Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan has said he will not resign over comments he made in relation to student accommodation, which he admits were sarcastic.
A number of councillors had called for Mr Keegan’s resignation, while others sought an apology, after correspondence between him and a students’ union leader, in which he expressed “surprise” the union was not providing housing for its members, were made public.
UCD Students' Union (UCDSU) president Ruairí Power earlier this week tweeted an extract from a letter in which Mr Keegan wrote: "If you genuinely believe that excess profits are being made in the PBSA [purpose built student accommodation] market I am surprised the Students Union has not entered the market itself and provided lower cost student accommodation for its members."
About 100 students staged a demonstration outside the council’s headquarters on Wednesday afternoon chanting “Owen Keegan out”.
Speaking on the steps of the Wood Quay building, Mr Power said the council’s actions were perpetuating a student housing crisis in which hundreds of students in the city were without accommodation for the new academic year.
Mr Power said he was “shocked” by Mr Keegan’s comments, which were “belittling” and “ sarcastic” and were not constructive.
In a subsequent letter to councillors, Mr Keegan said he was making a serious point: “However, I accept there was also an element of sarcasm.”
He apologised for the use of sarcasm in the circumstances. “I did not consider that the reliance on sarcasm was necessarily inappropriate in the context of an exchange of robust correspondence. However, on reflection, I now accept that that the use of sarcasm was inappropriate on this occasion and I am happy to apologise for the offence I caused.”
He said he did not intend to resign.
“ If elected members consider that my resignation is warranted, then it is their prerogative to initiate the procedure set out in local government legislation,” he said.
“On a positive note this episode has highlighted the on-going crisis in student accommodation in Dublin, which needs to be addressed.”
Mr Power's tweet was part of exchange of four letters between him and Mr Keegan. Mr Power initially wrote to Mr Keegan to express "deep frustration" that planning permission was granted to accommodation provider Uninest to use student flats for tourists for the coming academic year.
To “prioritise the profit margins” of businesses was a “shameful act”, Mr Power wrote. He said the council should suggest a rent reduction to the company instead of electing to “bend over backwards” to facilitate its profits.
In response, Mr Keegan outlined the planning rules, and national and council policy in relation to student accommodation, and its temporary use for tourism.
Since the permission was granted, new Government policy requires applicants seeking to present “compelling non-Covid related grounds” and to demonstrate there is no longer a need for student accommodation in the area.
Mr Keegan said he was satisfied the decision was consistent with the previous policy “which was in force until recently”. He noted there had been no objections to the application. Future decisions would be made in line with the new policy, he said.
In response, Mr Power accused the council of “hiding behind” Government policy documents “to justify illogical planning decisions”.
Mr Keegan responded that Mr Power was misrepresenting the basis for the planning decision. He then made the comments on the union developing housing, he now admits were sarcastic.
Earlier on Wednesday Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland agreed to hold a special meeting to deal with Mr Keegan's comments. Several councillors said they had not seen the correspondence between Mr Keegan and Mr Power. Ms Gilliland said it would be circulated ahead of the meeting as would the relevant planning legislation "so that we can have a solution-focused discussion".
Outside the council’s offices, Mr Power said students are “furious” about what Mr Keegan said. “We were expecting leadership from people in these positions and on those salaries. What we are getting is glib, sarcastic remarks instead of action,” he siad.
Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology SU president Eoin Hicks Smyth said many students have dropped out or deferred taking up places because of the lack of accommodation.
“We don’t have anywhere for them to go. Anywhere that is available is over-rented or over-priced. As it stands we are going around to lecturers and canteen staff to see if they have rooms available for us,” he said.
Several politicians turned up and addressed the crowd. Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan said it was clear that the original intention was to build student accommodation and then apply for a change of use.
“It was clear to me that student accommodation being built was not for students, but to avoid Part V. This was about a change of use,” she said.
She recommended a ban on a change of use for student accommodation. If the demand is not there because of prices, she suggested lowering the rent to a more affordable level for students.
Dublin City Council Cllr Tina MacVeigh said rents at between €1,000 and €1,300 a month were deliberately priced beyond the reach of most students.
‘Slums of the future’
“It was never about student accommodation. Those of us who opposed it then said these would become the slums of the future,” she said.
She said Mr Keegan had previously made controversial comments about the homeless and also about using public toilets in the city.
She said a motion of no confidence in Mr Keegan will be tabled at the next city council meeting.