A portion of the appointments diary of Land Development Agency (LDA) Chief Executive John Coleman offers a snapshot of who he has been meeting with, as he works to get the new public body off the ground.
Over three and a half months, the vast majority of the scheduled appointments in Coleman’s diary were either internal meetings with other LDA officials or board members, or meetings with government officials in other departments or semi-states.
Meanwhile, nine meetings listed were with either private developers, or those involved in bodies representing the property industry.
Six meetings or calls were with architects. Three meetings were with an approved housing body or bodies – and there was a visit to step-down housing in Skerries listed too.
At the moment, no officials at the Land Development Agency are classed as “designated public officials” so do not fall under the Regulation of Lobbying Act. That means that meetings that might otherwise qualify don’t have to be logged on the online public register, which would include some information about the people involved and subjects discussed.
The government has proposed that the Land Development Agency Bill 2019 – which would, once passed, underpin how the body operates going forward and is now under consideration in the Oireachtas – would limit what LDA records would fall under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
During Oireachtas committee hearings recently, speakers voiced concerns about the idea that the LDA may be further shielded from the FOI Act, and that it would continue to be outside the Lobbying Act.
Said Rob Kitchin, a geography professor at NUI Maynooth: “The public should have the right to know what work is being undertaken supposedly for their benefit.”
Meetings and Diaries
In September 2018, the government launched the LDA to manage state lands to develop new homes, and assemble plots of land to try to stabilise land values.
In “its start-up phase”, the LDA has been trying to balance building a new government agency from scratch, and working as quickly as possible to get homes built as fast as possible, said Coleman, at a 2 October hearing before an Oireachtas joint committee.
It’s done feasibility work on the first eight sites in its portfolio and will be moving three ahead to planning soon, he told TDs and senators.
The diary entries released under FOI span just a portion of the time since the LDA was set up – between 13 March, when the agency came under the FOI Act and 1 July, when the request was filed.
An FOI request for the diary of LDA Chairman John Moran, was refused on the grounds that he doesn’t keep an LDA-specific diary, but “one diary for all his appoints [sic] both personal and work-related”. Moran has offered to meet to discuss his “role and priorities” for the LDA.
In Coleman’s diary, talks and conferences listed include The Vienna Model housing series on cost-rental homes, a Dublin City Council affordable-housing conference, a “Future of Property conference”, and the Cohousing Here! conference.
There are also meetings listed with some of the property industry’s biggest hitters.
There’s one meeting with David Duffy, the director of Property Industry Ireland, and one meeting with Kevin Nowlan, the CEO of Hibernia REIT.
There’s another meeting with Michael Stanley, CEO of Cairn Homes, and two meetings listed with Hines’ Director of Development Tom Faulkner and Senior Director Brian Moran.
There’s one meeting with Justin Bickle, the head at the time of Glenveagh Properties, and one site visit with Davy Real Estate, the diary entries say. There were two appointments listed with the Construction Industry Federation, too.
During those three and a half months, there were also three meetings or calls with David Browne of RKD Architects, who is also head of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI). There were two entries for the approved housing body Respond.
What Was Discussed
An FOI request submitted in August seeking minutes and correspondence for several of the meetings is currently with the Office of the Information Commissioner.
The LDA has sought to charge search and retrieval fees of €140 to cover its work, an appeal for which is pending with the OIC.
So it’s unclear exactly what many of these meetings were about. Most of those bodies or individuals haven’t yet replied to queries sent Friday. Some sent broad answers.
A spokesperson for Hibernia REIT said: “The meeting was to gain an understanding of how the LDA is going to work and what its mandate is. No further meetings have been held.”
A spokesperson for Cairn Homes said: “Cairn Homes met the Land Development Agency to discuss the home building industry and housing supply.”
A spokesperson for Hines did, though, offer many more details of what Moran and Faulkner discussed with Coleman.
They mainly focused on “Hines’ experience in Cherrywood leading one of the largest land development projects undertaken in the state to date”, said the spokesperson.
Cherrywood is a large area in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area, a designated strategic development zone where there are plans for roughly 8,700 homes.
“It is our understanding that the Land Development Agency plans to replicate the type of work undertaken by Hines in due course,” he said.
Hines brought the LDA “up to speed” on the public-consultation process during design, permitting and construction stages, he said.
Also, the “requirement and challenges” of fostering collaboration and coordination between 10 different land owners and the local authority, “without which the land development process would fail”, he said.
Another discussion point was “the very complex process of raising debt to fund major infrastructural works well in advance of actual development taking place”, said the Hines spokesperson.
Finally, they talked about Hines’ experience in other countries where similar agencies to the LDA have been up and running for decades, he said.
There aren’t records of any other meetings on file, said the spokesperson.
Hines did also, though, email the LDA once the heads of the bill were published to say that it was important that the LDA “had sufficient rights and a budget to carry out detailed studies on sites used by major state agencies – where they might claim they needed them for operational purposes”, they said.
A study by LDA experts “may be able to find solutions that would determine what land was needed for operational purposes and what land could be used for housing development”, the Hines spokesperson said.
Two people at the PR consultancy Gordon MRM handle queries for Glenveagh Properties, one of whom is also a spokesperson for the LDA. Neither had responded by the time this was published to a query sent to them about the meeting between the LDA and Glenveagh.
Asked about the arrangement whereby the LDA and Glenveagh share a spokesperson, the LDA spokesperson said: “The LDA requires all external service providers to manage any conflicts of interest in an appropriate manner.”
Asked the same question, the same spokesperson, responding now on behalf of the PR consultancy Gordon MRM itself, said: “Gordon MRM does not comment on individual clients. Professional service firms often work with different clients operating in the same broad sectors and have processes and procedures in place to manage such situations.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the approved housing body Respond said that the meeting between its CEO, Declan Dunne, and Coleman was about the LDA’s emerging role, and Respond’s role as a social-housing provider in Ireland.
Also, about “measures that would enable Approved Housing Bodies, such as Respond, to build at a greater scale to help address the housing and homeless crisis”, they said.
They’ve had ongoing discussions and engagement on the delivery of social and affordable homes since then, they said.
A spokesperson for the Housing Alliance, a coalition of the biggest AHBs, said they were in the diary because they hosted Coleman at a political briefing event on 8 May.
They talked about the need for a time-lined plan to move AHBs “off balance sheet”, new affordable rental and cost-rental models, and removing barriers preventing the delivery of homes by AHBs, said a spokesperson.
A spokesperson for the LDA said that the agency is “fully committed to transparency in carrying out its functions on behalf of the State”.
“It is accountable to the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee and has appeared before the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government,” said the spokesperson, in August this year.
“It is subject to audit by the Comptroller & Auditor General and falls within the remit of the Freedom of Information Act,” he said.
“It would be inappropriate for the LDA to comment on a matter of Government policy, such as the application of the Lobbying Act,” he said.
TDs and senators on the Oireachtas Joint Committee for Housing, Planning and Local Government have since early October been scrutinising the general scheme of the Land Development Agency Bill 2019.
The LDA was created in September 2018 on an interim basis, but the government hasn’t yet passed primary legislation to underpin it. Lawmakers are currently scrutinising the broad outline of that legislation.
During Oireachtas committee hearings, several speakers have voiced concerns that there would, if the planned legislation were to pass with no changes, be more stringent restrictions on access to records under FOI.
“Freedom of information is essential for ensuring public confidence, transparency and accountability, said Orla Hegarty, assistant professor at UCD’s School of Architecture, on 15 October.
Also, the activities of all LDA personnel should come under the statutory lobbying register, she said, given “the risks of corruption and the significant sums in land transactions and development contracts”.
The LDA should be able to answer FOI requests, with commercial sensitivity assessed on a case-by-case basis, said Kitchin, the Maynooth geography professor.
At an earlier hearing, Maria Graham, assistant secretary at the Department of Housing, said that because some of the LDA’s functions are commercial, those activities would be excluded from FOI.
But “the LDA’s non-economic public functions and the general administration of the LDA will be covered by FOI”, she said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said, by email, that the approach that the department is looking at as it sets up the LDA under primary legislation is consistent with other commercial state agencies, and even offers more oversight.
For example, its annual accounts would be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, they said. “This will provide an additional layer of accountability in relation to the LDA’s operations in the public interest.”
“The Department will consider the recommendations in the Pre-legislative Scrutiny Report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee in relation to this and other matters prior to finalising the LDA Bill,” they said.
[This article was updated at 12pm on 23 October to include responses that were sent by Gordon MRM and the LDA earlier in the morning. It was further updated to reflect that John Moran has offered to meet.]
[This article was updated at 15:06 on 23 October to reflect that there are two spokespeople who handle queries for Glenveagh, and not to conflate them.]