TD looks for return of €11 million OPW ‘squandered’ on new Health HQ

Department of Health’s new building does not have the capacity to accommodate future anticipated staffing levels, Public Accounts Committee told

Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry  said a similar loss of money in the private sector would have led to disciplinary action.  Photograph:  Bryan James Brophy

Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry said a similar loss of money in the private sector would have led to disciplinary action. Photograph: Bryan James Brophy

 

The new headquarters for the Department of Health, which lay empty for 18 months at a cost of €11 million, was “in the round a very good deal” for the State, the head of the Office of Public Works (OPW) has said.

Addressing the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Thursday, Maurice Buckley conceded that aspects of the project had been “underestimated”, but defended it overall.

“In the round this is a very good deal and I do stand over it,” he said, under questioning from Fianna Fáil deputy Shane Cassells, who angrily dismissed his defence of the project.

“Can we have the €11 million, that the OPW squandered, back?” asked the Meath West TD.

The hearing followed the recent publication of details on the move by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG).

In May 2017 the OPW signed a 25-year lease for the Miesian Plaza office block in Baggot Street, Dublin to accommodate staff from the Department of Health and Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

Although rent was paid from December 2016, the premises remained unoccupied until May 2018, due in the main to protracted negotiations on office design and shared staff facilities.

The building was fully occupied by last July, but does not have the capacity to accommodate future anticipated staffing levels.

“It’s not our role to predict the numbers in departments; that is the job of government,” Mr Buckley said, acknowledging that both departments had raised the possibility of rising numbers.

In defending the move, he told the committee it had a cost of about €300 million over 25 years but the rent negotiations stood to save up to €50 million in that time.

In its recent report, the C&AG had also raised an error in rent calculation based on how office space is measured. That would lead to an additional annual cost, it said, of €344,000, potentially building up to €10 million over the course of the lease.

Mr Buckley conceded the issue had been flagged on several occasions but was not picked up.

“Reflecting on this project,” he told the committee, “I suspect that aspects, including the change management process, were underestimated by all those involved.

“The protracted discussions designed to ensure ‘buy in’ and to bring everybody along on a difficult journey undoubtedly caused delays. The cost of this delay is very much regretted by the OPW and, I’m sure, all those associated with the project.”

However, Mr Buckley said the “demonstrable benefits” of the deal and its “ground-breaking transformation outcomes, significantly outweigh all other considerations”.

Despite some argument from the OPW representatives attending, Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry established that eight of its most senior staff held no “property-related” qualifications.

He said a similar loss of money in the private sector would have led to disciplinary action.