensure they are appropriately accommodated and have certainty for the future.

Can’t existing schools in Firhouse cater for everyone?
The three existing schools in the immediate area – Scoil Carmel, Scoil Treasa and Holy Rosary – are fantastic schools. I know more than most given my work as a teacher close by in Tallaght. However, all 3 are under Catholic patronage. At present, all three schools accept all children who apply, meaning children of all faiths and none are enrolled in the school. There is no guarantee, with the projected increase in the number of children in the wider area, that they will be able to continue this policy. The enrolment policy of all 3 schools, like all Catholic National Schools (including the one I teach in myself), is to firstly cater for Catholic children in the parish. Their enrolment policies are available online. There is a legitimate worry that these schools will not be able to cater for all children as they can at present, and that non-baptised children locally will be forced to leave the area. This difficulty is already being grappled with in schools elsewhere in Dublin and is a likely scenario for the coming years. This is in addition to the fact that some parents would prefer the Educate Together ethos or a scoil lán-Gaelach.

Can’t this proposal be deferred?
To defer this proposal yet further leaves both schools in limbo and continues to prolong the difficulties already experienced for all interested. I believe a decision should be made now.

Won’t house values decrease?
No. This would not be a factor in my decision-making. However, a recent study shows that house values close to a school increase significantly.

Are you happy with the public consultation on this matter?
No. I am unhappy with the statutory processes and informal consultation. I believe a result of the failures in consultation is the level of misinformation and false statements being made. I have met with other Independent Councillors to seek to advance new ways of ensuring public consultation is done better on projects such as this. Regardless, as a Councillor I have a decision to make. I feel adequately informed to make that decision.

You were elected by the people of Firhouse to represent their views. Why are you voting for these schools given the level of local opposition?
I was elected by all the people of this ward to represent their views and also to stay true to the political beliefs I articulated. A large number of residents living close to the site – and some living further away – have expressed their objections. However, a large number of parents, grandparents and others living in Firhouse have expressed their support for this. In fact, up until two weeks ago, the majority of people I would have heard from on this issue would have been supportive of these plans. That proportion has changed in recent weeks. I accept that objecting local residents have genuine and real concerns regarding loss of a part of their green space and increases in traffic. I do not accept some of the other arguments being advanced. My balanced view as a Councillor is that the benefits of these schools being situated at this site, which for me is the only achievable option, outweigh these concerns.

How well do you know the site?
I know the area myself from playing football in the Community Centre for a couple of years. I have travelled to the site on several occasions over recent weeks to look at the activity there. I have also read all of the reports and attended two years of briefings on the site acquisition, Part 8, etc. Of course, I do not know the site as well as local people. I do not live in Firhouse.

How will you be voting?
I will be voting in favour of the Part 8 for temporary accommodation, and in favour of the option to develop both schools at this site.

What are Councillors actually voting on?
The vote Councillors will take on Thursday is;
1. To express a preference for one of two options – Option 1; disposing of land (selling it to the Dept of Education) for two schools on a site adjacent to Firhouse Community Centre; or Option 2; disposing of part of this site for one school, and another site at Old Bawn Crossroads for another school. Councillors may vote in favour of Option 1 or Option 2, or may reject both.

If Option 1 is voted for, the actual legal document to sell the site to the Dept of Education (a Section 183) will be brought to December’s meeting of South Dublin Council, to be voted on by Councillors. If Option 2 is voted for (which I believe is highly unlikely), then a Section 183 for the Old Bawn Crossroads site will be voted on at Thursday’s meeting, and a separate Section 183 for part of the Firhouse Community Centre site will be brought to the December meeting. If neither Option is supported by Councillors, then nothing will change.

2. To agree a Part 8 proposal for the site at Firhouse Community Centre for two temporary 4-classroom schools. The purpose of this proposal is to allow temporary accommodation for the two schools in question – Firhouse Educate Together NS and Gaelscoil na Giúise – for up to four years. In essence this would allow accommodation for these schools while the proposed permanent accommodation goes through the planning process (which may take many months, depending on appeals, etc). This proposal also incorporates a permanent car park which can be used by both schools and others.