Deranged 'Big D' vision cost us dearhttp://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0907/1224278365345.html
The Department of the Environment's new headquarters in Wexford, completed last June, cost â‚¬12 million, was another "design-and-build" contract for fully-fitted offices Department of Social Protection offices, Sligo, cost of â‚¬8.95 million. Photographs: Andy Mason The Office of Public Works headquarters in Trim was the most expensive project in the current programme, at â‚¬21.6 million.
Photograph: Gareth ByrneThe Office of Public Works headquarters in Trim was the most expensive project in the current programme, at â‚¬21.6 million.
Photograph: Gareth ByrneThe full price of â€˜decentralisationâ€™ has yet to be determined but the public interest in having an efficient administration is the real loser, writes FRANK McDONALD , Environment Editor
SIX YEARS ago, just after the Governmentâ€™s â€œdecentralisationâ€ programme was announced, Tom Parlon â€“ then minister of state at the Office of Public Works (OPW) â€“ spoke at the unveiling of plans for an elegant 32-storey residential tower near Heuston Station and claimed that its quality would be reflected in new buildings throughout the State.
The tower, designed by Paul Keogh Architects, was never built. And despite the Governmentâ€™s commitment in its 2002 policy on architecture that quality would be one of the key criteria for publicly-funded construction projects, most of the new â€œdecentralisedâ€ offices are rather humdrum buildings â€“ certainly not architecture with a capital A.
For Angela Rolfe, assistant principal architect at the OPW, the benchmark was the Stateâ€™s first purpose-built departmental headquarters â€“ the old department of industry and commerce in Kildare Street. Needing little alteration since it was built in 1939, it has stood the test of time primarily because of the high quality of materials and generosity of space.
But Rolfe could only deal with what was put before her and try to ensure that the standards set by the OPW for sustainability and accessibility were met by design teams, often acting for private sector developers. â€œWe got some quite awful things. But those who put their minds to it and showed joined-up thinking tended to produce better buildings.â€
Some were procured using traditional direct contracts, others were â€œdesign-and-buildâ€ packages giving developers the whip-hand, and still more formed parts of a â€œPPP bundleâ€ â€“ a batch of public-private partnerships, much favoured by the Department of Finance because of their value in taking capital projects off the Governmentâ€™s balance sheet.
But PPPs can go horribly wrong too, especially if theyâ€™re in bundles. Thatâ€™s what happened with plans to provide â€œdecentralisedâ€ offices for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation in Carlow, the Department of Education and Science in Mullingar and the Department of Agriculture in Portlaoise â€“ the latter two envisaged as headquarters.
They were all to be procured in a â€œPPP bundleâ€ in partnership with Pierse Contracting, backed by Australian bankers Macquarie â€“ until the financial package fell apart. Now, with only the Portlaoise project approved to proceed and the other two â€œsubject to reviewâ€, lawyers are arguing whether the State is entitled to go ahead with Agriculture alone.
The net point is â€œwhether we have rights to use the scheme as designed , or we donâ€™tâ€, one OPW source said. Planning permission has already been granted for a large building to accommodate 595 staff, of whom 317 have already moved to Portlaoise and are working in three office blocks costing â‚¬530,640 in rent annually.
If the legal problem canâ€™t be sorted out satisfactorily, the OPW would have to commission a new design and go back through the planning process. And when the vast Agriculture House in Kildare Street is eventually evacuated as planned, the prospects of getting a good price for it are not good, given the overhang of vacant office space in Dublin.
Other projects were more straightforward. In Athlone, for example, the OPW didnâ€™t even have to buy a site for new Department of Education offices to accommodate 88 staff, because there was enough room for an extension to a building occupied by the same department. It cost â‚¬8.7 million, plus paying for a new roundabout to cater for the extra traffic.
THE SAME APPROACH was taken in Sligo, where new â€œdecentralisedâ€ offices for 88 staff from the Department of Social Protection were the first to be built under the latest programme â€“ for â‚¬8.95 million â€“ on a site owned by the State. Furbo, west of Galway, also involved an extension of existing offices to house 13 civil servants. That cost â‚¬2 million.
The OPWâ€™s own headquarters in Trim was the most expensive project in the current programme, at â‚¬21.6 million. Next in line was the Department of Defence headquarters in Newbridge, which cost â‚¬16.9 million, followed by the Irish Prison Service headquarters in Longford (â‚¬13 million) and offices for the Department of Agriculture in Clonakilty (â‚¬12.9 million).
The Department of the Environmentâ€™s new headquarters in Wexford, completed last June, cost â‚¬12 million, was another â€œdesign-and-buildâ€ contract for fully-fitted offices, with Scott Tallon Walker as architects. But main contractor Pierse had problems, sub-contractors walked off the site and the building was finished rather less well than the OPW had hoped.
Accommodating the embryonic Property Registration Authority in purpose-built offices in Roscommon cost nearly â‚¬9 million, though only 77 of an expected 230 staff have moved there, while â‚¬5.3 million was spent building a new office block in Buncrana, on the Inishowen peninsula, to house 102 staff from a section of the Department of Social Protection.
The long-term costs in maintaining so many buildings scattered around the country havenâ€™t yet been calculated and were not taken into account at the time. This happened despite a history of problems with earlier â€œyellow-packâ€ buildings, procured using the design-and-build method; one block in Roscommon, for example, was said to be riddled with defects.
â€œAll the Department of Finance care about is the capital cost. Theyâ€™re not even asking questions about how much it costs to run these buildings,â€ one source said. And given the difficulties in getting developers to build a new office block as it was designed, right down to furniture layouts, this blind spot on maintenance is a store of future problems yet to unfold.
Indeed, most of the new buildings have yet to be formally handed over to the OPW. â€œWe donâ€™t have proper files, either because the electrical sub-contractor hasnâ€™t been paid by the main contractor, so he hasnâ€™t handed over certs and warranties, or the architect has gone away.â€ As a result, â€œfinal retentionsâ€ havenâ€™t been paid on many of the new buildings.
Even the OPWâ€™s insistence on such â€œsustainability featuresâ€ as solar panels, wood pellet boilers, greywater recycling, integrated lighting and building management systems to regulate energy use could end up being problematic, because there are no maintenance staff on site, and few anyway with the expertise to deal with these new-fangled devices.
â€œNo one thought about what would happen to the buildings afterwards. I mean, what happens on nice sunny day when all the windows start opening? Would you have someone fiddling with knobs in the plant room?â€ one architect asked. At the Stateâ€™s new office block in Longford, staff interfered with automated windows that help to ventilate the building.
HAVING DEPARTMENTAL AND State agency offices all over the place incurs other costs, notably in mileage expenses for travelling long distances. On March 9th last, Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) paid out â‚¬2,443 in expenses to attendees travelling to meetings at its new offices in Clonakilty from DÃºn Laoghaire, Kilmore Quay, Dingle, Carna, Creggan and Greencastle.
After a business development meeting in Clonakilty on February 4th last, BIM paid out â‚¬2,151 in travel and subsistence expenses to eight staff from its headquarters in DÃºn Laoghaire, where they are still located and 75 of BIMâ€™s 95 staff are based. The original plan was to relocate them all in Clonakilty, but resistance from senior staff has stalled this move.
There were only three volunteers from BIM staff in DÃºn Laoghaire to relocate in Clonakilty and, as in many other cases, they had to be augmented by staff transferring from other agencies as part of the â€œdecentralisationâ€ process through the central applications facility. In addition, a number of BIMâ€™s regional staff are now based there.
The new office block in Clonakilty is shared by BIMâ€™s seafood development centre with the Department of Agricultureâ€™s fisheries division and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority.
â€œThe full implementation of decentralisation of BIM to the new centre will be carried out on a phased basis,â€ a spokeswoman said, in response to queries from The Irish Times.
In the case of the OPW itself, a bus leaves Dublin Castle every weekday morning to bring staff who donâ€™t have cars to work at its new headquarters in Trim â€“ an hour-long journey thatâ€™s repeated at 5pm, when theyâ€™re dropped back to Dublin. Thereâ€™s also a mid-morning run taking car-less staff to Dublin for meetings. The bus costs â‚¬2,300 per week.
So what was it all about? â€œThe original plan was to weaken the Civil Service so politicians could interfere more â€“ that was its real purpose,â€ one seasoned observer said.
Certainly, it put money in the pockets of builders, developers, landowners, architects, estate agents, publicans and shopkeepers in all of the towns where State offices have been built.
The public interest in having an efficient administration is the real loser. Presumably, this will be taken into account in the review now under way and most of the projects marked as â€œdeferredâ€ pending its outcome will end up being cancelled by the Government â€“ if only to stem the colossal waste of public funds on Charlie McCreevyâ€™s deranged vision of the â€œBig Dâ€.
The decentralisation table in yesterdayâ€™s edition incorrectly identified the Department of Enterprise as occupants of a new building in Wexford. It was built for the Department of the Environment