Stormont stalemate holding up new college project

A computer-generated image of the proposed new SRC campus in Banbridge.
A computer-generated image of the proposed new SRC campus in Banbridge.

The absence of a Stormont government is holding up construction of a new further education college campus in Banbridge, the Department for the Economy has said.

Plans for the new Southern Regional College (SRC) campus at Castlewellan Road have been in the pipeline for some time, but it seems the ongoing political impasse means the project has now been put on hold.

Upper Bann MLA and former Education Minister John O’Dowd this week called on the Department for the Economy to release funds to allow the building project to go ahead. But responding to the Sinn Fein man, the department says current budget constraints mean some capital projects have had to be shelved.

“The Department for the Economy has confirmed to me that all necessary approvals have been secured for the Banbridge campus, including planning permission. The only barrier now to construction beginning is the release of the necessary funds,” Mr O’Dowd said.

“I have been lobbying the department to release the funds and while they have confirmed they have released the funds for new colleges in Armagh and Enniskillen approval has not been given for Banbridge.

“The new build programme for colleges has been on the department books for several years and budgets have been set aside for the programme. While the department may argue that future budgets have not been approved it is an open secret that capital expenditure for the Executive will rise over the coming years and shovel ready projects such as the Banbridge campus will be needed to spend the increased budgets.”

Mr O’Dowd added: “The Department of the Economy can and should release the necessary funding for the Banbridge campus. Our students deserve a state-of-the-art facility and the injection of funds into the local construction industry will bring a bonus to the entire local economy.”

Responding to the former Minister’s comments, a spokesperson for the Department for the Economy said: “The Banbridge proposal is one of three major capital projects, along with Armagh and Craigavon, planned for delivery by SRC. All necessary approvals have been secured, the design has been agreed and planning permission has been secured for the Banbridge project.

“Funding for this project has been factored into overall departmental capital requirements. However, in the absence of an NI Assembly, government departments are operating under Secretary of State indicative budget allocations. These interim arrangements do not constrain the future ability of an incoming Executive to adjust its priorities.

“While approval cannot be provided for all capital projects at this time the department remains fully committed to delivering the new Banbridge campus and will continue to work to secure the funding necessary to deliver this project.”

Stressing its commitment to the multi-million pound scheme, an SRC spokesperson said: “Southern Regional College remains committed to the delivery of its new build campus at Banbridge and excellent progress has been made to date, with all necessary approvals firmly in place, the design agreed and full planning permission secured. The college continues to work closely with officials in the Department for the Economy to confirm, at the earliest possible juncture, the release of funding necessary to enable the project to quickly move to the next phase and to appoint a main contractor.”

The Leader asked SRC if its plan to open the new campus in 2019 is still achievable. The college hadn’t responded at the time of publication.