Tuesday, 15 October 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, for coming to the Seanad on this important issue. On Saturday last I attended the Architecture at the Edge festival. It took place on the campus of the former St. Brigid's Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway. I sincerely thank all those involved in that really fantastic event. Professor Oonagh Walsh provided a really great insight into the history of the hospital and the hugely significant role the Connacht Asylum, or St. Brigid's Hospital, played in the development of the town and region after its opening in 1833. At its peak, the hospital accommodated more than 2,000 patients, before the main campus eventually closed in 2013.
That is the history part; our focus now needs to turn to the future. Having taken the opportunity to walk around the grounds at the weekend, I was really taken aback at the rate of deterioration of the hospital buildings, particularly over recent months. It will not take too much more vandalism before we begin to lose these buildings forever. It is important to say that the people of Ballinasloe are very proud of the role St. Brigid's Hospital played in supporting people and in the history of their town. The current state of the premises, however, is of major concern to the people of the area. It is against that backdrop that we need to work on repurposing these buildings and the land in order to see St. Brigid's campus once again become a key part of the economic development of the town and wider region. That is a really important point in terms of its history. St. Brigid's Hospital was important to the economic development of the town and wider region. We need to now ensure that these buildings are brought back into use so that they can contribute to the economic development of the town and wider region.
Our immediate priority needs to be securing the old buildings. As I have said, with each month that passes, their conditions deteriorate. This will ultimately lead to higher restoration costs. In the longer term, we need to have an achievable vision for the future of the campus. We have a very good example in the redevelopment of the Grangegorman campus, of which I am sure the Minister of State is very aware. We need to see a similar priority given to the St. Brigid's site. I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State in this regard.
I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue and for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the future plans for the site of St. Brigid's Hospital, Ballinasloe. I also thank and commend the Senator for her work on health and disability issues more generally in the Seanad over recent years. Over recent years, the Health Service Executive, HSE, has consolidated the services on the St. Brigid's Hospital site as part of the transition to community-based mental health services in line with A Vision for Change.A development programme has focused on vacating the main building complex and developing fit-for-purpose facilities on lands adjacent to, but separate from, the main campus. This has resulted in a significant portion of the St. Brigid's Hospital site and lands being surplus to HSE requirements. Oak Grove House is the last building on the campus still in service but I understand that replacement purpose-built accommodation is currently being developed. Once this last building is vacated, the HSE intends to proceed with the disposal of parts of the St. Brigid's Hospital site and lands that are surplus to requirements.
The HSE is a prescribed stakeholder under the protocol for the intra-State transfer of State property assets and the protocol for the intra-State sharing of property assets, as advised by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. These protocols set out three options for disposal of assets: the transfer to another public body or State agency; open market sale, subject to favourable market conditions; or other uses such as community and voluntary use will be considered only if points one and two do not materialise.
Any proposals for the disposal of surplus property assets must be considered in the context of the capital funding available to the Department of Health and Government policy relating to the use and management of State property assets. In this context, the HSE is required to obtain value for money when disposing of surplus property assets and the proceeds are reinvested in delivering much needed healthcare infrastructure. In preparation for the disposal of the assets, in 2018 the HSE invited expressions of interest, together with business plans, from relevant State bodies, stakeholders and local authorities. The Office of Public Works, OPW, requested an extension to the deadline in order to complete a report on the potential future use of St. Brigid's Hospital site and lands. I understand the report has recently been completed and is currently being reviewed by the property management section of the OPW. Pending the outcome from this process, the intention would be to develop a proposal and seek approval to proceed with the transfer or disposal of the asset, in line with State property protocols.
The use of the sales' proceeds from the disposal of St. Brigid's Hospital will be subject to sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It would be intended that the proceeds of the sale of this property will be invested in much needed mental health and other facilities in addition to the very significant Exchequer funding required to maintain and improve health infrastructure.
Senator Maura Hopkins:I have a number of questions arising from the Minister of State's response. We are aware there is a shift in providing community mental health services. Similar to the issue raised in the previous Commencement matter there are challenges with the staffing of these community mental health services. I ask that the Minister of State would note this, especially in the context of the Roscommon-Galway services.
Is there a timeframe with regard to Oak Grove House being the last building on the campus, and which is still in service? Replacement accommodation is being developed and perhaps the Minister of State will indicate the timing for that. The Minister of State said the report is currently being reviewed by the OPW. Do we have a timeframe for that report and will its content be made public?
These buildings are very important for what could be an economic regeneration of Ballinasloe and the wider region. Ballinasloe is very well located. It is near to two motorways. It has access to Dublin and to Shannon Airport. It has rail links and high-speed broadband. Surely, the State should be trying to bring those buildings back into a place where they can support the economic development of the region. I ask the Minister of State to raise it at Cabinet level that this is an important priority for our region. It is important the Minister of State does whatever he can to emphasise this with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. We need those buildings to be repurposed.We also need to ensure they remain within State ownership to allow for the economic regeneration of the town.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The HSE has made a significant investment in community-based mental health services in the Ballinasloe area to facilitate the reconfiguration of services away from the acute setting of St. Brigid's Hospital, in line with A Vision for Change. This has resulted in a significant portion of the site and lands being surplus to the requirements of the HSE. Pending the outcome of engagements with the OPW on the potential future use of the site and lands, the intention is to proceed with the transfer or disposal of the asset in line with State property protocols.
I take the Senator's point on the shift and the challenges with staff. These are important issues. I do not have the details on the timeframes but I will follow up with her. She has raised important issues, particularly that of Oak Grove. We need to see where we are going with that. I need to get more clarification on that from the Department and the HSE. Government policy, as set out in A Vision for Change, is that the proceeds from the sale of the older mental health assets, such as St. Brigid's Hospital, will be reinvested in new developments in the area of mental health. That is important. I understand the new replacement accommodation is being developed for the mental healthcare services previously provided on the St. Brigid's Hospital campus.
Another important point the Senator raised, which has to be taken into consideration, is economic regeneration, particularly in the Ballinasloe area, and the repurposing of buildings. These issues will be taken into consideration as well and we have to ensure this happens. These developments are in line with the best international practice for the reorientation of assets from a hospital-based focus to the modern structures and facilities required for enhanced community-based service provision. I will raise the issues the Senator mentioned about the site and the plans and timeframes for same with the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Moran, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and officials from the OPW and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.