Council got €5m loan offer despite misgivings

 

THE DEPARTMENT of the Environment offered Wicklow County Council a loan of €5 million in 2009 to cover the cost of a compulsory purchase order on 3.5 acres of land despite dismissing the local authority’s reason for taking over the property by way of such an order a year earlier.

Internal council documents show that in mid-2008 environment officials questioned why the council needed the site, at Charlesland in Greystones, for social housing when the local authority already owned other land in the area. A year later, €5 million was offered to the council to cover the purchase “for the provision of social housing”, but was not drawn down.

Wicklow County Council issued the compulsory purchase order in 2004 and eventually agreed to pay €3 million for the 3.5 acres from its own resources in August 2011 after a delay caused by the death of the landowner.

However, council members Barry Nevin (Lab) and Tommy Cullen (Ind) have reported to the Public Accounts Committee regarding internal council files – also seen by The Irish Times – which show some of the site is prone to flooding, rendering part of it unsuitable for housing development, and that it was valued by council valuers at less than €700,000 in August 2010 due to access restrictions.

On foot of this, the Department of the Environment has now asked the Attorney General to appoint a senior counsel to investigate the department’s role in the deal. The Irish Times understands the council’s handling of the site acquisition will also be examined.

A memo from Catherine Halligan, a senior executive officer at the council, to Michael Nicholson, a director of services, on July 25th, 2008, reveals Department of the Environment officials asked a council worker “to explain why we did this CPO [compulsory purchase order], as the council had land next to this.

“I do not know what answer to give to the department except that we have a high demand for both social and affordable housing in this area. has already said this but they are looking for a better reason,” Ms Halligan wrote in the memo.

In 2006, Michael Mangan, then senior engineer at the council, told an An Bord Pleanála hearing into the compulsory purchase order that the local authority had enough land in the area for 100 houses.

Ms Halligan’s memo also refers to the department’s concerns over the compensation claims from the landowners. The memo refers to another official saying the council had to “bankroll” the land in question, which she did not think would be an acceptable reason for the department.

A year later, the department sanctioned a loan of €5 million to buy the site, but this was not drawn down. Mr Cullen said the sanctioning raised questions about the department’s role. “The first question you’d have to ask is: ‘Who in the department overruled its own well-founded concerns about this land purchase?’” he said.

He added he would like to know why “critical information” which documented that the site was prone to serious periodic flooding was not notified to councillors. He queried whether the land was really bought for social housing.

When asked about the memo, a Department of the Environment spokesman declined to comment and would only say a senior counsel is to be appointed shortly.

The council did not respond to specific questions. A spokesman reissued an earlier statement dated November 10th, 2011, insisting the council did not have “sufficient land” in Greystones for social housing and said the site would be developed “when the finance . . . becomes available”.

The council maintains the land is suitable for development. “It is not landlocked and is not a flood plain,” the statement added.