Tuesday 17 October 2017

Taxpayer spent €2m on building without planning permission

Dearbhail McDonald Legal Editor

THE Department of Justice spent €2m leasing and fitting out a building that cannot be used because it has no planning permission.

And in a separate project the taxpayer is nursing a €4m loss on a planned €15m state-of-the-art campus for the State Pathologist. It may end up being demolished, after bankrupt developer Bernard McNamara's former empire was taken over by toxic loans agency NAMA.

Testy

There were testy exchanges between the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Department of Justice yesterday over a series of costly building projects and the fate of failed asylum seekers.

Chief State Solicitor Eileen Creedon told the PAC that the Government has issued legal proceedings in the High Court after a flagship acquisition for the probation service came unstuck. The PAC said it received legal advice that it could pursue the matter at a public hearing.

But Ms Creedon said that the case, lodged last Tuesday – a day before the PAC hearing – is "live" and could not be discussed.

"I wish to assure this committee that risk assessment is a matter that is taken with the utmost seriousness by me and my office," said Ms Creedon who made her first appearance before the PAC committee since her appointment last year.

The legal dispute is between the department, the landlord/ receiver and the architect of the landlord/receiver, according to the Chief State Solicitor's Office (CSSO).

The department acquired a 25-year lease for the probation services project known as the Bridge Project in June 2008.

The CSSO negotiated the €309,000-a-year lease – which had a 'break option' after 10 years – with the owner of the Wolfe Tone Street premises on behalf of the department.

But in March 2010 the Planning Office of Dublin City Council issued a warning letter to the Bridge Project stating that permission granted in 2001 for change of use of the premises to commercial use had expired in January 2006.

Because of strong local opposition, permission to house the Bridge Project would be "difficult to secure", the committee heard.

An earlier report found that the department had spent more than €2m in renting and fitting out the premises without any real benefit.

Fees

Meanwhile Ms Creedon also revealed that legal fees for barristers who act for the State had been reduced by almost 50pc between 2008 and 2012.

But she warned that her office is having difficulty recruiting and retaining high-calibre staff to carry out State work, with qualified solicitors entering the CSSO earning €28,000 a year.

The PAC also quizzed the department about its policy on asylum seekers, many of whom are housed in "direct provision" centres – with a weekly €19 allowance – as they await the outcomes of their appeals.

Mr Purcell rejected, in strong terms, any comparison between residents in direct provision and those who had been housed in Magdalene Laundries and other institutions.

Irish Independent

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