Department for Employment and Learning: The Springvale Educational Village Project
Mr John Dowdall, the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, today published his report on the ‘Springvale Educational Village Project’. The Springvale project was aimed at tackling the particular educational, cultural and social needs of West and North Belfast, as well as benefiting Northern Ireland in general. It was also intended to promote regeneration in an area marked by significant economic and social deprivation and educational underachievement.
A proposal to build a higher education campus at the Springvale site was first put forward by the University of Ulster in 1993. The Springvale Educational Village project was jointly proposed by the University and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education in 1997. With an estimated overall cost of £71 million, including a planned contribution from Government of £40 million, the project was to have three components:
- Main Campus: to be shared between 1,500 further and 1,500 higher education students, at an estimated cost of £59 million
- Community Outreach Centre: to act as a hub for various community and outreach programmes and as a training facility (£4 million)
- Applied Research Centre: to draw on existing research in the University, stimulate inward investment and develop local companies in start-up units (£8 million).
In October 2002, five years after it had submitted the Springvale proposal, the University announced that it was withdrawing from the project, due to its concerns about affordability. Up to that point, some £9.2 million had been spent on the project, including £0.9 million Government funding and some £6 million raised by the University from external sources. In terms of the planned facilities, only the Community Outreach Centre was completed. Costing £4 million, it was funded by the Millennium Commission and a private donor. Building work on the Main Campus and Applied Research Centre had not yet started.
Scope of the Audit Office Review
Given the length of time that had been spent on developing the Springvale proposal, the major commitments of public and other funding to the project and the substantial amounts already spent, the Audit Office examined the history of the project, to its termination in 2002. In particular, the review focused on the circumstances which led to the University’s decision to withdraw and whether there were lessons to be learned for the future handling of such projects.
The Audit Office’s overall conclusion is that, in key respects, the joint project initiated in 1997 could have been much better handled. Springvale was a major strategic development, aimed at addressing particular educational, economic, cultural and social needs in North and West Belfast. It offered a real opportunity to respond to the findings of the 1997 ‘Dearing Report’, which encouraged giving priority to projects which address low educational expectations and achievement, promote progression to higher education, increase access to institutions incorporating both further and higher education and raise the number of higher education places in Northern Ireland. Springvale was also a development which, had it been completed, would have involved over £40 million of public funds. An undertaking such as this merited the highest standards of professionalism in its handling, including the effective management of risk. It is clear that this did not always happen.
The Audit Office report assesses:
- the outcomes of the Springvale project, in terms of the tangible benefits produced (paragraphs 3.3-3.5)
- why the project failed to deliver the Main Campus and Applied Research Centre (paragraphs 3.6-3.11)
- the financial management of the project by the promoters, the quality of project appraisals and the impact of the University’s withdrawal on other stakeholders (paragraphs 3.12-3.23)
- the role of the Department for Employment and Learning (paragraphs 3.24-3.26).
Six key lessons emerged from the Audit Office review (paragraph 3.28):
- There has to be a clear strategic vision from the outset and one which is wholly shared by each of the partners involved.
- Key issues – such as viability – which have the potential to ‘make or break’ a project, must be fully addressed at the earliest possible stage, with detailed updates of financial analyses carried out as circumstances change.
- Where a new educational entity is being promoted jointly by two or more existing, autonomous institutions, there is a risk that decision-making within the new body may conflict with the best interests of the parent bodies. Management of this type of project is more likely to be successful where the new organisation is run by a single, independent body.
- Where Government is to be the major funder of a project, it has a responsibility for ensuring, as far as possible, that the process is effectively managed by the project promoters.
- When handling a project which directly impacts on local communities, it is important that the project promoters provide a clear understanding of the risks involved in bringing about the project. Government has a particular role to play in ensuring that community expectations remain realistic and take account of the ongoing risk attaching to a project.
- It is important in any partnership arrangement, such as Springvale, that all parties are fully transparent in their dealings with their partners. Government has a role to ensure, wherever possible, that this approach is fully applied.