New school preparations on fast-track

News that the business case for an all-new Dromore High School has reportedly been deemed ‘fundamentally sound’ has ramped up pressure for further progress on a project almost 35 years in the making.

There was a dismissal too this week of fears that trumpeting news of outline planning approval for the school, before the site was purchased, might up the price of the land and unduly burden the public purse.

It only recently emerged that the Dromore High newbuild had missed out on the latest funding round, news that came with word from Education Minister John O’Dowd that the department was nonetheless committed to buying the site if the business case “stacked up”. Among those determined to see Dromore High best placed for next year’s funding round are Lagan valley MLAs Edwin Poots and Jonathan Craig, who met last week with principal, Mr John Wilkinson and Southern Education and Library Board Chief Executive Gavin Boyd.

“It was reassuring” said Mr Craig, “to hear that the business case for the site and the new school have been completed and are with the Education Department, who have indicated that it is fundamentally sound.

“It has been further agreed that to move the site purchase forward the Southern Board will write to the department requesting confirmation from the Minister and department that they can go ahead.”

In the meantime the two assembly members mean to press Mr O’Dowd to move forward with the site purchase as announced,

The two are adamant that site purchase and full detailed planning and contract procurement are key steps that must happen prior to next year’s funding round.

Said Mr Craig: “The Education Minister and other Ministers have stated that if future funding is to be announced the funded projects must be delivered in that financial year.

“We will continue to keep the pressure on both the Minister of Education and the department to deliver this much needed project for Dromore; this is a project that has been outstanding for almost 35 years and it needs to happen in order to allow the excellent achievements of Dromore High School to continue.”

Both men thanked SELB and Craigavon Planning office staff for their hard work in bringing what they called “this landmark development for Dromore “ one step closer.

“It is very much appreciated,” said Mr Craig, “and we look forward to working with them in the near future regarding both the detailed planning application and site issues.”

Meanwhile, Dromore woman Mrs Lisa Saunders raised concerns over the handling of the project, chiefly that publicity surrounding the recent grant of outline planning approval, ahead of land purchase, might elevate the price of the site.

“They’re whooping up about the planning approval,” she said, “but the site hasn’t been purchased yet and the price of the land may go up.

“How does that stack up with keeping prices down? It’s public finances that have to bear the brunt and they need to make sure the site is purchased at a reasonable price.”

Unconcerned on that score, Mr Craig pointed out that in any event there could have been no commitment to any spend without outline planning permission.

“The site is outside the development limits of Dromore,” he said, “so a planning exemption had to be granted and outline permission was the only way to do that.

“If the planners had refused to move the development boundaries the site was a dead duck and there were no other identifiable sites within Dromore that could move the project forward.”