Tuesday 16 January 2018

Officials don't know what to do with empty prison site after €50m outlay

The Thornton Hall site
The Thornton Hall site

Shane Phelan and Eilish O'Regan

The Department of Justice has admitted it does not know what it will do with the site of the shelved Thornton Hall prison project.

A working group has been established to look at options for the white elephant site, with the failed project having already cost the taxpayer over €50m.

Officials from the Department of Justice, the Irish Prison Service and the OPW are to compile a report by the summer on potential future uses for the lands at Kilsallaghan in north county Dublin.

In a letter to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the acting secretary general of the Department of Justice, Noel Waters, said: "No option has been ruled out to yield the best possible value for the State in its future use."

The ambitious project was first announced a decade ago, but was dogged with controversy over the cost and suitability of the site.

It was initially planned as a development to accommodate 1,400 prisoners, but this was later scaled back after a deal could not be reached on building the facility under a public-private partnership.

After a series of false starts, it was finally mothballed by the current Government in 2011.

The site is fully serviced with water, sewage and power connections, but is currently being used to grow vegetables.

Mr Waters will face questions over the fiasco in the coming weeks after the PAC yesterday decided to reopen its examination of the failed project.

In his letter, Mr Waters said that on top of the initial site cost of €29.9m, an additional 8.7 acres was acquired at a cost of €1.3m to provide a dedicated access route, with the road itself costing €3.46m.

Another €791,150 was spent in 2007 purchasing six acres adjacent to the site to facilitate the closure of St Patrick's Institution. Mr Waters said €7.87m was spent on professional, legal and planning fees, €3.08m on site preparation, €2.67m on off-site works, €500,000 on perimeter planting and €500,000 on security.

PAC member Joe Costello said the "huge waste of taxpayers' money" could have been avoided if justice authorities had instead focussed on upgrading facilities at Mountjoy.

This has been done in recent years, with the installation of in-cell sanitation nearly complete.

"We have been left with a greenfield site on which over €50m in taxpayers' money has been spent," said Mr Costello.

"Now, having provided in-cell sanitation in Mountjoy, there is no likelihood that Thornton Hall will be used for the purpose that was intended."

Meanwhile, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said an application for planning permission to build the national children's hospital on the site of St James's Hospital will be made in June.

He is hopeful it will get the go ahead later this year, with construction starting in 2016.

Tina Priestley, a mother-of-four from Naas, Co Kildare, was among a delegation of parents who met with senior executives overseeing the hospital in Farmleigh yesterday.

She appealed to them to construct the hospital on a greenfield site and co-locate it with a maternity hospital.

January 2005: Then-Justice Minister Michael McDowell announces Thornton Hall, 150 acres of farmland in north county Dublin, has been selected as the site of a 1,400-cell prison to replace the outdated Mountjoy complex. The State pays €29.9m for the land, or  just under €200,000 an acre.

September 2005: C&AG John Purcell finds the State paid at least twice the market value for the land.

April 2007: Leargas, a consortium involving Michael McNamara Construction and Barclays Private Equity, is chosen to build the prison under a public-private partnership which will cost €400m.

Thornton Hall timeline

January 2005: Then-Justice Minister Michael McDowell announces Thornton Hall, 150 acres of farmland in north county Dublin, has been selected as the site of a 1,400-cell prison to replace the outdated Mountjoy complex. The State pays €29.9m for the land, or  just under €200,000 an acre.

September 2005: C&AG John Purcell finds the State paid at least twice the market value for the land.

April 2007: Leargas, a consortium involving Michael McNamara Construction and Barclays Private Equity, is chosen to build the prison under a public-private partnership which will cost €400m.

October 2008: Talks with Leargas stall after it says it needs an additional €80m.

May 2009: Negotiations end. The Government announces it cannot afford to press ahead.

July 2010: The plans are scaled back, with the Government only committing to the construction of two blocks holding 700 prisoners by 2014.

November 2011: The new Government 'mothballs' the project due to budget cuts.

February 2015: The Department of Justice announces it is conducting a review to decide on the future of the site, as overall costs top €50m.

Irish Independent

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