Thursday, 28 February 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Office of Public Works Properties
I am raising the issue of vacant property owned by the OPW. This first came to my attention some months ago when I found that in the Blarney area there was a house that had previously been used by the Garda and had been vacant for over 20 years. The house had not been lived or used by anyone over that period. When I did a Land Registry search, I found that the property is in a folio listing 50 different properties, in locations from Castletownbere on one side of the county all the way over to Mitchelstown on the other side. The folio included Garda stations, sites and dwelling houses.
Do we have a full audit of what is in the ownership of the OPW? Do we have a detailed list of what is not being used or is unlikely to be used in the future? It should be possible to communicate with the local authorities. In this case in Blarney, I contacted Cork County Council which unfortunately replied that it had examined the property and deemed that the cost of bringing it into use was too great. It would not get involved with the property, which remains vacant. There are quite a number of vacant properties around the country that could be brought into use for community organisations or residential occupation.
I am replying on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Moran. The OPW manages more than 2,500 properties on behalf of the State. These include office accommodation, heritage properties, visitor centres, Garda stations, warehouses and others. An Garda Síochána is responsible for assigning residences to gardaí in line with its policing plans. The OPW disposes of Garda stations or Garda residences only when An Garda Síochána confirms that they are surplus to its requirements. At present, 96 buildings are vacant. Over half of them, 51, are Garda stations that were closed under the 2012-2013 policing plans of An Garda Síochána. In an interim report of the Policing Authority, six stations were identified for reopening. These were Ballinspittle, County Cork; Bawnboy, County Cavan; Donard, County Wicklow, Leighlinbridge, County Carlow; Rush, County Dublin; and Stepaside, County Dublin. A further review by the Garda Inspectorate was published in December 2018. The OPW will be engaging with An Garda Síochána on the outcome of the review.
Of the remaining 45 properties that are vacant at present, a number are in the process of being transferred to local authorities, being considered or prepared for disposal, under consideration for community use or being retained for alternative State use. In addition to the closed Garda stations, there are sundry dwellings or lodges that are part of national parks and gardens around the country and are managed by the Office of Public Works. In general, these dwellings or lodges are for staff who have to be present day or night, for example, park rangers, deer keepers, security personnel and so on. In other cases, they have been licensed for use as tea rooms, visitor services on heritage sites or for use by the Irish Landmark Trust. At present, a small number of these are vacant because they are in poor condition and not habitable from a health and safety or security viewpoint.
The provision of social, affordable and emergency residential accommodation is a function of the local authorities and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Properties owned or managed by the OPW are primarily commercial offices, Garda stations, warehouses or others that are not suited to residential use. However, the OPW has actively engaged with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in providing information on any non-operational, vacant properties the OPW owns. That Department then assesses those properties in terms of what might be suitable for residential use. The OPW has also engaged with the Land Development Agency on any suitable land in its ownership.
As a matter of course, the OPW provides information on its non-operational properties to the relevant authorities or housing agencies for assessment. In the last two years, this process has identified a number of properties as being feasible for adaption for residential use. These include eight units in Dublin city centre that were transferred to Dublin City Council for use by the Peter McVerry Trust; and a property in Crumlin that is now licensed to Dublin City Council for use as a family hub. A further 15 properties are being considered in terms of their potential for investment and adaptation for social housing. These include seven properties and one site that are under consideration by Cork County Council; five properties that are under consideration by Tipperary County Council; and three properties that are under consideration by Limerick City and County Council. The OPW regularly contacts local authorities and other State bodies before it decides to sell on the open market.
The Senator specifically mentions a property in Blarney. I can confirm that a retired member of An Garda Síochána occupied this property until June 2012. In August 2017, the property was offered to Cork County Council under the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform protocols for the transfer and sharing of State property assets. The OPW was told in September 2017 that the council did not wish to buy the property. The contracts for sale for the property are ready and this property, along with a number of other surplus properties and sites, will be disposed of in 2019.
Historically, in the paper environment, lands held by Ministers, State bodies and local authorities were entered on a single folio per owner per county. In the modern digital environment, it is more practical and efficient to open a single folio for each property or title. This represents the current practice of the Property Registration Authority, PRA. Subject to resources, the PRA has been separating these older folios into single digital folios. I trust that the above satisfies the Senator’s query. I will bring any other matter he wishes to raise to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Moran.
On the property in Blarney, I am not clear where the officials got their information. My information is that the property was vacant for over 20 years. Maybe somebody was put down as occupying it but the reality is that it was vacant. The current Garda sergeant in Blarney, with whom I engaged on this matter, was not even aware that such a property existed; indeed, no garda currently serving in Blarney was aware of it because it was so long out of use.I started dealing with the issue more than 12 months ago and I am concerned that the OPW does not conduct a regular review of the use of its properties. Clearly, the OPW has identified 45 properties that could be put to better use. We had a downturn in the economy and nothing seems to have been done to deal with the issue between 2011 and 2014 when we needed property to be made available. I welcome the Minister of State's reply because at least the matter is being dealt with now. The OPW should carry out a review of the property it owns at least once every two years to identify whether it is being used efficiently. If it is not being used efficiently, we need a long-term plan and engagement with other State agencies to ensure it can be put into use. We need to put a structure in place to deal with the matter.
There appears to be a communication issue about some of the information that was provided, as it appears to be semi-contradictory. The best option would be for Senator Colm Burke to meet the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran. I will have my office relay such a request to the Minister of State. I am sure Senator Burke's suggestions will form part of any discussion that would take place.