Northern Ireland news

Ulster University Belfast move to cost at least £110 million more than planned

Work is continuing on the massive UU Belfast campus. Picture by Hugh Russell

AN overdue university campus, which will see student numbers in Belfast soar, is to cost £110 million more than estimated.

Auditors warned that Ulster University (UU) does not have enough money to complete its Greater Belfast Development without "substantial additional external funding".

Work is continuing on the project to transform the 'art college' campus on York Street.

A business case envisaged it would be open to students in September 2018 and cost £254m.

Most courses are transferring from Jordanstown and student numbers in the city will rise from 2,000 to 15,000.

The price tag is now estimated at £363.9m, an audit report found, 43 per cent in excess of the original budget.

The largest venture of its kind in the north, it may not be ready until at least 2022.

Analysis: Soaring Ulster University campus costs should focus minds

The first phase of construction is complete and open.

The audit report revealed that while the university secured a £150m loan from the European Investment Bank, it was withdrawn in February 2017 because of project delays.

It reported there had been regular assurances from UU that the building was "broadly on track in terms of cost and completion/occupancy date".

However, a March 2016 update revised the completion date from 2018 to 2019 following new advice from the contractors. UU advised that the main cause of delay was "due to alleged defects being discovered in the below ground works and basement works".

In December 2017, following further advice from the contractor, UU told the Department for the Economy that the defects in the basement works would delay completion to September 2020.

There followed a four-month pause to work in 2018.

The main contractor for the second phase was a joint venture between Lagan Construction Group and Somague Engenharia. Lagan went into administration in March 2018 and workers from all the firms involved, including subcontractors, downed tools. Workers from the Portuguese Somague firm returned home.

Somague returned to the project alongside Spanish company Sacyr.

The report said the total cost of the project was now estimated at £363.9m. This comprises an additional £23.5m worth of works, which includes a multi-storey car park at Frederick Street, that were not in the original plan.

It also raised concerns about how UU could afford to complete it.

"UU's internal finances are not sufficient to bridge the major funding gap and therefore, in order to complete the project, it needs to attract substantial additional external funding," it said.

"UU expects that provision of the required external funding will ensure completion of the project by August 2021.

"Given the project's scale and the historic difficulties encountered, we intend to keep this project under constant review and report on it at a future date."

The University and College Union said when assessing the implications of the audit report, it would make it clear to university management that it would "not allow the spiralling costs to bring cuts to courses, larger class sizes, heavier workloads or redundancies".

Lindesay Dawe, President of UCU at Ulster, asked how the university could find tens of millions extra "except through crude cuts to UU's teaching and operations".

A university spokeswoman said the Greater Belfast Development project was one of the largest higher education capital builds in Europe.

"As outlined in the NIAO report, cost overruns and time delays on the project arise from a range of factors including legal, procurement and construction matters, and adjustments to the scope of the project," she said.

"Together with the Department for the Economy, we are currently evaluating the full range of funding options available for UU to complete the project."

UU's programme team is working closely with an external professional consulting team, experienced lead contractor and committed supply chain, "to ensure the delivery of a world class university campus".

"The new campus will deliver a progressive student experience in a state-of-the art city centre campus, benefitting from innovative learning spaces at the forefront of higher education," she added.

"An independent assessment of this project's overall regeneration impact details benefits to the NI economy of £1.4billion, through this significant investment in the aspirations of our young people, the city and beyond."

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