16 May 2008

Next time I’m put in charge of a public project which is running six years late and €500 million over budget remind me to do it in Ireland because, here, nobody cares.

 

What I’m talking about is the now ten year old project to completely rebuild Ballymun which, according to 1999 figures, was supposed to cost €450m +/- but by today’s estimate will actually end up costing more than €950m. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report into the enormity of the overspend was the subject of a Dáil Public Accounts Committee hearing last week. So I hoofed it to Leinster House to see how things would unfold.    

 

Fianna Fail’s Tom Curran got the ball rolling with an appropriate sense of urgency as he pressed Department officials for explanations as to what went wrong (apparently, in a project which was all about population relocation, nobody had foreseen the complicated logistical implications…). But despite his best efforts, the bureaucrats’ capacity to eat up time in ‘thanking’ the deputy for his question and ‘welcoming’ the opportunity to address the important issues he had raised meant that Deputy Curran’s turn was up too soon.

 

However, he had set things up nicely for his Committee colleagues to do what was inevitable, i.e., ask those really big and obvious questions The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report had prompted. Like:

 

  • Had anyone any idea at any stage in proceedings that the project was so over budget and so over schedule?

  • Which of the various Ministers for the Environment who’d served in the office since the project began were informed of what was happening? Were any of these Ministers available to tell the Committee how they’d reacted?

 

  • Given that a (very substantial) 532 dwellings had been axed from the original 1998 plan, shouldn’t the cost of building these houses (€120m?) somehow be accounted for in the final tally?

 

  • With contracts handed out to house builders running over the originally agreed amounts by a troubling 18% on average, which contract had overrun the most and why?


But, strangely, ten minutes into the next Committee member’s Q+A, neither these nor any other truly relevant question regarding the disappearance of a half billion euros was raised. The sense of urgency dissipated. The bureaucrats gasped visible sighs of relief as Committee members tossed one softball after another in their direction. Before we knew it, the time was up. The investigation was over. We had learned nothing.

 

Nobody could rightfully question the value of the Ballymun Regeneration project. After years of living in massive concrete tombstones, who would begrudge the people of Ballymun the right to raise their families in the pleasant and dignified environments the rest of us demand? But I’m sure the people of Ballymun themselves are more concerned than most about how carefully money is being spent on their project. I imagine many of them may be wondering why, instead of waiting in the joyful hope of the coming of IKEA to provide much needed jobs, the vanished half billion could not have been used to place a robust public facility – a hospital or perhaps even a government department – in the heart of their community?

But the moment has passed, the opportunity lost. The project will continue to trundle forward in its wasteful, undisciplined way and this little article will be the last time anyone will raise their hand to question why.

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