McCreevy's plan to decentralise now pointless

Thu, Mar 18, 2010, 00:00

As squandering of taxpayers’ money goes, the new OPW office in Trim illustrates folly on the grand scale

EVERY WEEKDAY morning at 8am, a bus leaves from Dublin Castle to bring people who work for the Office of Public Works (OPW) to Trim, Co Meath, where its new headquarters are located. The hour-long journey is repeated at 5pm, when they’re dropped back to Dublin. There’s also a mid-morning run taking car-less staff to Dublin for meetings.

Until recently, they might easily have walked or cycled to work at the OPW’s former headquarters at 51 St Stephen’s Green. But now they must do the daily “reverse commute” by bus (or by car, in most cases) because of the topsy-turvy world they inhabit as a result of the Government’s daft decentralisation programme, announced in 2003.

The new circular building (inspired by Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, naturally) has a three-level car park right alongside, with 340 spaces – seven more than the full complement of staff, which has yet to be reached. It also contains 60 bicycle spaces, but there wasn’t a single bicycle to be seen anywhere on the site when I visited.

Designed by senior architect Pat Boyle following an OPW in-house ideas contest, it has all the usual environmental features one expects to find in 21st-century office blocks, to reduce energy use and make buildings more “sustainable”. But these measures are more than offset by all the diesel or petrol burned up by commuting to and from Trim.

Clare McGrath, the first woman to head the OPW, lives in Dublin and drives up and down every day. Minister of State Martin Mansergh only appears in Trim once or twice a week when the Dáil is sitting, which explains why his top-floor office looks almost bare. Or maybe he’s one of the few people there who take the “clean desk policy” seriously.

There are red removal crates everywhere in the open-plan offices and the library has yet to be fitted out. But State architect Pat Cooney insists that “there’s a great buzz” about the place, particularly among the nearly 50 architects who’ve made the move – previously, they had been housed in different buildings around Dublin 2.

Just over half of the OPW’s administrative staff are in the new building and the majority of them live in Trim and its environs. But these “environs” are elastic, extending as far as Blanchardstown. Many also came from other departments, either because they already lived in or around Trim or were attracted by the contraflow commute.

Of the 230 staff who have already taken up their posts in Trim, 52 per cent live in Co Meath, 32 per cent in Dublin (mainly Blanchardstown, Castleknock and Finglas) and 16 per cent elsewhere (primarily Co Kildare), according to an OPW spokesman.

But wherever they reside, the overwhelming majority drive to and from work in the new building.

The rump that remains in St Stephen’s Green include four of the six principal architects who didn’t want to move to Trim; their career prospects are uncertain. A further 180 staff would be dispersed to Claremorris, Co Mayo, or Kanturk, Co Cork, if the Government was mad enough to implement the 2003 decentralisation programme in full.

A decision on whether to do so has been deferred until next year, due to financial constraints. Trim alone involved a substantial outlay. The site of nearly three acres cost €5.5 million and the building just over €32 million.

It was intended as the linchpin of a masterplan to extend the town centre, but this hasn’t got anywhere due to the recession.

As a result, the OPW headquarters stands isolated in a fenced field some 500m from the new Trim leisure centre, which is in another fenced field, with nothing but open countryside beyond.

But Trim Chamber of Commerce is enthusiastic about the move, because it has brought well-paid civil servants to the town and some extra business.

The only public benefit is that some €1.5 million a year will be saved following the relocation of a section of the Department of Justice from rented offices on Harcourt Street to the OPW’s former headquarters on St Stephen’s Green. This modest saving represents a tiny fraction of the grotesque waste of public money on so-called “decentralisation”.

In the OPW’s case, there wasn’t any reason for it, as more than half of its nearly 2,000 staff were (and still are) working in district or regional offices all over the country dealing with State property maintenance, national monuments, drainage schemes, etc. Its accounts division, with some 40-50 staff, was also moved to Kilkenny 13 years ago.

Surely Charlie McCreevy was aware of all this when he dropped the decentralisation bombshell in December 2003?

Or did he and the others who hatched it – Bertie Ahern, Mary Harney and Martin Cullen – simply not care about the costs or the consequences of moving public servants around like pawns on a political chessboard?

Let’s not forget that the original plan was to disperse 10,300 of them to 53 locations around the country.

Eight Government departments were to be headquartered in places as far apart as Cavan, Drogheda, Killarney, Knock airport, Mullingar, Newbridge, Portlaoise and Wexford.

Almost 50 State agencies were also to be moved out of Dublin.

In many cases, sites have been bought and, in some, even buildings built. But it’s still not too late for the Government to bring an end to this pointless squandermania, and it should do so definitively as soon as possible.