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'If you did this in the private sector you'd be gone' - Head of OPW grilled over State building being measured incorrectly

The Comptroller and Auditor General recently revealed that the wrong rate of rent had been paid on the vacant building.

Updated Oct 11th 2018, 3:11 PM

10 Miesian Plaza, off Baggot Street in Dublin Source: Google Maps

THE CHAIRMAN OF the Office of Public Works has faced tough questioning from the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee over its performance in managing properties to be used by State bodies, in particular Miesian Plaza in Dublin’s south city centre.

Miesian Plaza in central Dublin was earmarked to become the new headquarters for the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs in December 2016.

The building remained vacant 17 months later, at an initially estimated rental cost of €16 million.

Towards the end of this afternoon’s first session, chairman of the OPW Maurice Buckley came in for sustained criticism from Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry, over the level of expertise held by senior figures in the OPW with regard to the procurement and management of State properties by it.

MacSharry, himself a registered auctioneer, in particular zeroed in on the lack of property qualifications held by senior staff at the OPW in the context of the botched measurements of Miesian Plaza.

The recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) into public services accounts detailed that, amongst other things, the floor space in the building had been measured incorrectly, meaning the rate of rent was miscalculated.

13 Marc MacSharry Source: Oireachtas TV

‘No qualification’

“We have no qualification in property qualifications at management level within the Office of Public Works. We know that the eight at the top have no property qualifications,” MacSharry said.

“Someone is responsible for this mistake,” he said of the problem with the building’s measurements. “What disciplinary process is going to follow?”

“I accept an element of responsibility myself,” replied Buckley.

“Nobody is responsible so far,” replied MacSharry.

We’ve established that no one is qualified at the top, and you say it’s a very complex thing, no it’s not, it’s basic bananas maths, only we’re dealing with the public’s money.

Of the mistake that was made, MacSharry said: “One thing is for certain – if it was for (property investment managers) Jones Lang LaSalle, you wouldn’t have made it to the end of that week. You would be gone. People would be identified. But as is the norm here, we take refuge in words like culture, systemic failure, a review – would you stop. It’s an internal review that will give you an outcome with some credibility that says new processes and procedures are in place.”

He asked if the Miesian Place debacle would lead to “a disciplinary process which realises tangible sanctions against an individual or individuals for this basic maths mistake which cost people money and which is not as complex as you have outlined?”.

“This does not merit individual disciplinary action,” Buckley replied.

“Frankly I think that is shocking,” MacSharry replied.

If that was you in your days in the private sector, you would be gone out of business. 

Earlier

Speaking earlier before the committee, Buckley said that he believed that, regardless of the amount of time the building had stood vacant, he believed the taxpayer may have saved as much as €5 million or €6 million due to the rate of rent negotiated at the time of signing being “significantly below market rate”.

7 Maurice Buckley Source: Oireactas TV

The OPW has been accused by one of its former valuers of having a “cultural indifference to the waste of taxpayer’s money”. That same valuer made a disclosure to PAC urging it to investigate the OPW’s management of property in the State.

Regarding the issues surrounding the measurement of floor space at Miesian Plaza, Buckley said that the OPW had not ‘ignored’ advice from the Chief State Solicitors’s Office (CSSO) that the rent on the building might have to be recalibrated due to the floorspace being measured incorrectly.

“I wouldn’t use the word ignored,” he said, under questioning from Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien.

9 Jonathan O'Brien Source: cianan

The issue was raised by several staff, questions were asked and answered but the implications of the change in the measurement process was not captured by that questioning process.

The testy committee meeting saw Buckley come in for sustained criticism from the Oireachtas members present, with Fianna Fáil’s Shane Cassells describing the loss to the State as “nothing but a scandal”.

Regardless, Buckley insisted that the deal for Miesian Plaza was a ‘good’ one.

“This is a very good deal, and I do stand over it. I do regret that it wasn’t possible to conclude the planning of the building, and that cost €4 million, not €11 million, I dispute that,” he said.

The C&AG in its report detailed that the business case expounded for Miesian Plaza being leased did not hold water, as there “was no evidence of detailed consideration of other options”, and no economic appraisal was carried out. Further, “the risks associated with the project were not set out”.

It said that the OPW’s reasons for not recalibrating the measurement of the building when it was brought to its attention that the floor space had been measured incorrectly were ‘not clear’.

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