Back in 2017, Dublin City Council was on the brink of buying a space for a long-promised library in Belmayne, in the north of the city.
But it backed out because of concerns that there might be building defects, according to emails and memos released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Residents have waited 15 years for a public library in that part of the city.
Planning permission granted in 2004 said they’d get one in a ground-floor building at the corner of Belmayne Main Street and Belmayne Avenue.
Thirteen years later, Dublin City Council made moves to buy that premises, which had been developed by Stanley Holdings.
But the council’s law department raised concerns that there might be a pyrite issue, and council officials couldn’t carry out a proper evaluation to make sure that wasn’t the case, the emails and memos show.
“I think a full evidential report should have been produced and the decision validated on that,” says local Labour Party Councillor Alison Gilliland.
That way, “when we do come to question why it was come to be rejected as a proper Dublin City Council community space and library that we can hold our hands up and say this is the evidence why”, she said.
“A Dearth of Information”
Until April 2017, emails suggest that the council had been assured by KRA, a building surveying company, that the premises was structurally sound.
“We carried out a visual inspection within the demise and perimeter walls/elevations and there was no sign of any cracks, bulging wall or heave suggesting pyrite existing,” wrote Michael McCabe of KRA to Dublin City Council’s Leanne Price on 5 April.
But the company also said that the effects of pyrite can take a while to be visible, and suggested more analysis could be done: “If you require, a detail test could be organised to take samples by core holes for analysis,” an email said.
As the acquisition process moved along, though, the council’s law department raised concerns about the possible presence of pyrite.
The query is not within the emails received under the FOI Act, though Price mentions it in an email dated 5 April to KRA: “We have progressed with the acquisition of the subject unit and are now at legals. A query has arisen in relation to pyrite.”
The presence of pyrite in buildings has been an ongoing concern in Belmayne.
Price sought a third-party evaluation of the premises. But that external evaluation never happened, according to the emails.
This, according to emails, was due to the third-party company being unable to carry out the necessary coring of the basement floor of the property to obtain the samples necessary to test for the presence of pyrite.
“You will note on the invoice that they state due to workloads they are not in a position to carry out coring to obtain the samples,” wrote Price, in the valuers section of Dublin City Council, to Patricia Duggan, in the council’s acquisition section on 27 April 2017.
In August 2017, Dublin City Council Senior Structural Engineer Peter Finnegan wrote a report outlining his assessment of the building after a visit.
“[I]t was not possible to determine whether the building was constructed using defective stone fill,” he wrote.
“I cannot assume that it does not due to the prevalence of pyrite in the remainder of the Belmayne estate and the other observable defects.”
These observable defects included cracking in several locations in the basement, which had moisture on the surface. This though, says Finnegan, was unlikely to be resulting from pyrite.
There is “a dearth of information available on a fairly new building, which is not reassuring”, he wrote.
From Belmayne to Cairn
The directors of Kitara Limited were Kevin Stanley, Michael Stanley and Robert Stanley, according to the 2014 annual returns for the company.
The premises has since changed hands, and is now owned by Green Label Property Investment.
These days, Michael Stanley is co-founder and chief executive of Cairn Homes, which is developing 550 homes off the Malahide Road and close to Belmayne, in conjunction with NAMA.
Cairn Homes’ 2018 annual report, entitled “Built to Last”, showed a gross profit of €69.1m, up from €27.1m the previous year, and €7.1m the year before that. The report says community life is important to the company.
“[C]ommunity is what happens in the spaces between and around the new homes we build. We place great emphasis on the importance of cohesive and vibrant communities and this influences our thinking at every level,” it says.
Michael Stanley was contacted yesterday evening via email with queries in relation to the lack of information available on the premises, and whether Cairn Homes has a responsibility to provide the library granted planning permission 15 years ago. He had not responded by the time this was published.
Calling a Halt
In September 2017, Margaret Hayes, head of library services with Dublin City Council, decided not to go ahead with the library there.
“In light of reports received and in consideration of the broader Public Library Capital Programme, we no longer feel that the Belmayne property provides us with an optimum solution to the provision of library services to the communities of Belmayne/Clongriffin,” she wrote to Patricia Duggan in a 5 September 2017 email.
Says Gilliland, the Labour councillor: “It seems a lax approach to dealing with a major piece of community space.”
“I’m very disappointed that they didn’t seek somebody else to do [another evaluation], given the opportunity that the building presented to make a real community gain for Belmayne,” she said, “and also the fact that it’s in our plans that that area would have a library.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said the council “is currently developing a masterplan for the Belmayne and Belcamp area”.
The masterplan includes a library “in a new pavilion building on the Malahide Road”, they said.
It’s also part of the council’s Clongriffin-Belmayne Local Area Plan to draw up a masterplan for Belmayne town centre and Belcamp Lane, they said.
New Planning Authority Powers?
Building regulations expert Deirdre Ní Fhlionn says that planning permission is often granted thanks to the public-gain projects, in other words creches, schools, community centres that are tacked on.
“It puts a real wind in their sails in getting the permission that they want for their commercial and residential units that they’re then going to sell and make money from,” says Ní Fhlionn.
It’s unsatisfactory that the private sector can fall down on all of that and someone else can come in and focus on the most profitable elements, says Ní Fhlionn, who is also a Green Party councillor on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
In April this year, Dublin City Council granted permission to the owner of the building to change the use of the ground floor from a library to four apartments.
“The community loses twice,” says Ní Fhlionn. “They lose by the delay and they lose by not getting it at all, and the lands [value] was enhanced at the time by the granting of that permission.”
To tackle this, Ní Fhlionn says there are possible solutions. “You could tie it into the sequencing of the development,” she says. So “you couldn’t sell a unit until you finished the library, for example”.
Gilliland sees a similar role for the planning authority, suggesting that developers working near unfinished estates “finish off the old one as part of the new one”.
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 6 August at 14.30 to include some more information from one of the emails about the suggestion of further analysis.]