Saturday 21 April 2018

Former county manager says he was legally bound to pay €3m for three acres

The Four Courts, Dublin
The Four Courts, Dublin

Tim Healy

FORMER Wicklow County Manager Edward Sheehy told the High Court he was legally bound to sign a compulsory purchase order paying €3m for three acres of land for social housing in 2011.

Mr Sheehy said there was criticism at that time including from a local TD saying no more than €200,000 should have been paid for the site at "Three Trouts", Charlesland, Greystones, given land prices at the time.

Mr Sheehy said apart from his legal obligation to buy, the price was part of the "swings and roundabouts" of land acquisition and the same land had a few years earlier been valued by the council at €7m

Mr Sheehy also told the court he took very seriously allegations made by three councillors which reflected on the competence and integrity of his staff. 

One allegation which used the Latin expression "cui bono" (for whose benefit) was of particular concern.

"There was an innuendo that somebody here had done something improper to benefit somebody and I regarded that as a very serious matter", he said.

He was giving evidence on the second day of an appeal over an unsuccessful action for defamation against him and the council by two of the three councillors, a former Labour Party councillor and a sitting independent councillor.

Barry Nevin, the former councillor, and Thomas Cullen, currently sitting, lost a Circuit Court action claiming they were defamed in a press release authored by Mr Sheehy during the Three Trouts controversy. 

The Circuit Court judge described as true an allegation in the press release that the councillors’ concerns were not well founded, unfair to unnamed officials and that there was the additional €200,000 cost in acquiring the land as a result of the delay.

Ms Justice Marie Baker is hearing the appeal in the High Court.

Mr Sheehy, who retired last year, said Three Trouts was identified in the early part of the last decade from 21 other sites in Greystones as being most suitable for social housing.

This was a time when government was encouraging local authorities to provide more housing, he said.

Its owners were looking for between €7m and €10m while the council's valuer estimated it as being worth €7m. In 2006, An Bord Pleanala decided the land could be compulsorily bought by the council.

Further negotiations with the landowners followed but by then there had been the economic crash and after the dispute went to arbitration, a price of €3m was ultimately agreed between the council and the landowners.

By this stage there was no public money to fund social housing.  However,  a government quango, called the "land aggregation scheme", was set up whereby councils could get funding without them having to be out of pocket.

Mr Sheehy said the agreement with the landowners meant the deal had to go through by August 31, 2011.

But by then, there was a lot of debate about why so much money was being spent on just three acres when there was plenty of cheap land and houses available.

Among the critics was local Labour Party Deputy Anne Ferris who, Mr Sheehy said, described it to him as a scandalous price and that only €200,000 should be paid.

Mr Sheehy said the council obtained legal opinion, including independent opinion from a senior counsel, saying that because the land had been compulsorily acquired the €3m price had to be paid. 

By the time the August 31, 2011, deadline was due, three councillors were complaining to the minister for housing and to the Dail Public Accounts Committee.

Mr Sheehy said because of the impending inquiry, the council was unable to avail of the land aggregation scheme to fund the acquisition and had to dip into its own deposits to pay the landowners with the consequent loss of interest by having to use its own money.

A review of the acquisition was carried out at the direction of the housing minister by senior counsel Seamus Woulfe who first looked at the Department of Environment's role and rejected the allegations against it.

However, the two councillors's criticism continued in public and the minister then decided Mr Woulfe should look into the council's role in the matter. 

Mr Sheehy said for the second time he fully co-operated with Mr Woulfe.

It was very important that it would be dealt with as quickly as possible as it (land acquisition) was now the subject of robust allegations and heated debates with suggestions that "some members of the council were involved", he said.

The case continues

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