Sinn Féin Councillor Shane O’Brien said he only learnt that his council owns land at the heart of the proposed Cherrywood development in south County Dublin when he asked at a briefing about a blank area on a large 3D model of the site.
But part of the land slated to become Cherrywood’s town centre is owned by DLR Properties, a company owned by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
Since he learned that, O’Brien has pressed for news on what the council planned to do with that site. “Considering that we could deliver some element of residential, of housing on it,” he says.
Last month, he saw the advert that said DLR Properties is looking to sell the land or swap it for an office building.
He and some other Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown councillors aren’t too happy – either about that plan or that spotting the advert was the first they knew of it.
The move raises questions about the best use of public land, and the role of elected councillors in overseeing it, in cases where property is being managed by arms-length companies, says O’Brien.
Swap or Sale
The 13 acres up for sale sit at the heart of the Cherrywood development and not far from the Brides Glen Luas stop.
Plans for that block foresee a “vibrant mixed-use quarter” with apartments, shops, office space and community uses, according to the advert from QRE Real Estate Advisors.
In exchange for the patch, DLR Properties wants an office building in the Dublin area or some land and money that would let it build an office building itself, the call-out says.
DLR Properties’ Chief Operating Officer Conor Dalton said, by email, that it was looking to get the “best return” on its land, and an asset “that can generate a long-term income stream for the company” and the council.
While the land is owned by the council – through this wholly owned subsidiary – it won’t this time go through the usual sales process, whereby all councillors have to vote and agree the sale.
That’s because councillors already voted to dispose of the land back in 2009 – when they voted to put it under the control of the council-owned DLR Properties, according to a council spokesperson.
At the time, the council didn’t have the skills to manage this land and property, and couldn’t hire extra staff, said a report at the time. It was also able to save VAT by setting up the spin-off entity.
So, DLR Properties was set up to manage the site instead, and to generate “the maximum return” for the council, says the report.
Also, as the company is separate from the council, any subsequent sale wouldn’t need council approval, the report says.
Independent Councillor Michael Merrigan says he is doesn’t think the council has given enough evidence – in the paperwork it has given to councillors – that the land was disposed of through the necessary process, under what is known as Section 183.
“They certainly haven’t provided it,” he says. Instead, to him it reads as if there needed to be another Section 183 process.
The spokesperson for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said the site was disposed of in 2009.
O’Brien says that putting the land under the control of DLR Properties means that elected councillors no longer get a say in how it’s used.
There is already an outline for what should go where under the framework for the larger Cherrywood area. “We would be limited in what we could do,” says O’Brien. But there is space on the council-owned site for up to 280 homes.
“I would contend that that should be used solely for council and affordable housing,” says O’Brien. “[…] versus us only getting 10 percent of those at the end of the development if we were to sell it or swap it.”
Of homes built on the Cherrywood site, 5 percent will be affordable housing, according to the Department of Housing. That’s to compensate for the money that has been put up by the government through the Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund (LIHAF) to fund infrastructure there.
Those affordable units are “likely to be a mix of smaller units across the entire Cherrywood site to maximise benefit”, it says.
In addition to this affordable housing, another 10 percent of homes built at Cherrywood should be social housing, as the law requires in most cases when there are big developments.
But some wonder when that social housing will come, as there hasn’t been a lot of progress yet on construction on site, says Councillor Hugh Lewis, of People Before Profit, whose constituency covers the Cherrywood lands.
“We’ve now no democratic control of when these things can happen because its in private ownership,” he says. “That’s incredibly frustrating.”
Lewis, O’Brien and others put forward a motion at the June meeting of the council to ask council officials to ask not for 10 percent of homes built for social housing, but for 10 percent of the land – which the council could then build on itself, “rather than just wait”, says Lewis.
Merrigan says he thinks the council shouldn’t be in the game of speculating on land at all through DLR Properties. “To me, that’s a conflict of interest,” he said.
For example, some councillors and officials sit on the board of DLR Properties and have a responsibility to maximise the returns to the company, rather than look at what councillors might want done with it, he says.
Denis O’Callaghan, a Labour councillor who was on the council when DLR Properties was set up in 2009, said he supported the idea of the company at the time.
But there is supposed to be a reporting mechanism whereby the company comes back to the council with big moves – and this time, that didn’t happen, says O’Callaghan. “But that’s not acceptable.”
The company issues reports to councillors with updates. Its report from August last year said it had assets of €61.77 million, and had started to pay interest to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on an earlier loan – shelling out €285,000 in 2017, and an expected €572,000 in 2018, it says.
O’Callaghan says the councillors have asked for a full report on the possible land sale at their September meeting – after the summer break. The deadline for expressions of interest is 16 July.
O’Callaghan and others, such as Fianna Fáil Councillor Cormac Devlin, said they would form their opinions about the possible land sale once they had seen that report.