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Strule campus decision a disappointing move

The Department of Education's decision to suspend the Strule shared education campus project is a disappointing development.

By any standards, this is an ambitious initiative aimed at delivering Northern Ireland's largest school building project.

Work on the campus began in 2013 and the plan was to move six schools to the former Lisanelly military barracks in Omagh by 2020.

These include a mix of controlled, maintained, grammar, non-grammar and special schools in a shared education hub but to date only Arvalee special school and resource centre has moved to the site.

The department hailed the scheme as representing a 'pioneering approach' to the delivery of education in the region and considerable planning and expenditure has already been allocated.

Concerns were raised in December 2016 when it was revealed that the initial cost estimate had increased from £100 million to £160 million.

More than £2 million has been spent on the construction of a road to serve the campus.

Clearly, the preparation work for this landmark project is already at an advanced stage.

Now, however, following delays caused by budget uncertainty over the next few years, the department has issued a statement which has caused deep dismay in the area.

A senior official revealed that a bidder has withdrawn from the tender process and as a matter of urgency the department is 'assessing the implications for the ongoing viability of the procurement of this project.'

As a result, the decision has been taken to suspend the procurement process while officials take stock of the situation.

The department is insisting it is fully committed to delivering the Strule campus project but local representatives are understandably worried.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said a further delay puts the viability of the project in doubt.

The decision will come as a blow to the construction industry which had hoped the campus would deliver a jobs boost.

It also means uncertainty for the schools which have been waiting and preparing for a move to brand new buildings with access to a range of shared facilities.

The question many people will ask is, would this project have stalled if the Stormont administration was still in place?

Certainly, it cannot help the situation when departments are trying to make decisions in the absence of ministerial direction or even an agreed budget.

With further bad news on the employment front yesterday, with the loss of 125 jobs at Sensata Technologies in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, it is obvious that our economy is suffering while politics remains in limbo.

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