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Government to cut its losses with sale of land earmarked for college

By Deborah McAleese

A large chunk of land in Co Tyrone that had been earmarked for a joint training college for police, fire and prison service is to be sold off by the government.

Just 35% of the site at Desertcreat near Cookstown is now expected to be used to build a Fire and Rescue Service training centre there. The unused land is to be sold.

It is estimated it will cost around £40m to construct the training centre.

Another £60-£70m will be spent upgrading separate training facilities for the PSNI at Garnerville, Steeple and Enniskillen, as well as new prison training facilities at Maghaberry and refurbishment at Magilligan.

A total of £101.4m investment will be spread over the next five years.

This is a radically changed scheme to the original plan for a joint training college that was to become a "world leader in its field". More than £12m was spent on the original project even though no building work had been carried out.

First announced in 2004, the troubled project was predicted to be finished by 2008 for around £80m. But costs spiralled to £157m, leading to the plan being abandoned.

However, last week the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to a new option that would see training facilities split across the different sites.

DUP Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said he welcomed the revised plan.

"Developing 35% of the Desertcreat site and disposing of the remainder, while investing in different training sites is the much preferred option. This is a good news story for Lagan Valley with the new training facility at Maghaberry, for Garnerville, which is to be refurbished and for the other site areas," the MLA said.

"It has been a long time trying to sort this out. I am glad that we are finally moving forward," he added.

A planned state-of-the-art centre for Northern Ireland's police, fire and prison services was first proposed more than a decade ago. The £80m college was to be built on a 210-acre site at Desertcreat.

By 2005 the college cost rose by £50m and the expected completion date was put back by two years to 2009.

In October 2011 the plans had been altered and a £139m college was given Stormont approval.

Planning permission was granted in January 2013 but by March that year costs spiralled due to "incompetence".

In June 2014 the college plan was given the go-ahead again, but five months later the steering group halted the plan, after more than £12m had already been spent on the site and design fees. The group said concerns about the financial environment meant it "would not be prudent to press ahead".

In March 2015 the departments of justice and health accepted a recommendation they should go back to the drawing board.

In June the Treasury withdrew £53m funding earmarked for the college, leading to a radical redraw of the training plans.

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