PAC to hear of ‘serious shortcomings’ in OPW property management

Former OPW staffer alleges major value-for-money failures in State body

OPW’s property deals have been under the spotlight since ‘overpayment’ of €21m for   Department of Health move to Miesian Plaza. Photograph: Bryan James Brophy

OPW’s property deals have been under the spotlight since ‘overpayment’ of €21m for Department of Health move to Miesian Plaza. Photograph: Bryan James Brophy

 

A former employee in the Office of Public Works will on Thursday tell a private session of the Public Accounts Committee that they highlighted alleged “serious shortcomings and failures” in the property management unit of the organisation.

In an opening statement to the committee, the former employee – who worked in the property management function – states they wrote several reports while employed by the OPW “highlighting serious shortcomings and failures in the manner in which [the] OPW conducts its dealings in property”.

The organisation’s approach to property deals has been under the spotlight in recent months after it emerged that the move by the Department of Health to new headquarters at Miesian Plaza, the former Bank of Ireland building on Baggot Street, led to an “overpayment” of €21 million, according to a previous report by the PAC.

The former worker, who authored a 2017 report on value for money in the OPW’s property acquisitions, will tell the committee that a previous hearing held into the Miesian overspending “encapsulated in a single session and in a single case many examples of process failure similar to previous examples which I witnessed numerous times during my career in OPW property”.

The submission says that in the 2017 report five historic cases are detailed which prove their argument, but that the author has previously identified almost a further 100 “cases of concern”. According to the witness statement, the former employee has identified that “the existence and responsibility for poor VFM [Value For Money] outcomes remained problematic and largely unaccountable”.

The witness statement argues that the OPW operates in a “budget driven” culture which leaves it under-equipped to operate effectively when purchasing properties from the private sector. “The essential difference between the private and public sectors is that the private property sector seeks to maximise returns from property whereas the State views property as a necessary burden required for housing civil servants, gardaí, etc.”

‘Cultural problem’

Complaining of a “cultural problem”, the former OPW employee argues that a commercial State entity should be created to manage the State’s property portfolio, similar to how Coillte manages the State’s forestry assets. Such an organisation “is needed to safeguard the State’s interests”.

“As a serious and active property player the State, in military parlance, needs an army to face down threats given that opponents (ie the private sector in this instance) will not acknowledge a peace corps.”

Asked about the allegations contained in the opening statement, the OPW said that it “at all times seeks to ensure value for money outcomes in the development of property solutions to address the requirements for the delivery of public services”.

The OPW said it has acted on the recommendations of a 2017 report examining five completed property transactions for vulnerabilities, a report which it said has also been considered by the PAC. “The OPW constructively engaged with the staff members in question and continue to engage with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, with a view to addressing the concerns raised.”