Coalition must now face fact Mater is wrong site
ANALYSIS:An Bord Pleanála has done a good day’s work by refusing permission for children’s hospital plan at Mater hospital, writes FRANK McDONALD
THE MOST amazing aspect of the children’s hospital of Ireland saga is that it doesn’t seem to have impinged on the imaginations of anyone involved in this ill-fated project that the restricted nature of the Mater site in Dublin would inevitably result in an incredible hulk.
Even after a devastating series of photomontages had been prepared, showing it in both local and citywide contexts, politicians such as Minister for Health James Reilly and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin continued to stick by this €650 million project.
Were they and others so visually illiterate that they couldn’t see its overwhelming impact?
Or were they expecting that An Bord Pleanála would dutifully rubber-stamp the scheme as proposed, simply because the Government seemed so determined to go ahead with it?
The appeals board, which dealt directly with the scheme under the Strategic Infrastructure Act, has done a good day’s work to uphold its independence from political control by refusing permission for the Mater project and, in effect, sending everyone back to the drawing boards.
Its grounds for saying no are unambiguous – that the height, bulk, scale and mass of the proposed children’s hospital “would have a profound negative impact on the appearance and visual amenity of the city skyline” and “seriously detract” from the character of streetscapes.
And despite the board’s view that it would also “constitute over-development of the site”, Dr Reilly persisted yesterday in saying that this didn’t mean the original decision to choose the Mater location was wrong. He may even believe that they can have another go at it.
Such muddled thinking is pure folly. For it was a decision in 2006 to opt for the Mater site that has led us to this impasse. The fact is that the site is too small to accommodate a children’s hospital with 425 individual beds and all the top-class clinical facilities planned.
That’s precisely why the building had to be of such enormous bulk and height, rising to 74 metres (243ft) above ground and extending to a length of 164 metres; there was not enough of a “footprint” on the Mater site to accommodate the 100,000-plus square metres of floorspace needed.
The murky depths out of which this behemoth emerged were alluded to by former National Paediatric Hospital Development Board chairman Philip Lynch, when he resigned in October 2010, describing the choice of the Mater site as a “northside job” – an oblique reference to Bertie Ahern.
Ahern’s close relationship with the Mater is longstanding. He once worked as an accountant for the hospital and remained assiduous in looking after its needs throughout his political career.
Lynch came to the view that Ahern was the mastermind behind the 2006 location decision.
It was not as if no alternatives were – and still are – available. It’s just that they were not seriously examined then, or since, by the various “independent experts” who gave advice, including those who produced yet another report last year at the behest of Dr Reilly. St James’s Hospital occupies a much larger site than the Mater and could accommodate a “co-located” children’s hospital (ie adjoining an adult tertiary-care facility). Another site at Heuston Station, close to St James’s, is publicly-owned and available for redevelopment.
Alternatively, the review body being appointed by the Minister to look at what happens now in the wake of An Bord Pleanála’s decision might look at Tallaght hospital, where a substantial bank of land alongside it is effectively in the hands of Nama through loans that it now owns.
A third option would be to revisit modest plans to extend and upgrade Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, which could be done for an affordable €104 million – albeit leaving it as a standalone facility, without the claimed benefits of “co-location” with an adult hospital.
Waiting in the wings is solicitor-developer Noel Smyth, who offered a site at Newlands Cross for a new children’s hospital.
As with Tallaght, this would have the benefit of easy access to the M50 and the national road network, without the entanglement issues created by inner-city traffic.
Whatever site the review group recommends, it should be a site that would make it possible to design a hospital with no more than five or six floors – not only to avoid adverse visual impact on the skyline, but also to make it easier to run without ferrying patients in multiple lifts.
But the review body, to be chaired by Dr Frank Dolphin – former chairman of Temple Street Children’s University Hospital and (briefly) of the Health Service Executive – must include architects, or others with visual awareness, so that we don’t walk up yet another blind alley.
And if the new children’s hospital is such a high priority for the Government, consideration could be given to designating it as an “emergency” project, thereby circumventing protracted EU procurement procedures, so that a new design team could be appointed quickly.
Fianna Fáil deputy leader Eamon Ó Cuív would even have us override the Strategic Infrastructure Act by amending it so that the existing scheme could proceed, even though it has been rejected. Such contempt for due process and planning law leaves one breathless.
The last thing we need is for Dr Reilly to adopt a “hit me now with the child in my arms” approach by insisting that the Mater site must be salvaged by, for example, lopping off a couple of floors; this would reduce the number of beds and fail to address the issue of visual impact.
Even if the current design by O’Connell Mahon Architects was amended in this way, it would still be vastly out of scale with its surroundings and the wider city skyline. Indeed, An Bord Pleanála’s senior planning inspector, Una Crosse, said as much in her report.
The board has done the State some service by upholding “proper planning and sustainable development” in refusing permission for the project as proposed.
The Government must now face up to the unpalatable fact that the Mater is the wrong horse for this course.
Frank McDonald is Environment Editor