Almost all of £50 million pot for shared education returned to Treasury

Peter Weir before the education committee

MILLIONS of pounds promised in the Fresh Start agreement to promote integrated education in Northern Ireland is to be kept by the UK Treasury after it was left unspent.

The Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements included plans to invest up to £50m a year, for 10 years, on unsegregated schooling.

The huge investment was welcomed by ministers as "another step forward on the road to building a better Northern Ireland".

However just £3m was spent in the first year by education minister Peter Weir and it appears there is little possibility of the unspent cash rolling over to another year.

The development will prove hugely embarrassing for the DUP already reeling from the fallout of the Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco which led to the collapse of the power sharing institutions.

Mr Weir is already facing the challenge of running in a new constituency after being shifted from his current seat in North Down to neighbouring Strangford, where suspended former minister Jonathan Bell may also run as an independent.

His seat in North Down was viewed as being under threat, as all 18 constituencies go from six seats to five in this election.

The schools' funding was announced in March last year by then Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

She revealed there would be construction of shared education campuses at Limavady, Moy and Ballycastle and integrated school projects at Braidside, Drumlins and Roe Valley.

Funding would also allow an additional 17 shared and integrated school proposals to advance to planning.

At the time, the Department of Education said the money - £50m a year for 10 years - was designed to "unblock through investment in education and early years nursery provision one of the most persistent obstacles towards a shared future for Northern Ireland's communities".

Mr Weir has since said that the projected spend to March 31 "is circa £3m". A significant portion of this is for land purchase "which is assumed to be complete by 31 March 2017".

It is understood that the majority of the projects announced are in the early stages of planning. Many also require land acquisition which can involve lengthy lead-in times.

Mr Weir has now admitted in assembly questions that "it will not be possible to spend" the £50m in the early years of the programme "given that no initial work had commenced on the vast majority of the projects when they were announced".

In the last meeting of the assembly education committee, Ulster Unionist education spokeswoman Sandra Overend put it to the minister that "seemingly there is £50 million this year that really has not been spent".

"Otherwise, that money will just stay with Treasury and will be lost to Northern Ireland," she added.

Mr Weir replied: "I understand that. From our end, everything that humanly can be done is being done to make sure that it is spent."

Ms Overend accused the minister of 'failing miserably' to spend £47m in the first year.

"It is very frustrating that this money will be lost to Northern Ireland. The minister had access this year to £50m for shared and integrated education and has failed miserably to spend it. This is all despite receiving no confirmation that this money can be carried over from one year to the next," she said.

"This money would have been of real value to Northern Ireland, not only to the education sector, but also to the construction industry. Most importantly it would have helped us on our way to a more integrated and shared education system. There can be no excuse for losing this money."

A Department spokeswoman said the six education projects were allocated £43m of Fresh Start funding to move to construction stage - but confirmed only £3m of that would come out of this year's pot.

"It is anticipated that the £43m allocated to the six projects will be spent over the next five years with £3m drawn down in 2016/17. The remaining £40m will be drawn down when required over the next five years," a spokesman said.

"Carry over of unused funding in a given year has not yet been agreed however negotiations with NIO/HM Treasury on flexibility are continuing."

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