National children’s hospital: Pollock resignation a big blow

John Pollock appeared genuinely embarrassed by the massive cost overrun

The construction site of The National Children’s Hospital. Photograph: Tom Honan

The construction site of The National Children’s Hospital. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

The resignation of John Pollock as the project director of the team building the national children’s hospital robs a complex project of vast experience and intellectual memory.

The quietly-spoken engineer studied at University College Cork and worked as a civil engineer for 30 years.

When the downturn hit, he shifted his work to the Middle East, building medical facilities in Saudi Arabia.

Then the call came from former minister for health James Reilly to take up the post of project director of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board – effectively, the chief executive officer charged with completing Ireland’s largest building project.

The project had been delayed for years already by medical infighting, political chicanery and planning reverses, and the job of Pollock and his team was, quite simply, to “build the box”.

Some of this work went well. The architects’ design for the building was praised – in contrast to the ugly behemoth planned for the hospital when it was to be built at the Mater hospital. An Bord Pleanála gave it the thumbs up after an arduous three-week oral hearing, with no significant conditions attached.

All of this took longer than expected, however. Meanwhile, the economy was revving up again, and construction costs were rising. So were the costs of designing and building the project. And while the board was chock-full of building experts, it appeared to lack a bean counter to mind the pennies and ha’pennies.

Pollock walked the site with this reporter in 2014, shortly after his appointment.

The article began, “The new national children’s hospital could break the Government if it fails”, and continued: “Poppies, buddleia, acres of car-parking and a few clapped-out hospital buildings – there’s little to indicate that this land at the back of St James’s Hospital may soon become the biggest building site in the State”.

Ballooning costs

Five years on, the site has been cleared and a huge hole dug in the ground, which is only now being filled with concrete, with the initial components of the famously expensive seven-storey building starting to emerge. It is not only the biggest building site in the State, but the most notorious.

In the 2014 article the estimated cost of the hospital was given as €650 million and Pollock is quoted as saying the aim was to complete construction “by the end of 2018”. If only.

John Pollock: back in 2014 he was bullish about ‘this cracking site’ at St James’s. Photograph: Eric Luke
John Pollock: back in 2014 he was bullish about ‘this cracking site’ at St James’s. Photograph: Eric Luke

As we now know, the current estimated cost of construction is €1.43 billion and total costs are likely to exceed €2 billion. We’ll be lucky if it opens by 2023.

Consultant PwC is currently investigating the fiasco but we know the broad outline of where things went wrong: soaring construction costs, a failure to estimate quantities properly, a defective tender system that stymies effective price competition and the lack of an early-warning system when costs were going off the rails.

Back in 2014 Pollock was bullish about “this cracking site” at St James’s, but in reality the confined space and inner-city location has added hugely to the cost of construction, to an extent that was disguised at the start and has never been quantified.

Poisoned chalice

He and the other members of the board were handed something of a poisoned chalice because the cost of building the hospital had been consistently underestimated in the early stages.

Never one for the limelight, Pollock appeared genuinely embarrassed by the massive cost overrun that occurred under his watch. Although he withstood several grilling at Dáil committees, he would not have been looking forward to further rounds of interrogations next month, after the PwC report is published.

His departure, following on from that of board chairman Tom Costello last month, is a blow.

However, it opens the way for new chairman Fred Barry and a successor to Pollock to bring the controversial project to completion on budget – even if that budget is obscenely huge.