Education news

£250 million Ulster University building project delayed

Building of Phase 2 at the Ulster University Belfast campus. Picture by Mal McCann

A £250 million building project to `regenerate' Belfast by bringing thousands of students into the city is running at least a year behind schedule.

The Ulster University (UU) project - the largest of its kind in the north - will not be completed on time, the Irish News has learned.

UU has so-far refused to explain exactly why the massive project is slowing down.

It dismissed claims of a five-year delay as "absolute nonsense" and declined to comment on suggestions that an issue with the foundations was the cause of the hold up.

Construction work is continuing to transform the 'art college' campus on York Street, at the top of Royal Avenue.

This will see most courses transfer from Jordanstown to central Belfast and student numbers in the city rise from 2,000 to 15,000.

Late 2018 was an agreed "key milestone" - the date on which work was expected to be complete.

However, the university has now taken the decision to welcome students only at the start of the 2019 academic year.

No explanation for the delay has been provided.

It is expected this will have a knock-on effect for developers who are seeking to create thousands of student flats in Belfast. One housing scheme has already opened.

The first phase of construction at UU is complete and was opened officially last month.

A joint venture between Lagan Construction Group and Portuguese firm Somague Group, was awarded a £150m contract - part of the overall £250m - for phase two.

It will see new blocks developed on York Street, directly opposite the existing campus building. The former Co-op/Interpoint, Orpheus and Metropole buildings have all been demolished as part of the project.

UU said talk of a lengthy delay to the project was incorrect but confirmed to the Irish News that the planned 2018 target date would not be met.

"We still expect the majority of construction work on phase 2 of Belfast campus to be completed by Autumn 2018," a spokeswoman said.

"As it is not appropriate to move students during the course of the academic year, we have taken the decision to welcome students at the start of the 2019 academic year.

"It is not unusual for major construction projects to experience some delays and we remain in close contact with the contractor as the project progresses."

The university advised that specific reasons for delays should be directed straight to Lagan as the contractor.

Asked if it would detail the reasons for the delay, Lagan said it had no comment to make.

Ulster Unionist assembly member and former chairman of the employment and learning committee Robin Swann said UU needed to explain the reason.

"This was a flagship development for the employment and learning committee and higher education. I'm more than surprised that it has been put back," Mr Swann said.

"The university definitely needs to state clearly why this delay has happened."

While the former Department for Employment and Learning contributed £16m to the redevelopment, most of the cash needed has been provided through a loan from the European Investment Bank.

Independent assembly member Claire Sugden, who also served on the employment and learning committee, said there was a need for accountability where any public money was spent.

"The university is autonomous but it also receives public money. If public money was involved, we need to know why this is being held back," she said.

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