The P-Word: I Didn't Use It, Says Council Chief Owen Keegan

Dublin City Council’s chief executive, Owen Keegan, launched Monday’s monthly council meeting with a statement about a report that said he had threatened to privatise the council’s street-cleaning services.

“I made no such statement,” Keegan told councillors, specifically referring to an article headlined “Dublin street cleaning and maintenance may be privatised”, which appeared in the Irish Times on 8 June.

If Keegan thought that would snuff out councillors’ concerns, though, it hasn’t.

Sinn Féin councillor Daithí Doolan said on Tuesday that he hadn’t been reassured by Keegan’s words. Keegan didn’t say outright that there was no threat of privatisation, said Doolan.

Doolan had put forward an emergency motion on the issue, but instead of taking the emergency motion, Keegan decided to make his statement.

That meant that councillors couldn’t question Keegan, tease out exactly what he meant, and clear up any miscommunication.

A War of Words

At the heart of the dispute between councillors and council management is the future use of a site on Marrowbone Lane in the Liberties.

In meetings that decide what goes into the next Dublin City Development Plan, councillors voted to rezone the site as open space, which could be used for sports and recreational use. This came about as a result of a campaign by locals for more sports facilities in the area.

Keegan advised councillors not to rezone the land, because he wants to use the site to consolidate the city’s street cleaning depots.

Last Wednesday, the Irish Times reported that street cleaning, road and housing-maintenance jobs within the council were at risk, because Keegan had said the jobs would have to be outsourced if a “super depot” could not be built on the site.

(We reached out to Olivia Kelly, who wrote the Irish Times report, for a response to Keegan’s comments about her article, but an out-of-office reply says she is unavailable until next month.)

Keegan said the report was based on a memo sent to councillors before one of the rounds of development-plan meetings. (The Irish Times article mentions the memo.) But in the memo, there is no direct statement that services may be privatised or jobs outsourced.

The chief executive does, though, ask councillors to keep in mind that rezoning the site might jeopardise Dublin City Council’s “direct labour service provision”, which requires the council employ staff directly wherever it can.

Exactly what Keegan meant by that is unclear.

Backlash

After the Irish Times article came out, workers, councillors, and unions all lined up to criticise the whiff of privatisation. Other media outlets also followed the to and fro.

Last week, some councillors said they were surprised by the reports, and so were council employees. Unions IMPACT and SIPTU both released statements, calling Keegan’s suggestions that street cleaning services might be outsourced “nonsense” and “ludicrous”.

They both said they would fight any attempt at privatisation.

IMPACT, which represents the street-cleaning, road and housing-maintenance staff, also sent a letter to councillors, signed by its industrial relations officer, Shane Lambert.

“It is completely unacceptable to threaten privatisation as a response to the decision by democratically elected city councillors,” it said. It also thanked some councillors for their objections to the suggestion of privatisation.

A spokesperson from Dublin City Council’s press office repeated, with more force, what Keegan had said.

“The Chief Executive has made no reference to a ‘super’ depot at Marrowbone Lane or to the privatisation of the street cleansing service,” she said.

“He has referred to plans to re-develop/consolidate the existing City Council depot at Marrowbone Lane. This reference was in a memo he sent to Councillors on 30 May 2016,” she continued. “The reasons for the redevelopment/consolidation of the depot are set out in the memo. The issue of privatising street cleansing was not raised at any stage by the Chief Executive.”

It is unclear whether Keegan’s memo was meant to convey a veiled warning to urge councillors to take his advice, or whether that was just a slip of the pen. But it would appear that his attempt to address the disquiet on Monday night didn’t work.

Do We Need a “Consolidated Depot”?

In Keegan’s memo to councillors on 30 May, he set out the case for a consolidated depot on the Marrowbone Lane site.

The council has done a review of the city’s depots and made recommendations that it says would improve efficiency, deliver cost savings, and provide nicer working conditions for staff and better services, it said.

Among the recommendations mentioned in the memo are: a major new depot in Ballymun to serve north Dublin, and the consolidation of the depot on Marrowbone Lane to serve the south of the city. It also recommended closing a large number of other depots, which could free up land for other uses.

You might have thought this grand plan would have come up before, at the council’s environment committee, which deals with issues like waste management.

Chair of the environment committee, Fine Gael councillor Naoise O’Muirí, said he was unsure if the issue of consolidating the depot and creating a major new one in Ballymun had been mentioned before by Keegan.

But O’Muirí said be sure it’s never been formally discussed. “We’ve never had a detailed presentation on it. Certainly, there’s never been any detailed discussion on it,” he said.

It isn’t mentioned in the council’s current Litter Management Plan, either.

O’Muirí says there could be logic to consolidating depots, but as nothing has been presented to councillors, he’s not sure. He’d like to see the reasoning.

“Management has not presented any proposals, nor arranged discussions with us, on the possible consolidation of depot facilities,” he says.

As for privatisation, he thinks the street-cleaning service works well as it is and so he doesn’t see any need to outsource it. “They are two different issues though,” he says. “The super depot is about consolidating Dublin City Council’s existing services and is a completely different fish to privatising a service.”

The council press office didn’t respond to queries asking when Keegan first proposed this consolidated depot and why councillors haven’t been briefed about it.

Room for Compromise?

Keegan did put forward a compromise in the memo: half the site could be zoned for use as open space.

The consolidated depot on Marrowbone Lane would take up 45 percent of the space that the current depot does, he said, and the rest of the site could be used for recreational facilities and social housing.

That would include a new seven-a-side pitch and a new four-a-side pitch, he said. JJ O’Mahony from Sporting Liberties says that’s not enough, though.

“We need a place where you can have supervised, organised, competitive sports and that’s the only way you’ll help develop the children and let them get the benefit and the discipline that sport offers,” he says.

Sporting Liberties told council management this when they met on the issue, says O’Mahony.

The campaign group is willing to compromise, though, said O’Mahony. One possible solution could be some creative planning that would allow a full-sized pitch and the consolidated depot to coexist.

Keegan’s memo said the council has hired a consulting engineer to do a feasibility study to see if a full-sized pitch on top of the proposed depot would be possible, but it wasn’t ready when councillors were due to vote on the site’s zoning.

The memo also said the council is looking at other sites that could accommodate a full-sized pitch. IMPACT’s Shane Lambert said the union believes there are alternative sites that could be used for the depot, rather than the sports facilities.

There’s logic to having a consolidated depot, says Labour Party councillor for the area Rebecca Moynihan. But she believes Keegan has a number of options for the location of this depot, including a site in Drimnagh.

“I think the overall issue is the lack of sporting facilities in the inner-city. The manager has never made any realistic proposals in relation to those,” she says. “I think before he starts threatening people, he needs to look at what land is available and make realistic proposals in relation to the provision of sporting facilities.”

She says they need more than one site – as does O’Mahony at Sporting Liberties. The group is pushing for sports facilities on Donore Avenue, as well as on the Marrowbone Lane site, he said.

“We’ve ten schools with 2,500 kids without a blade of grass between them. These sites are right in the middle of them,” says O’Mahony.

Dublin City Council’s press office did not respond to questions about whether another site could be considered for the consolidated depot.

Cleaning and Kids

Even if Sporting Liberties is successful in getting its two sports clusters, the neighbourhood would still have fewer sports facilities than others, said O’Mahony.

Those behind the Sporting Liberties campaign argues that the Liberties has taken its fair share of homeless shelters, drug clinics and housing and that the council’s bad planning has contributed to social issues in the area.

“What’s more important,” he asks, “alternative arrangements for our street cleaning or facilities for our children that have been denied them for so many years?”

O’Mahony says that it’s been roughly a year and a half since the group first pushed for the Marrowbone Lane site to become a sports facility and plans for the changes to the depot only surfaced a couple of months ago.

When council management then offered the compromise of two small pitches, it was too late. Councillors went ahead and voted in favour of rezoning the whole site so that sports facilities could be developed across it.

Keegan’s memo says this vote won’t result in a full-sized pitch for the area but will simply mean that the depot won’t conform with its zoning until a new site for a consolidated dept is found, which “could take a very considerable amount of time”.

Author:

Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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