Dublin council chief criticised over ‘snide’ comments to students’ union

Owen Keegan told UCD body he was ‘surprised’ it had not gone into property market

Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan told the students’ union ‘it is not the city council’s fault that you appear to have been unaware of how the planning system works’. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan told the students’ union ‘it is not the city council’s fault that you appear to have been unaware of how the planning system works’. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The chief executive of Dublin City Council has been criticised for “snide and dismissive” comments to a students’ union that raised concerns over the use of purpose-built student accommodation by tourists.

In a tweet on Monday, the president of the University College Dublin Students’ Union (UCDSU) Ruairí Power posted a short excerpt from a letter signed by Owen Keegan on the accommodation issue.

“If you genuinely believe that excess profits are being made in the PBSA [purpose-built student accommodation] market,” Mr Keegan wrote, “I am surprised the students’ union has not entered the market itself and provided lower-cost student accommodation for its members.”

Purpose-built accommodation for students became a controversial subject last month when it emerged planning applications had been seeking changes of use so that some such accommodation could be marketed to tourists for short-term use.

The UCDSU and Mr Keegan exchanged two letters each relating to the union’s concerns in relation to the conversion of 571 private student flats in Dublin city into tourist accommodation for the coming academic year.

Contacting Mr Keegan on the issue, Mr Power said the union was deeply frustrated at a decision to grant planning for this that would “undoubtedly perpetuate the supply crisis and artificially inflate rents across the city.

“To prioritise the profit margins of private purpose-built student accommodation providers over the public good is a shameful act which will push young people into precarious living circumstances over the coming months.”

Council policy

In a comprehensive response setting out council policy, Mr Keegan said it had granted permission for a significant number of PBSA schemes and had also received applications for temporary change of use to tourist accommodation.

These latter proposals, he continued, were treated “on their merits” and permission was often granted on the basis of completion delays or “other impediments which would result in part of the complex not being ready for occupation by students at the start of the academic year”.

He also noted how the Covid-19 pandemic had affected the level of demand for accommodation among the student population.

“In relation to the particular ‘change of use’ application referenced in your letter the applicant indicated that the majority of the existing bed spaces would remain occupied by students, with additional vacant bed spaces providing overnight accommodation for tourist and business visitors.” Mr Keegan also noted that no objections were received to the planning application.

However, dissatisfied with this response, Mr Power said that “a rudimentary level” of stakeholder engagement with third-level institutions would have identified significant student demand for the current academic year.

“A vacuum of leadership from the council executive during a period of significant challenge for students impacted by the supply and affordability crises is most unfortunate,” he said.

‘Not required’

In response, Mr Keegan told the students’ union that the local authority was not required to undertake extensive stakeholder engagement in respect of planning applications.

“It is unfortunate that UCDSU did not participate in the planning process in respect of these particular applications. However, it is not the city council’s fault that you appear to have been unaware of how the planning system works.”

Mr Keegan declined to comment on the exchange when contacted by The Irish Times.

However, in a post on Twitter, Labour Senator and party spokeswoman on housing Rebecca Moynihan described the part of his response posted on social media as “snide” and “dismissive”.

It was “not worthy” of someone who “heads up the planning authority”, she said, adding: “Dubliners want a vibrant, diverse Dublin not just a property developer version of what that should be, allowed to change the rules when it suits them re PBSA.”

On Twitter, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris rowed in behind the students, saying he fully agreed that student accommodation must be for them.

“I have meet (sic) UCD SU on student accommodation. The points they make are valid. My Department met with all college management bodies last week to identify solutions & new approaches to student accommodation,” he tweeted.

Social Democrat councillors on Dublin City Council have called for a special meeting to be convened to address what the party described as Mr Keegan’s “dismissive and condescending comments”.