Council struck deal to sell public park it didn't own

A helpful reader emails from Limerick highlighting a story from the Irish Examiner last week. Karl Hanlon writes in the Examiner:

Limerick City Council struck a deal to sell off part of a public park they didn’t yet own to a developer. Documents show the council agreed to “facilitate” a private development of the land nearly a full year before planning permission was granted to the company for a 59-unit apartment complex and a mix of retail/office space.

Freedom of Information documents show the local authority agreed in writing to sell part of the People’s Park to Reidy Civil Engineering Ltd for €1.57 million as far back as 2002, even though it didn’t own it at the time.

The land was, in fact, held in trust and covered by the terms of a 500-year lease entered into by the Earl of Limerick, the People’s Park Trustees and Limerick Corporation in the 19th Century.

But wait, there’s more

In January 2004, Limerick City Council formally completed the purchase of the site from both the People’s Park Trustees and the Earl of Limerick’s estate for €150,000 and later completed the sale of the same lands to the developer for €1.57m more than 10 times the price.

The sale of the 0.44 acre site was only formally approved by City Hall earlier this year.

Limerick city manager Tom Mackey denied yesterday that the price agreed was less than the market value of the land and said he was satisfied that the disposal of the land had been carried out properly.

A spokesman for Limerick City Council confirmed that the Department of the Environment had been in contact with the local authority’s finance department seeking clarification on details of the sale of the land.

It is also understood that Environment Minister Dick Roche has been presented with a letter detailing many aspects of the disposal of the land by the council.

Dick Roche is on the case…we are saved.

The sale was not put out to public tender and a slightly larger piece of land adjoining that purchased by Reidy Civil Engineering Ltd raised some €2.85m when it was sold to another developer on the open market.

Limerick City Council said there was nothing unusual in deciding against putting the site on the open market and said the sale price was reached on a “pro-rata” basis relative to the sale of the adjoining site.

Local residents raised strong objections to the controversial development on a site which they said had been given to the people of the city for use as a public park.

Independent city councillor Jim Long who first brought the controversy to light, said local residents were angry that it appeared that a deal was done without adequate public consultation.

Minister of State Tim O’Malley said yesterday: “The questions are there to be answered, and the day is long gone when deals like this could be done without the degree of accountability required.”

The questions are there to be answered indeed, but they won’t be.

Green councillor gets leave to try to quash report

Mary Carolan has one of those stories in the Irish Times today that make the news, but don’t quite make the headlines. These type stories are usually symptomatic of something happening throughout the country, but are either not reported or reported very little.

A Green Party councillor has brought a High Court challenge aimed at overturning a report which found that Wicklow Fianna Fail councillor and solicitor Fachtna Whittle had not breached ethics legislation in proposing and voting for a quarry rezoning without disclosing he was acting for the quarry owner in legal proceedings.

The action has been brought by councillor Deirdre de Burca against the Wicklow county manager and the chairperson of Wicklow County Council, with Mr Whittle as notice party.

Mr Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill yesterday granted leave to senior counsel Gerard Hogan, for Ms de Burca, to bring proceedings to quash the findings of the report following a formal complaint to the ethics registrar about Mr Whittle’s conduct during a Wicklow County Council meeting on July 12th, 2004.

This certainly isn’t the most serious case I have heard of, but it certainly indicates that this kind of behaviour is considered perfectly acceptable to many.

Warning over 'huge' cost of excavating prison site

Back to that story about the over-priced land purchased to build a new prison in North County Dublin. Frank McDonald writing in today’s Irish Times notes:

The 150-acre site in north Co Dublin selected for a new prison complex to replace Mountjoy could cost millions more to excavate than the €30 million paid for it, according to leading archaeological experts.

Ten days ago the High Court granted leave to objectors to commission their own geo-physical survey of the site. If this confirms what is already known from aerial photography, an archaeological excavation “would cost an absolute fortune”, one expert said.

Dr Mark Clinton, who headed a similar excavation of the Carrickmines Castle site in south Co Dublin, said the Thornton Hall site was part of a known archaeological landscape extending back to prehistoric times and “can’t be isolated from it like an asteroid floating in outer space”.

He said the archaeological excavation at Carrickmines involved a core area of three to four acres. The cost came to €6.5 million by the time it came to an end in 2003.

John Maas, an expert in analysing aerial photographs, said the much more extensive Thornton Hall site contained “layer upon layer of archaeology from continuous habitation, probably dating back to around 7,000 BC” and the State had “a duty under law to excavate it”.

And McDowell’s thinking on this issue?

Minister for Justice Michael McDowell is on record as saying that he would not be put off building a prison by any “guff about fairy forts or architecture”.

McDowell is a dangerous man with regard to the heritage of the Irish nation. Do you agree?

Officials consider CPOs for prison sites

€30 million for some land that really should have cost alot less. That is more or less the story in relation to the new prison being built in North County Dublin. It was €32 million but the skillful civil servants got him down to €30. For comparison:

Some €2.9 million was paid to Mr Lynam when the deal was agreed in January. The outstanding €27 million was paid last Friday. Mr McDowell has asked officials in his department to review the current situation which does not allow sites for new prisons to be compulsorily purchased by the State.

The Government is facing sustained pressure over the €30 million price it paid for the 150-acre site at Thornton Hall. The Opposition has claimed the State paid around five times more than the land was worth, and there have been calls for a public inquiry.

Eight weeks after Thornton Hall was acquired, a 190-acre farm in Ratoath, Co Meath – less than four miles from the new prison site – sold for €6.2 million. A 157-acre farm at Garristown, Co Meath, is currently down for auction with a €3 million guide price.

Fine Gael’s spokesman on justice Jim O’Keeffe TD said yesterday the Government should have reviewed the possibility of using CPOs for prisons “long before” Thornton Hall.

And now McDowell is reviewing the possible use of CPO’s to buy land for prison. Bit late now isn’t it?

Trim Castle planning mystery

I like Fintan O’Toole’s clever use of language in last week’s Irish Times. Regarding the rather strange behaviour of the council in Trim, O’Toole noted:

There is no suggestion of anything underhand in all of this. What is clear, however, is that a mind-boggling decision to put a large, ugly hotel right beside a major national monument was taken in a way that lacked both transparency and democratic accountability.

Very diplomatic.

TD accuses General Electric of 'legal swindle'

Very curious goings-on with GE, a company partnered to controversial Gama construction.

Yesterday Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins named the company involved as General Electric, a partner of the construction company Gama.

He said General Electric in Clonshaugh in north Dublin, “sets up puppet companies so that it can set about a legal swindle to compel the IDA to pay it millions of euro for land belonging to the Irish people”.

He said General Electric had used the proceeds of the sale to “finance its industrial diamond innovations to force a redundancy deal on 50 workers, whom it bullies and pressurises into accepting, so it can replace them with cheap labour for its industrial diamond enterprises”.

General Electric set up a “puppet company” allowing it to buy IDA industrial land outright and lifting restricted usage. The IDA practice of selling property was through a 999-year lease. IDA property leased in 1981 to one company was subsequently sub-leased twice and an anomaly allowed the lease to be “extinguished”.

The Government was even forced to:

rush emergency ground rent legislation through the Dail and Seanad earlier this year when it emerged that the State’s ownership of a further 700 IDA properties was at risk because of the legal loophole.

I never heard about that, strangely enough.