Councillors Question Need to Sell Land to Fund Culture and Recreation Projects

Last month, the council’s chief executive, Owen Keegan, told councillors that if they wanted to fund all the culture and recreation projects in the city’s capital programme, they’d need to sell some land.

Some said they’d like to see a list of what projects, exactly, would be tied to which land sales, specifically.

At January’s monthly meeting, Keegan obliged – with a list of roughly 15 sites or bundles of sites, worth an estimated €91.5 million. (The list isn’t definitive and may be added to, the report notes.)

The projects to be funded, or part-funded this way, range from long-promised community centres such as the Rutland Street School, to parks, to artists’ workshops, to flagship endeavours such as the proposed redevelopments of the Dalymount Park stadium and Kilmainham Mill. (That part of the list may change too, the report says.)

It didn’t go down well. Councillors from across parties rejected Keegan’s report, with its lists of sites and projects. Many of them said that selling land did not seem a sustainable funding stream, and sought other options.

Nevertheless, Keegan said he would come back to councillors with the sites, one by one, with more detail – as is the usual process for selling off land. Ultimately, it’ll be councillors’ responsibility to decide whether to sell them, he said.

“I’d love if there was another easy way to resolve this,” he said. But he said at the meeting that he thinks that, in the end, councillors will approve the majority of the sales, as he believes he can make convincing cases for doing so.

The Rationales

Among the sites listed for possible disposal are three plots at St Martin’s Row in Chapelizod, at Dolphin’s Barn and South Circular Road, and near the corner of Thomas Street and Bridgefoot Street.

Justifying their proposed sale, Keegan’s report mentions either a “high concentration of social housing nearby” or that it is already planning to build social housing nearby. That means the sites aren’t suitable for social housing, the report says.

Some councillors said they wanted to see the metric by which officials had decided there was too much social housing in an area, arguing that the city needs much more social housing.

“How is this determined, that there’s an overconcentration, and who determines that?” said Sinn Féin Councillor Chris Andrews. “It seems very random.”

It looks to him as if it’s an argument used when it suits council officials, and brushed aside when it doesn’t, he said.

Some housing experts have criticised the narrative that large social-housing estates are a problem, and the stigma this creates. Instead, they argue that it was deindustrialisation and unemployment, rather than a type of housing, that left some communities struggling in decades past. Social housing should be accessible to those on a broader range of incomes, some argue too.

Currently, there aren’t any metrics or formal mechanisms in place to define an over-concentration of social housing, a council spokesperson said by email on Tuesday. “There are many different and diverse views on this issue. ”

“A significant part of the constant opposition that we get from local communities is around their take on the concentration of social housing already in their area,” they said.

It’s an issue that will be debated at the council’s housing committee in the coming months, they said.

Other sites on the list – such as a plot next to the planned Decathlon in Ballymun, and a recycling facility in an industrial estate in Ballymount – aren’t suitable for housing, as they’re zoned for industrial or high technology, the report says. One site for a school could be sold to the Department of Education, said Keegan.

Others still, the report suggests, could be marketed for affordable housing or sold to approved housing bodies for use as social or affordable housing. Like some of the depot sites.

Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne asked whether the council-owned depot sites mentioned would be sold at market rates, rather than the usual nominal sum that the council charges not-for-profit housing bodies for land.

“Are you suggesting, manager, that we can sell to an approved housing body at the market rate and then that approved housing body can actually deliver public housing on that site?” he said. “If so, there’s a magician at work here.”

Other Funding?

Most council housing projects are funded 100 percent by the state, said Keegan at the meeting. Most transport and engineering projects can be funded through development levies and grants.

But “there is a difficulty with the cultural and recreation and amenity that the grants and what’s available from levies is insufficient”, he said. They haven’t managed to get grants for these projects.

Several councillors said the proposal for the land sales are a symptom of a lack of adequate funding for culture and recreation for local authorities.

Gary Gannon, of the Social Democrats, said it seems an extraordinarily unsustainable way to fund the city’s development. “What happens when there’s nothing left to sell? Do we simply stop the sport, do we stop the culture, do we stop the recreation in the city?”

Said Daithí Doolan of Sinn Féin: “I think this report clearly shows how desperate the situation is for Dublin City Council. We’re starved of central funding.”

“We need our local authorities to be more appropriately funded,” said Alison Gilliland of Labour, who proposed an amendment to the report, seeking that each site undergo a detailed independent assessment by somebody outside the council, looking at monetary benefit versus any economic or social benefit forgone.

Councillors are really conscious that land is the most valuable asset and want to make sure decisions are based on evidence, Gilliland said. (The report was rejected, so the amendment wasn’t passed.)

Neasa Hourigan of the Green Party said that many councillors don’t support selling off council land as a strategy for funding city projects.

During the budget process, Green Party councillors suggested working with their party colleagues at the national level to urgently bring in a tourism tax, she said – and they should do that. That’s usually a small charge paid by tourists to help fund city services.

“I urge you to withdraw and rethink,” she said, to the city manager.

Several councillors voiced support for the idea of a tourism tax, or hotel bed tax. As many have over the years. It’s back on the agenda of the finance committee to look at during this council term, too.

“History will cast a cold light on councillors here, selling off this land,” said Danny Byrne, a Fine Gael councillor. “A tourism tax is quite normal.”

Fianna Fáil’s Mary Fitzpatrick said that the council needs to demand from national government that the Local Property Tax that is raised in the city is spent here. “Before we talk about introducing any more taxes.”

Said Keegan: “As long as I’ve been in this council, there’s been proposals for a bedroom tax, or a tourism tax. We’d be very supportive of that.”

“But in all the years since I joined this council in 1993, it’s never been delivered,” he said. “I don’t have the power to deliver that.” That would take legislation from the central government.

“If we wait around for a bedroom tax or a hotel tax or for higher … then the projects will just fail,” he said, later in the meeting.

Councillor Anne Feeney, of Fine Gael, too said she disagrees with selling off sites. What about borrowing from the European Investment Bank (EIB), which has said it’s open to funding community and cultural facilities?

She’s raised this idea in the past, she said. “But I would now like to see it, active engagement in relation to it.”

Keegan said – as it says in the capital programme report – that the council is already looking to borrow from the EIB for some projects – including big-ticket items such as the planned library at Parnell Square.

But there’s a limit to how much the council can borrow, Keegan said. “The problem with borrowing is, it’s fine, we can raise the money, but we have to repay it.”

An election brings change in national policy, said Fianna Fáil Councillor Paul McAuliffe, who is the city’s current lord mayor. “I don’t believe we should be engaged in commencing any sales process until we know where that is.”

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at lois@dublininquirer.com.

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