A Minister of State has sharply criticised local authorities for failing to act on State offers to sell unoccupied former Garda stations for conversion to accommodation.
“You wouldn’t think there’s a housing crisis in the country from the response of some of the local authorities,” Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works Patrick O’Donovan said.
Defending the OPW’s management of its property portfolio against Opposition criticism, he said the State agency “has written, rung and engaged with local authorities throughout the country on umpteen occasions to take these buildings off us”.
Some 47 former Garda stations come under the remit of the OPW, which has responsibility for publicly owned buildings.
Mr O’Donovan said “in many cases they are perfectly suitable for either local authority accommodation itself or for housing accommodation”.
“Some of them have been taken and we have some very proactive local authorities, such as Leitrim County Council and Roscommon County Council, but I cannot say the same about many more.”
He was responding in the Dáil to People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, who criticised the OPW for failing to put more than 100 currently unoccupied buildings to public use.
The Dún Laoghaire TD said there was a need for a serious look at the management of the OPW’s property portfolio.
During questions on public expenditure and reform, Mr Boyd Barrett pointed to the OPW’s 108 unoccupied properties, “most of which have been vacant since 2013 and a small number are empty for almost half a century”.
“Some 70 of these are buildings and 38 are unused sites. Some 47 of these are Garda stations that were closed in 2012 and 2013 and still lie empty, including two in my own area: Kill of the Grange, Deansgrange; and Dalkey Garda stations, and many other such stations litter the place.”
He asked what was being done “with all of this empty property and why are we not putting it to public use”.
Urging local authorities to buy the unoccupied Garda stations, the Minister of State said that if there were specific properties where Mr Boyd Barrett believed “we can offload it to a local authority, I would be delighted to hear about it, and for market value”.
Earlier, Mr O’Donovan told Independent TD Catherine Connolly they would have to consider reducing their office accommodation because of new blended working arrangements. He said on some days there is just 10 per cent to 15 per cent occupancy. The OPW had less property than in 1998 but was catering for 40,000 more staff.
“We will need to have very difficult conversations across our whole estate” on whether public sector staff could retain the same desk and office space when only in the office a third of the time, he said – especially where “the State is keeping the lights on”.
Ms Connolly had questioned the OPW’s policy on leasing rather than constructing public buildings, as she cited “dreadful” examples in her home city of Galway.
One involved the HSE leasing a property for almost €1 million a year on a 35-year lease “and in the end it was cheaper to break the lease with a €1 million penalty”.
She added that in Galway “the city library is rented for as long as I can remember. That is completely daft”.
The Galway West TD pointed out that the OPW has 2,500 properties in its portfolio, owning 61 per cent of office space and leasing 39 per cent, and a review showed it was “significantly cheaper to build” than to rent.
Mr O’Donovan agreed but said that in some cases, such as when a tribunal is established, property is needed urgently.