THE decision to locate the newly amalgamated Laois/Offaly VEC headquarters in Portlaoise was “playing parochial politics” claimed Sinn Fein’s Cllr Brendan Killeavy at the October meeting of Tullamore Town Council on Thursday.
Standing Orders were suspended at the request of Cllr Killeavy, to allow for a discussion on the decision and the controversialm issue also got an airing at Monday’s meeting of Offaly County Council.
Cllr Killeavy said he did not wish to appear parochial, but he was mentioning the subject from the point of view of value for money as the VEC still had a €2.2million lease on offices at Tara Street in Tullamore while the VEC facilities in Portlaoise were at present based in prefabs.
“I know the state owns the facilities in Portlaoise, but I would like this Council to write to the Minister for Education and the Public Accounts Committee to ask how this is saving money?”
Cllr Killeavy added that he agreed with amalgamation as it was value for money, but he thought the decision to base the headquarters in Portlaoiise was playing parochial politics and he had hoped this government would not behave like this.
Independent Cllr Sean O’Brien added that while the decision was expected, he had been hoping that common sense would prevail. “There are great premises in Tullamore, it is a great pity to see that loss.” He added that even though the headquarters was moving to Portlaoise, he hoped that the existing training facilities would stay in Tullamore.
This sentiment was echoed by Cllr Tommy McKeigue (Fine Gael). “I have no problem where the headquarters is, I just want the facilities to remain here. I knew we were doomed from the start because they own the offices in Laois and they have a full time CEO while we just have an acting CEO.”
Cllr Molly Buckley (Fine Gael) paid tribute to Offaly VEC for the level of service they offered within the county, but she pointed out that Offaly has one of the lowest levels of participation in third level education in the country. “We need to ensure the VEC continues the level of service,” she added.
Labour Cllr Lar Byrne said it was disappointing that Tullamore was losing the headquarters to Portlaoise where staff would be leaving a good building to move to prefabs. “Tullamore is a Gateway town, we need to keep every facility.”
Cathaoirleach Cllr Sinead Dooley (Fianna Fail) concluded the discussion by pointing out that the manner in which the decision had been announced had been disrespectful for the Offaly VEC staff. There had been no consultation with them at all, she said. “It was very poor practice for the VEC to conduct themselves in that manner.”
Claims of “playing politics” were also made at Monday’s meeting of Offaly County Council and Offaly VEC Chairman Cllr Eamonn Dooley (Fianna Fail) called for the publication of the criteria underpinning the Government decision to base the headquarters of the merged Laois/Offaly VEC in Portlaoise.
Cllr Dervill Dolan (Independent) also questioned the legality of the move, saying it conflicted with the National Spatial Strategy (NSS).
Offaly County Council Cathaoirleach Cllr Danny Owens (Fianna Fail), had consented to a special debate about the controversial move.
Cllr Eamonn Dooley listed a number of reasons why he believed Education Minister Ruairi Quinn had erred in ordering the location of the new two-county VEC in Portlaoise.
He said Offaly VEC catered for more students than its Laois counterpart and administered five schools, plus an outdoor education centre in Birr, compared to three schools under the umbrella of Laois VEC.
Cllr Dooley said that Tullamore had been designated as a ‘gateway’ town under the NSS and the Government decision flew in the face of that strategy which aimed to create ‘critical mass’ in Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar.
“If a gateway town doesn’t get this then what future has a gateway?” he asked.
He called for the publication of the criteria on which the decision to choose Portlaoise as the headquarters was based and also asked why no announcement had been made on the location of even a VEC sub-office in Offaly.
Two Fianna Fail councillors, Noel Bourke and Ger Plunkett, said that any independent assessment would show that Tullamore’s existing VEC offices were more suitable and asked what was the status now of the Midland Regional Authority’s regional planning guidelines.
Cllr Liam Quinn, a Fine Gael member of Offaly VEC, added that if savings in education spending were to be made, it was better that they be made from the administration budget. He also hoped that the Portlaoise decision would not adversely impact on the planned rebuilding of Tullamore College and the co-operation strategy Offaly VEC has with Athlone IT.
Another Fine Gael councillor, Connie Hanniffy, pointed out that Offaly VEC did not own its premises at Castle Buildings in Tullamore and emphasised that a continuation of the educational service should be the priority, not the location of offices.
Independent Cllr John Carroll, said he believed ‘political power’ was behind the decision. “That’s the way it has been in this country for far too long,” he said, adding that he hoped the decision would be reconsidered.
The council agreed that a letter be written to the Minister for Education and that a meeting be sought with him.
Meanwhile, Deputy Barry Cowen has called on the Government to confirm the total cost of amalgamating Offaly and Laois VEC’s. He is asking them to take into account the ongoing lease of the VEC building in Tullamore and the cost of expanding the offices at the designated new headquarters in Portlaoise.
Deputy Cowen submitted a parliamentary question to Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn to establish details of the overall cost of the locating the Laois-Offaly VEC headquarters in Portlaoise, as opposed to locating the headquarters in Tullamore.
He was genuinely concerned about why the desision was made and what impact it would have on employment in the Offaly town.
The new amalgamated VECs will now be known as Education and Training Boards.