Northern Ireland news

More than 100 workers down tools at flagship university campus build

Ulster University Belfast Campus. Picture by Hugh Russell

A FLAGSHIP university building project - beset by delays and rising costs - has suffered another serious blow.

Ulster University's (UU) Belfast campus project, which is the largest venture of its kind in the north, is years behind schedule.

The university said some students and staff should be welcomed into the new campus this year, despite a fresh issue emerging.

A subcontractor told The Irish News last night that it was working to resolve issues with the lead contractors.

This comes amid reports that more than 100 workers walked off the site in the latest setback to befall the overdue building project.

The massive development should have opened in 2018 but is not expected to be operating fully until at least 2022.

The price tag is now estimated at £363.9 million - 43 per cent in excess of the original budget.

Work is continuing on the project, situated in the artistic and cultural centre of the city, the Cathedral Quarter.

Ulster University Belfast Campus. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Although traditionally associated with art, the campus spans an increasing range of subjects including architecture, hospitality, event management, photography and digital animation.

The first phase is already complete and open.

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

The Irish News reported in May 2016 that the project was, at that stage, facing a one year delay.

It is not unusual for major construction projects to experience some delays.

Late 2018 was agreed as a "key milestone" - the time by which work would be complete and students and staff would be on campus.

Asked at the time to comment on claims that the project was instead running five years behind, UU said this was "absolute nonsense".

Work was paused for four months in 2018. At that time Lagan Construction Group and Portuguese-based Somague were the joint-venture partners. When Lagan got into difficulties in February 2018, workers from all the firms involved, including subcontractors, downed tools. Accountancy firm KPMG was appointed as administrators to four companies within Lagan.

Now being led by Somague and Spanish construction company Sacyr, there are about 45 other companies currently working across the site.

It is understood that the most recent issue concerns a group of electrical subcontractors.

Dowds Group has been working on-site since July 2019, across all 15 floors of the campus. It said previously that up to 130 operatives were involved in its work and it was "proud to be part of this landmark project".

Asked about reports of a walk-off, a spokeswoman said: "Dowds Group can confirm that we are in the process of resolving issues with Saycr and are looking forward to a speedy and successful resolution."

UU last night said it contracted Somague/Sacyr to deliver the project. Any specialist contract relationships established by Somague/Sacyr to deliver the overall project "are their responsibility and it would be inappropriate for the university to comment", a spokeswoman said.

"The university is fully up to date on the agreed payment schedule to Somague/Sacyr," she added.

She further said that work had progressed at speed throughout 2020/21 and the building programme provided by Somague/Sacyr was "currently on track to welcome staff and students to a vibrant city centre campus from September 2021".

It is not known how many students will be on-campus from this date, however.

"The overall cost to the university is expected to be £363.9m," the spokeswoman added.

"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. 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."

The Department for the Economy last night said: "We remain committed to the Ulster University Belfast campus project and want to see it completed on time."

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