Thursday 12 December 2019

Fire-sale of vacant HSE sites to fund mental health reform

Michael Brennan

THE Health Service Executive (HSE) is planning a fire-sale of most of its 57 vacant properties to fund badly needed improvements in mental health care.

It has disused health centres, closed-down hospitals, residential houses and old dispensaries to sell -- some of them located in prime sites.

The first to go will be 18 properties that have already been designated for sale or are being considered for sale in Counties Cavan, Dublin, Donegal, Kilkenny, Meath and Waterford.

It comes as new figures show the HSE spent €32m last year on renting and leasing buildings, despite the number of empty buildings it owns.

HSE director of estates Brian Gilroy said many of the vacant properties had to be sold to help raise funds for new mental health facilities.

The empty properties that could be shortly placed on the market include the infamous Ionad Follain centre -- designated for asylum seekers -- in Myshall, Co Carlow.

It was bought for €1.3m by the Office of Public Works in 2000, but was then left vacant due to local protests. It was sold for €1 to the HSE and has lain idle for the past decade.

Mr Gilroy said the Government had given a commitment that all of the money earned would be used to replace ageing psychiatric institutions with new mental health facilities. "My guys were set off the leash in January in each of the regions and were told 'sell everything, move it all now' because now we have the commitment," he said.

Mr Gilroy admitted there had been delays in selling vacant buildings, which had led to their value falling during the property crash.

But he said many were in good locations such as town centres and added that the fall in construction prices was a welcome side benefit. "Although I get less for the buildings, I can build an awful lot more with the money," he said.

But Mr Gilroy pledged that the HSE would not sell the properties at "ridiculous prices".

"We'll set a reserve, they'll go to public auction or tender and if the reserve isn't met, we won't dispose of them," he said.

Another vacant property on the market is the former Our Lady's Hospital on the northside of Cork city, which has been damaged by vandals despite a €1.5m spend on security.

Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen, who is the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said it had turned from an invaluable asset to a liability. "It's costing them a lot in security and it's literally a ruin. I've described it as the biggest derelict site in Cork city," he said.

The HSE is in discussions with Cork City Council about the sale of Our Lady's Hospital. It has provisionally put a price of €2m on 17 acres of the site, with the rest of it expected to fetch millions of euro more.

The HSE has a vast portfolio of more than 2,000 properties around the country. It disposed of 15 properties last year. It is hoping to raise more of the €50m needed for new mental health facilities through the sale of psychiatric hospitals.


Meanwhile, Mr Gilroy said that much of the HSE's multi-million euro annual rental costs were due to the signing of 25-year leases by the former health boards, which could not be broken. These include the HSE headquarters in Parkgate Street in Dublin and head offices in Bray, Co Wicklow, Swords, Co Dublin, and Millennium Park in Naas, Co Kildare.

"They are four offices of considerable size, all of which are on 25-year leases. If I could get out of any of them tomorrow, I would. All of them were signed pre-HSE," he said.

Irish Independent

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