DUP education minister approved new nursery in his constituency days before election
ASSEMBLY members have questioned the timing of a decision by the former education minister to approve a new nursery unit in the constituency where he was seeking election the same week.
The DUP's Peter Weir won the fifth and final seat in Strangford after switching from North Down to replace suspended former minister Jonathan Bell.
Three days before the March 2 poll, he agreed to establish a nursery at Moneyrea Primary School, which was used as a polling station in Strangford.
Department of Education officials supported the Moneyrea plan due to the "need for pre-school provision within the area".
The existing Toddle In pre-school, which uses a temporary building within the primary school grounds, is to shut in June.
The Moneyrea PS proposal was published on December 22.
The publication of such proposals is always followed by a two-month consultation period. After that, the minister will receive reports and guidance from officials before deciding.
Rarely are final decisions made within days of the period for objection closing.
Mr Weir waited eight months before rejecting a plan to merge three Catholic schools in Co Tyrone and seven months before telling an Irish-medium school in Kilkeel that its bid for a nursery unit was unsuccessful.
The two-month statutory objection period for Moneyrea ended on February 22. The department's area planning policy team then presented a 36-page analysis to the minister on February 23.
Officials advised him to approve the proposal, which he did on Monday February 27.
The SDLP's Colin McGrath said the announcement so close to the election "is certainly cause for raised eyebrows".
He said Mr Weir must show "a need for this school that was greater than other schools that are crying out for investment".
"If he does not then many will perceive it as a pre-election give-away, a quick way for the minister to gain support in his new constituency," he said.
"There may be a need for a root and branch review of what ministers are allowed to do during the period of purdah to prevent unfair advantage."
Ulster Unionist MLA Rosemary Barton welcomed the new nursery unit, but also questioned the timing of the decision.
"All ministers must not be seen to use their position to their advantage, especially during election time," she said.
A department spokeswoman said last night that every development proposal "presents a unique set of local circumstances and each is considered on its own merits".
"The process involves widespread consultation and provides all interested and affected parties with opportunity to comment before final decisions are taken," she said.
"In each case the best educational interests of the pupils is the central consideration. Officials provide advice and make recommendations to ministers on development proposals based on evidence analysed including consultee comments and taking cognisance of departmental policies and statutory duties."
Last month Mr Weir faced criticism after The Irish News revealed that nearly all of a £50m pot for shared and integrated education is being kept by the UK treasury because his department failed to spend it.
It emerged earlier this week that in his 10 months as education minister, Mr Weir also rejected six out of seven 'development proposals' concerning Irish-medium education.
One of his last acts in office was to turn down plans for a naíscoil in Carrickmore on the day of the assembly election.
Asked about the Moneyrea nursery unit, the DUP said last night that "development proposals are brought forward by the Education Authority along with a recommendation based on independent advice from the civil service".
"The minister's decision was in accordance with the recommendation."