Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Disaster of £71m Springvale plan

A lack of professionalism contributed to the collapse of a £71m plan for a peaceline university campus in west Belfast, a hard-hitting review has concluded.

The stinging report by the watchdog Northern Ireland Audit Office said the abandoned Springvale Educational Village Project had involved direct losses of some £3.6m.

It also advised that overall costs, in terms of time expended by government departments and local communities "cannot be quantified".

The Audit Office study painted a picture of "poor financial planning" and "unduly optimistic" predictions on the viability of the campus blueprint.

"Our overall conclusion is that, in key respects, the project could have been much better handled," it said.

The Springvale project involved a partnership between the University of Ulster and the Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education, with substantial financial support from the Government.

It was officially launched in 1998, with US President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair attending a high-profile sod-cutting ceremony.

The proposed campus would have catered for the Shankill and Falls areas and was hailed as a symbol of the Northern Ireland peace process.

But the plans fell apart in 2002 when the University of Ulster controversially withdrew, citing affordability concerns.

Only one building, a community outreach centre, has been constructed on the 160-acre site. The rest remains a wasteland.

In its report published today, the Audit Office said: "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 public spending watchdog said £3.6m of the money invested in the project "produced little in the way of tangible benefit".

"In our view, therefore, a large proportion of this element of the spend could be regarded as waste," it said.

The University of Ulster is likely to face the largest share of controversy as a result of the Audit Office findings.

The report will inevitably lead to questions being raised over both its commitment to Springvale and a deterioration in its finances between 1998 and 2002.

There was also criticism from the watchdog of civil servants involved with plans for the site.

Some £40m of the £71m Springvale funding would have come from the Government.

The Department of Education (DENI) oversaw the project up to 1999, when responsibility passed to the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL).

The Audit Office stated that Government officials could have intervened on the handling of the project "to a greater degree".

It revealed that questions about the viability of the Springvale were raised within DENI in 1998.

"In our view, it would have been useful if the department had pressed the issue in 1998, as this may have helped bring to the fore, at an earlier stage, the issue of whether the university was prepared to operate Springvale on the basis of an annual deficit," the report said.

The Audit Office also noted that DEL was informed of the University of Ulster's desire to withdraw from the project in November 2001.

It urged the university to make its position clear to BIFHE and local community representatives, but it chose not to.

"Given that the university's proposals signalled an end to the Springvale project as originally conceived, we believe that the department should have insisted on them being shared immediately with the other stakeholders," the Audit Office said.

"While doing so might not have saved the project, it may have gone some way to reducing the level of upset that resulted from the university's sudden withdrawal in October 2002."

Today's report said project reviews carried out prior to June 2001 " provided an unduly optimistic and consequently misleading view" on viability and affordability.

An internal university study in 1999 based predictions on fee income from 1,500 students enrolling at Springvale.

The Audit Office noted that only 600 of these students would actually have generated fresh income, as the other 900 would have been transferring from existing university campuses.

UU 'lost will to make campus work'

The University of Ulster has been accused by the government of losing the will to make the Springvale campus a reality.

The judgement is revealed in a submission from the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), published in today's Audit Office report.

It states: "In the Department's view, the real nub is that, in 2002, the will to make the project work disappeared in the University of Ulster."

The Audit Office, meanwhile, has rapped the university for failing to honour its financial commitments on Springvale.

Its report outlined details of a slump in the University's finances between Springvale's official launch in 1998 and the collapse of the project just four years later.

Its overall trading deficit came to £22.7m, and it went from having reserves of £18.5m to owing £7.4m.

However, the university also spent some £37m in the four years on land and building purchases, none of which were linked to Springvale.

The Audit Office reported that the university was unable to provide all of the information it had sought on how the west Belfast campus project had fitted into its investment plans.

"However, our review of the University's capital spend over the period from 1997 indicates that a number of other projects were accorded a higher priority than Springvale." it stated.

"In our view, it was incumbent upon the university to ensure that it was able to meet its financial commitments under the Springvale agreement and yet, clearly, it did not do so."

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