The Data Protection Commission (DPC) warned it would be “disastrous” if its planned move to a new €1.4m-a-year rented headquarters was blocked.
The DPC said it had spent four years preparing for the move and that within months it would not have enough room to cater for all its staff, who were spread across three different locations in Dublin and Laois.
Records released under FOI detail how the DPC was “extremely concerned” about ongoing delays in getting approval for its new HQ.
The Department of Public Expenditure refused late last year to sanction the move, saying it believed the annual rent agreed was “exorbitant” and that insufficient efforts had been made to look for an alternative premises.
However, earlier this year the department reversed that decision after improved rent terms had been agreed with the landlord for the office in Pembroke Row, Dublin.
Internal records reveal how the estate agency working on the deal had said it was “shocked” when it learned of delays in getting the lease signed off.
A letter from estate agents Savills to the Office of Public Works (OPW) in October 2020 said: “This was not the position that Savills were informed of as at the date of agreement of heads of terms. To now learn that such approvals are pending would give considerable cause for concern and reduce the property owners’ faith in the process in which both parties are currently engaged.”
In the letter, Savills said it had provided “exclusivity” on the office to the DPC for more than 10 months and had rejected several third party offers for the office.
In emails between the OPW and the DPC, officials said they needed to be “straight” with the landlord about the hold-ups.
One email to the DPC said: “They had taken the property off the market to deal exclusively with us. It is unsustainable for them to continue to do so.”
Later discussions detail how the DPC pushed for the negotiations to be reopened with the landlord.
A briefing explained how DPC staff were frequently had to walk between offices as only one office could facilitate external meetings.
“International media frequently write about and interview the DPC in situ and the issue of the premises the DPC occupies is equated – rightly or wrongly – with the importance Ireland attaches to data protection regulation,” it added. The briefing said there had been numerous “false starts” over the years in finding a suitable office, while the new HQ needed to “respect both the independence and international structure” of the DPC.
A draft copy of the briefing also warned that the OPW was concerned about repeated approaches to the property market that didn’t progress.
“[This] could be regarded as spurious and only serve to undermine the organisation’s ability to meaningfully engage,” it said.
During the Christmas period last year, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon made written representations to the Minister for Justice about their difficulties in securing new premises.
As a result, the Department of Justice wrote to colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure, leading to provisional sanction for the move to go ahead.
When the deal was eventually signed, the DPC asked for secure storage rooms to be provided at the new office, along with a tech lab.
Commissioner Helen Dixon’s office was to be moved and enlarged along with several other corner office locations, according to a request list sent to the OPW.
The DPC also asked for a rest room for staff who feel unwell or are breastfeeding. “A fold-out bed, armchair and yoga mat to be accommodated within the room,” the list said.
CCTV cameras to the front and back would be required for security, while the possibility of having a camera to cover the reception area needed “to be discussed”.
A copy of the design principles said the DPC wanted open-plan working spaces to avoid the possibility of a “‘silo’ working culture”, while workers who were primarily desk-based should be given seats with the best light and views.
For the reception area, it said: “A generous waiting space with seating that is both impressive and welcoming is important. It is a good opportunity for the organisation to promote their work, be it through art and/or screens.”