Adjournment Debate. - Dublin Office Blocks.

Tuesday, 22 June 1982

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 336 No. 5

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[1216]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  Deputy Enright has been given permission to raise on the Adjournment the question of empty office blocks in Dublin city for which the taxpayers' money is been paid and for which Ministers may be responsible.

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  I would like to thank the Ceann Comhairle for granting me permission to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I have been requested by Deputy Barrett (Dún Laoghaire) and Deputy D. Andrews to allow them some of my time. With your permission I propose to allocate them three minutes each.

I am raising this matter of urgent public concern because this year more than £3 million of the taxpayers' money will be wasted on leasing office accommodation which is being allowed to lie idle. This sum of money is being paid out leasing this office space for civil servants and some of the staff of semi-State bodies, and they are allowed to remain vacant. This is gross waste of public funds.

Some of these buildings which have been rented are allowed to remain vacant in some instances for up to 12 months and more than that in others. I am concerned that this is being allowed to happen. I call on the Minister to ensure that this excessive waste of money will be stopped and that it will not be allowed to recur. Any system which allows this type of wastage of funds to occur must be radically altered so that it will not be allowed to occur in the future. The cost of this office accommodation, based on the figure I have given, works out at £8 per square foot to rent.

There are a number of premises involved. The new Garda headquarters in the Irish Life premises in Harcourt Street cover 120,000 square feet. The premises at 4/5 Harcourt Road, has more than 30,000 square feet. This lay idle for a long period but has recently been occupied. There is Ardilaun House on St. Stephen's Green, which has 110,000 square feet, which will be used by the [1217] Department of Posts and Telegraphs. There is a premises in Dame Street, which is approximately 100,000 square feet, and there is a premises in Mount Street, of approximately 45,000 square feet. Some of those premises have recently been occupied and others are coming on stream. The cost of leasing those premises works out at between £2½ million and £3 million. I am very concerned about this matter. The figure of £8 per square foot is the normal market rate.

This property is rented and it is only then that negotiations take place with the trade unions in relation to occupation of the premises and there will be disturbance money involved. Arrangements have to be made about furniture for the premises and office equipment. Then the movement from the old to the new premises occurs. This is far too late to discuss those matters.

A normal private concern would not tolerate wastage like this. Immediately a private concern see that office space is to be provided in Grafton Street or some other place they check with the estate agents, they get the plans from the architect or the estate agents and they find out the layout of the premises. They see if the premises are suitable for them. They discuss the matter with their staff. They discuss the arrangement of personnel. That is the normal procedure in the movement of a business from one building to another. The same procedure should be used in relation to the movement of any Government Department. The Minister should ensure that that is the way things are done in the future.

Hard-headed decisions must be taken in relation to this matter because we are dealing with public funds, and the public should be given an assurance that their money will be spent efficiently. We, like other countries in Western Europe, are in the middle of a recession. Tremendous efforts have been made to try to cut back on different services to save public funds. The same efforts should be made in the case of those premises.

We have seen cutbacks in the health services, roads, sanitary services, house [1218] construction as well as money paid to farmers. If some of this £3 million was channelled to the farming community it would be a great help to them; if it was put into house construction it would be a help; or if it was put into alleviating people on PAYE it would be a help. Many taxpayers' are not as annoyed at having to pay tax as they are that hard-earned money which is paid in taxes is not efficiently spent. There will be much criticism of this wastage of public money. It is a serious matter about which I am very concerned.

I gather that it is the Office of Public Works who obtain the rented accommodation to be used by other Government Departments. There appears to be a greater need for co-operation between that office and the different Government Departments involved in the form of discussions between them before any accommodation is obtained. Then, if the arrangements are suitable for all concerned, negotiations could take place between the unions concerned and the Government Departments. At present there is not a business like approach to the situation. Instead we have a haphazard, unhappy situation with large amounts of money being paid out for accommodation which is allowed to lie idle. I have no ulterior motives, having no knowledge of anything underhand, but I am simply saying that this system of prematurely renting accommodation must be seriously looked at. I hope that the Minister will tell the House the number of office blocks at present lying idle and the number which the Government are considering renting at present. I am not being contentious or partisan in this, but I feel that the matter needs to be investigated. If something is not done to rectify the position, large pressure groups, such as trade unions and different taxpayers and farmers groups will point the finger at this waste of money and the present system must be blamed. Ultimately, the responsibility rests on the Minister to have this matter rectified and to ensure a change in the system.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  If the Chair is to co-operate with the Deputy in [1219] his consideration for his colleagues, I must remind him that he has less than a minute left.

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  In my position as spokesman on these matters, I am concerned and so are my party. I ask the Minister to put the full facts before the House, for the benefit of the public who may feel that this money has been wasted.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  Deputy Barrett, I do not want to use the terminology of the ring, but you have three minutes flat.

Mr. Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett  Zoom on Seán Barrett  (Dún Laoghaire): In supporting the argument put forward by my colleague, I question the whole idea of locating Government Departments and, indeed, local authorities in the centre of the city at a time when that city is being choked and we are trying to develop new towns on the outskirts. This whole question should be looked at, particularly from the point of view of loss to the citizens in relation to the development of these new towns. In my time allowance of three minutes, I would like to refer to what one would call an established town — Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin. I wish to raise the question of the empty offices there which were meant to House An Bord Iascaigh Mhara.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  I am sorry, Deputy. You will appreciate the difficulty which the Chair has in so far as neither the Minister who is present nor, indeed, any other Minister has responsibility for An Bord Iascaigh Mhara.

Mr. Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett  Zoom on Seán Barrett  (Dún Laoghaire): I raise a general question regarding office developments which are lying idle and with which semi-State bodies are involved. I wish to make one or two points on that issue. On 19 October 1981, I wrote to the then Minister for the Environment pointing out that it was contrary to the wishes of the staff of An Foras Forbartha that they should be relocated in Cork. I understand that 98 per cent of the staff do not wish to be relocated there. I suggested at that time that, in view of the [1220] fact that it had come to my attention that the office development at Dún Laoghaire supposedly for the use of An Bord Iascaigh Mhara was now not being taken up by them, the Minister should consider relocating An Foras Forbartha in that building, as they already have a section housed on Pottery Road, which is merely two miles from the office development referred to. Up to today, that office development has lain idle.

It has now come to my attention that the present Minister has again opened negotiations to have An Foras Forbartha relocated in Cork, despite the fact that a review of this body carried out by the NBST advised that An Foras Forbartha would not be suitable for location in any other situation but Dublin, because of its various activities. A well documented argument has been put forward to that effect. I notified the Department and drew attention to the fact that this development has lain idle for eight months because An Bord Iascaigh Mhara do not intend to use it, which highlights the point made by Deputy Enright that something must be wrong to allow this to happen.

I appreciate that the Minister may not have the information now at his disposal but I am using this occasion to bring the matter to his attention. An investigation should be carried out to see that these things do not happen and something must be immediately done to have that office development occupied. After all, the Government are spending a considerable amount of money on electrifying the Howth-Bray railway line which would make it an extremely——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  I am sorry, Deputy, I must return to the ringside terminology and count you out.

Mr. Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett  Zoom on Seán Barrett  (Dún Laoghaire): I have just one more point to make. I am sure that the Minister will agree that Dún Laoghaire is a very attractive place to have office development, particularly for a Government Department.

Mr. D. Andrews: Information on David Andrews  Zoom on David Andrews  I am grateful for this opportunity to make a few remarks on this very important topic, and I am glad [1221] that the Deputy raised this matter. I tried to raise the subject with the Ceann Comhairle at 3.30 p.m. today, specifically mentioning the nameless unoccupied building in Dún Laoghaire. Unfortunately, I was ruled out of order. Deputy Enright's proposition, however, was accepted.

There is an arguable economic theory that civil service office and semi-State office accommodation should be leased. I was a member, quite a number of years ago, of the Committee of Public Accounts and when this question of leasing office accommodation arose I took the view, which I still hold, that these office blocks should be brought by the various organisations on behalf of the civil service and the semi-State bodies. I had hoped the view I expressed ten years ago in this regard would have been acted on so that State and semi-State bodies would now be sitting on quite valuable properties. That has not happened. I reiterate my views that these office blocks should be bought by the occupiers.

There is an office block on the sea front in picturesque Dún Laoghaire which is vacant and which should be occupied as a matter of urgency. The decision not to continue with the lease was taken by the last Coalition Government. Though I agree with Deputy Enright and Deputy Barrett, it is still important to get the record correct. We want to continue the economic well-being of the community in Dún Laoghaire: we do not want to see valuable office blocks being left vacant, as they were during the lifetime of successive Governments. The BIM operation is fragmented and spread: they occupy a number of buildings, and we should like to see BIM centralised in Dún Laoghaire. Therefore, I am asking the Minister to give us some idea of what will be done with this white elephant, standing in stark nakedness on the sea front in Dún Laoghaire. I hope the Minister will examine it. I again thank Deputy Enright for having given me time to speak.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Barrett: Information on Sylvester Barrett  Zoom on Sylvester Barrett  ,Clare): The Office of Public Works are responsible for the provision of accommodation for the civil [1222] service as a whole, with a few minor exceptions. The Office has a continuous demand from Departments for office accommodation much of which must be met by renting premises in the open market. When premises become available on the market and are generally suitable to meet a particular need the Office of Public Works must move in immediately to open negotiations.

Such office blocks come on the market in an incomplete state internally. They are essentially shells completed on the outside but with minimum finishes internally. This is the practice to enable prospective lessees to adapt the space available to their own requirements. As is the norm in the property market, to secure premises on lease, liability for rent must be accepted from the date of agreement of terms. This is the position the Office of Public Works find themselves in when they must lease an office block to solve a particular problem.

A number of steps must then be taken to transform the shell to finished office accommodation. The first step is to get a full and detailed brief on the requirements of the Department in question. Depending on the location of the building and many other considerations, the Department must decide on which sections of staff are to be moved and how they are to be grouped in the new building to give the best results from an organisational point of view. The Department must then document the specific facilities they require for those units of staff. This process of necessity takes time, involving as it usually does consultation with unions and staff associations. While the Office of Public Works are at all times available in an advisory capacity, it cannot proceed with planning until a full brief is established.

Once the brief has been received, the Office of Public Works must convert it into a detailed floor plan for the approval of the Department. This is to ensure that the working space available will be used to best advantage to enable the Department to satisfy themselves that all their requirements will be met. At this juncture, oftimes alterations have to be made [1223] involving preparations of revised plans.

Once agreement has been reached on layout plans, the Office of Public Works must proceed with the preparation of contract documents covering architectural and engineering works, invite tenders and place contracts in accordance with Government contract procedures. These contracts can be substantial, and in the case of a large office block a fitting out contract can be in the range of several hundred thousand pounds. Works of this scale and variety could take a year or more to complete.

The provision of telephones, floor covering and furniture must follow. The Department then have the problem of movement of staff and papers to the building with minimum disruption to their operations. Such movement of staff may have to be scheduled to avoid critical dates for certain services. All of this process is necessary to ensure that the building will serve to maximum efficiency for the duration of the lease, usually 35 years, and to comply with Government contract procedures.

This is undoubtedly a complicated process but it is difficult to see how any of it can be dispensed with. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the time taken to establish briefs fully constitutes too large a part of the overall process.

In the case 4-5 Harcourt Road, which was occupied by three separate Departments, receipt of briefs varied from November 1980 to November 1981, although each Department's requirements were requested at the same time. [1224] Preparation and agreement of plans and contract documents and placing of contract took five months. Completion of work took seven months. The briefing period is indicative of the difficulty which Departments have in determining their precise requirements. We must appreciate that this is not in the normal course of these Departments' activities and therefore can pose particular problems. Perhaps in this area there may be room for improvements and I propose to have this aspect of the matter examined.

The BIM development in Dún Laoghaire was referred to by Deputy Andrews. The Office of Public Works were not involved in that. Perhaps the Department of Posts and Telegraphs could give an answer in regard to it. I was asked what our demands for accommodation are. As of now, we are not involved in any negotiations in regard to office space but that does not mean the Office of Public Works will not get requests from Departments in the future. We are not involved at the moment.

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  How much space have the Office in hand at the moment?

Mr. Barrett: Information on Sylvester Barrett  Zoom on Sylvester Barrett  (Clare): In Harcourt Road we have 117,000 square feet. I have not got a figure for the total space.

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  Would the Minister ascertain that and furnish it to me?

Mr. Barrett: Information on Sylvester Barrett  Zoom on Sylvester Barrett  (Clare): I will do that.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 23 June 1982.

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