Police and fire training college in Cookstown delayed again

An aerial view of the proposed training college at Desertcreat.
An aerial view of the proposed training college at Desertcreat.

The timetable for building the long-delayed £157 million training college for the police, fire and prison services has slipped again, the Assembly has been told.

After years of hold-ups, construction work on the planned state-of-the-art facility in Desertcreat near Cookstown, Co Tyrone, had been due to begin in the spring, but Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told fellow Assembly members that June was now the anticipated start-date.

Mr McGuinness said the college was due to open in the autumn of 2016.

First announced in 2004, the troubled project was originally predicted to be finished by 2008 for a cost of around £80 million.

Costs have spiralled and the most recent timetable hold-ups were caused by tender bids to build the college coming in well over budget.

The £157 million bill now estimated is around £18 million higher than the cost envisaged two years ago.

During Assembly questions, Mr McGuinness was asked for an update on the stalled construction project.

“It is expected the contract will be awarded in June when work will begin on site,” he said.

“Construction is expected to be completed by autumn 2016 and the college will open shortly after that,” he said.

“The total cost of the college, including construction, equipment and ICT (information and communications technology), will be in the region of £157 million.”

Fellow Mid Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone asked Mr McGuinness to explain the latest slip.

“Many of us who have been involved closely in trying to advocate this project have seen it slip quite considerably, then we were told it would be March this year, then it was to be May and he’s just announced June,” said the SDLP representative.

Outlining the various complications the plan had encountered, particularly in the tendering process, Mr McGuinness stressed that, when open, the college would still be the best of its type.

“The college when it is completed will be a world leading centre of excellence for training,” he said.

The deputy first minister also claimed he and others had fought hard for the college to go to his constituency when others advocated locating it in Belfast.

He added: “A bit of a slippage? I will accept slippage rather than it not going there at all.”

Last month a consortium including local company Gilbert Ash and Spanish construction firm FCC (Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas) was chosen as the preferred bidder to construct the college.

Planning permission for construction work on the site was granted last January. The 23,000 sq metre facility will provide new teaching, training and residential facilities.

UUP MLA for Mid Ulster Sandra Overend said: “I have to say, it would not be surprising to hear if the people of Mid-Ulster had lost total confidence that the Community Safety College at Desertcreat will even go ahead, as we hear that the start date is being put back yet again.

“The Deputy First Minister said today during Question time this afternoon that the Community Safety College start date is to be June this year, so while he was confirming that the project is still in progress, I am disappointed its construction will not begin in March, as previously suggested, but in June, with the hope that it will be completed in 2016.

“Obviously I am disappointed that the cost to the taxpayer has increased to £157m.