21 Apr 2009

I’ve written quite a bit in the past about the Ballymun Regeneration Project which, when the Public Accounts Committee held hearings two years ago into the ball of chaos it had become, was running a HALF BILLION EUROS over budget and six years behind schedule (god knows what the situation is now). What happened at the hearings was that FF’s John Curran got proceedings under way by asking The Tough Questions (‘What the hell happened to the half bill?), but his colleagues on the committee (mysteriously) diffused any heat he’d managed to generate by subsequently tossing softballs across the room to relieved senior civil servants and assorted chairs of assorted committees. The hearing fizzled out in that way that only senior bureaucrats can make things fizzle out. And the media had nothing to say about it. 

That everyone (Curran excepted) was expecting the matter to disappear became apparent several months later when a committee bureaucrat – obviously mistaking me for someone else – replied to an email I’d sent to him by suggesting that the committee’s final report on the investigation when published (which I can’t say whether it ever has or not) would not be critical of the whole affair.

Now, there were at least a hundred questions which the bureaucrats in attendance at those committee hearings two years ago should have been pressed for answers on, none of which were posed. So I decided to jot down the fourteen most obvious questions which those running the regeneration project should have been expected to answer and, with the assistance of the Fine Gael spokesman on housing, Terence Flanagan, made a formal submission to the committee.  These are the fourteen questions I submitted (you’ll see here and there that they refer back to an earlier report by the Comptroller + Auditor General, but I think the thrust of what I was getting is fairly obvious):

Questions on Report 61 regarding cost overruns on the Ballymun Regeneration Project.

1. The report figures are very misleading in that they don’t take account of the fact that the number of local authority houses to be provided as part of the Regeneration project was reduced by 532 (Section 2.13) from 1999 levels. Had these houses been built as planned, wouldn’t this have added a further €120m to the overall cost of the project (based on a unit cost of €222,000.00 per house)? Wouldn’t this revised figure represent a more accurate account of the actual project overrun?

2. Were consultants’ design fees and planning application fees paid out on these 532 unbuilt units? Is so, how much?

3. Section 2.15 states that the amounts tendered on seven different contracts awarded in the Renewal project increased by an average of 18%. Of the seven contracts reviewed, what was the highest percentage increase? What percentage of the increases were paid as a result of claims from contractors (in which case, were interest payments made)? And what percentage from variations on the contract?

4. The report suggests that some of the contract overruns were related to Ballymun not being a ‘greenfield site’. Development of local authority houses on non greenfield sites is quite common and procedures are in place to ensure that non standard conditions are included in cost estimates – in what way did circumstances differ in Ballymun so that the non standard conditions failed to be included in the estimate?

5. Is the correct reading of Section 2.20 that DCC changes to requirements for the way surface water attenuation is handled led to a €50m increase in overall project costs? How is this figure arrived at?

6. In various parts of the report, cost overruns are attributed to ‘lack of mapping services’. What does this specifically mean? Considering that mapping should be a relatively easy procedure to carry out, how much did it actually contribute to the increased cost of the project?

7. The 1999 estimate for the Regeneration project included a figure of €24m for Civic and Community Projects. Resulting mainly from an increase and expansion of the facilities to be provided (including a €63m Community Centre), this figure has risen to almost €150m. Given that they did not form part of the original scope of the project, how did the need for these new facilities emerge? What procedures were used to commission, procure and approve these new facilities? At €63m, the new Community Centre is a public sector project on a massive scale: how was the programme for this element developed and approved?  

8. How much money was invested in Ballymun Business and Technology Park Development Ltd. to establish a Business Park near the M50 before the venture was abandoned? Where does this amount appear in the report’s statistics?

9. In Section 3.3 of the report, it is stated that a joint venture was entered into with a property developer to develop various areas within the Regeneration zone. This joint venture was wound up. What monies, if any, were paid to the property developer as part of the arrangement? Where do they show up in the report’s accounts?

10. In Section 3.8 a number of instances are cited where parcels of land were sold on to the private sector without following standard tendering procedures. What procedures did the BLR and DCC use to establish fair market price? Were procedures followed to ensure transparency in these transactions, etc.?

11. Regarding the reference in Section 3.14, what effect is the downturn in the property market expected to have on the €335m the BRL hoped it could ‘clawback’ from sale of lands? Will the downturn in the market mean that the govt. will be expected to contribute substantially more to the cost of the project than the Auditor’s report suggests?  

12. At what point was it discovered that the original estimate did not include the €100m required for administration and salaries? Was formal approval sought to free up this €100m? Does the figure appear in govt. estimates? Who was the money paid to – DCC, BRL or other agencies (eg. Rapid, or local community groups)? Was it paid all in one go? Or over a period of time? What back up was submitted to justify payments? How many people have been employed in the provision of administrative services on the project?

13. In Section 4.13 it is stated that a substantial amount of the private accommodation developed so far as part of the project is being let. To what degree is this affecting the desired social mix?

14. Section 2.6 states that ‘there is a risk that the remainder of the programme could be further delayed beyond the target date of 2012 for similar reasons (as those which caused the delays to date) or as a result of new issues’. What mechanisms are in place to make sure that delays of the type experienced so far can be avoided as the project progresses?

Well more than a year after my questions were submitted via Deputy Flanagan’s office, I finally received a response: apparently, due to the ‘late stage’ (!) we now find ourselves in proceedings, the committee has decided to do ignore the issues raised and, in any event, feels that some of the questions have already been answered satisfactorily (not true). 

Meanwhile, the bottom has fallen out of the property market so, referring back to question 11, how much of the €335 million the BLR believed it could claw back form the sale of houses has actually been realised?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 3:30:02 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)

God what a murky web of opaqueness. A variation on the theme of the questions hanging over the Docklands Development debacle but, this time, apparently with added systems failure with so many organisations involved seemingly without reference to each other and commissioning what may well be ill-conceived activities and expenses in mysterious and unaccountable ways. This type of undertaking should only be a job for...visionary, democratically-elected, above reproach,buck-stops-here, bang-heads-together, take-no-s**t from anyone, Regional Mayor!

And what a plodding and perfunctory effort to answer your questions! Not nearly good enough. There’s a series of very iffy smelling and irregular shapes lurking under the carpet on this one. Time to sweep them out into the open air with the burden of proof firmly on those who signed off on the contentious decisions - the Directors of Ballymun Regeneration Ltd and the politicians/Civil Servants.

Seriously well done on your efforts to date on cutting through the nonsense. And to Terence Flanagan (especially as I think he represents an adjoining constituency which might expect to “benefit” from the development if a “say nothing’” attitude was taken to any rank mismanagement). Now that they’ve seemingly dismissed your requests for clarification, can this affair be brought further onto the public stage with someone like Primetime making the running – with yourself as investigative reporter-in-chief? Let some of those responsible defend themselves against any questions of irregularity or impropriety. After PortraitGate it’d be nice of RTE to earn their keep without kow-towing by default to the powers-that-be.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 8:11:34 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Prime Time should be digging around Ballymun. And the DDDA. In fact, there's a whole series to be made about the DDDA.
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