Adjournment Matters

Garda Station Closures

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris.

I also welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his appointment to his post. It was one of the better decisions made by the Taoiseach.

It is good to see a young person being elevated to such a high office.

That is good for young people involved in politics. I say, "Well done," to the Minister of State.

On the issue at hand, namely, rural Garda stations that have been closed, some of which have been sold and others that are in limbo, the closure of some of the stations was announced on budget day a couple of years ago. The Department of Justice and Equality sneaked it in at a time when far more controversial measures were being taken, such as cuts to respite care grants - the Minister of State had some difficulty with the cuts - and cuts to child benefit. At the time the argument was made by local communities and gardaí that it would cost as much to close the stations as to keep them open. I do not know if the case has been proved, but I would like to hear the cost of insurance and maintenance of those Garda stations that are now closed and what the plans are for them. I understand some Garda stations have achieved good prices on the open market, but that is dependent on their location and condition.

I spoke to some departmental officials about community and voluntary groups taking ownership or a temporary lease on Garda stations for use as youth facilities or for the elderly. Many towns with Garda stations that are now closed lack community halls, for example. The Minister of State who is from County Wicklow will be aware of the situation. Communities always seem to be raising money to build a new community hall or other facility. I hope the Department and the Office of Public Works could work together on the matter and that if decent plans are put in place by local communities, they would be considered before the sale of such premises.

The Garda station in my town was closed. It is adjacent to the soccer pitch, which is maintained to a high standard by the recently reformed soccer club. The problem is that the club has no changing facilities or dressing rooms. Players get changed in their cars and that is not ideal in the winter when the weather can be wet and cold. The response the club received from the Department is that consideration has been given to the proposal but it is not considered feasible. The recently reformed soccer club involves a good bunch of young lads like the Minister of State and I who want to keep themselves occupied during the winter. In fairness, they just want a premises to bring them in from the cold and rain. They do not need spectacular showering facilities or top of the range dressing rooms; they just want a warm, dry place during the winter. Would the Minister of State consider offering the building to a club, such as my local football club, on a temporary basis if the cost to the Department would be the same to maintain it? I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for his kind words on my appointment which I very much appreciate. I also appreciate the opportunity afforded by the Adjournment matter raised by him for me to update Seanad Éireann on closed Garda stations and what has happened to date and to respond to the question of the cost of maintaining such premises.

In relation to the State's property assets, the Government is committed to reforming property asset management in the public service to ensure value to the taxpayer. The Commissioners of Public Works manage a large and diverse portfolio of property assets, including historic properties, on behalf of the State. The authority to dispose of State property is conferred on the commissioners by section 10 of the State Property Act 1954.

The stated policy on closed Garda stations is to identify if other State bodies, including Departments and the wider public sector, have a use for the property. If no State requirement is identified, the OPW will consider disposing of the property on the open market, in order to generate much needed revenue for the Exchequer. At a time when we are trying to reduce the rental bill for the State, the first port of call is to see if the closed Garda station could be used for an existing State need, as outlined. If such is not found, the option to dispose of the premises on the open market is considered in order to generate revenue. If a decision is taken not to dispose of a particular property, the OPW will consider community involvement, subject to the receipt of an appropriate business case. That must indicate that the community and voluntary group has the means to insure, maintain and manage the property and that there is no cost to the Exchequer in the short, medium or long term. We have a responsibility to maintain the building and while we can enter into licensing agreements we cannot do anything that would in any way jeopardise the State’s investment in terms of the building.

To date, eight former Garda stations have been retained for other State uses and 15 stations have been sold at public auction, achieving approximately €1.4 million. A further 25 are to be sold this year. Sixteen former Garda stations have been assigned to community groups. Where Garda stations have been so assigned, those have been generally to community councils that represent a broad range of community and voluntary groups, with links to local SOLAS, community employment and Tús training and employment schemes.

Decisions taken by the OPW to license certain properties are based on the following principles, namely, the benefit to the broader community in terms of local services, activities or employment and training opportunities to be achieved from the use of the property; savings to the State of maintenance, service and other costs; and ownership remaining with the State with a re-entry clause at a time to be decided by State requirements.

There are other considerations to be taken into account. For example, properties with telecommunications masts generate an income in excess of €5 million per annum for the State which place contractual obligations on the OPW and it may be more beneficial for the taxpayer to retain these properties in State management rather than dispose of them. When retaining properties, the OPW continues to explore uses for them through State bodies and local authorities, in addition to considering community use. The cost of maintaining the closed Garda stations this year, to date, is approximately €136,000. With regard to insurance, these former stations are covered by the State’s indemnity.

The Senator has referred to the question of temporary use of the former Garda station in Kilfinane, County Limerick by Kilfinane Forest AFC. The property was assessed in line with the disposal policy I have outlined and no State use was identified. The property is now being prepared for disposal on the open market. In the event that the property does not sell, the OPW could then consider community use. I will ask my officials to provide the Senator with an update on the timeline in terms of attempting to dispose of the property on the open market. I will also try to get an indication of how hopeful we are of a disposal. If the disposal does not go ahead or is not successful, I will ask the OPW to link in with the Senator and the local soccer club to see whether a community use could be identified.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He has said 16 Garda stations have been assigned to community groups. Did all of the 16 properties have to go through the same process whereby, first, the option of disposing it on the open market was considered and in the event of a lack of interest then the community groups were given preference?

The Minister of State has said the cost to date of the maintenance of the closed stations is €136,000. How many stations are involved? It is not clear from the response. What is the average cost per station? The Minister of State said he would outline the timeline of the disposal of the Garda station in my area. That is fair enough. Given the state of the open market, the property could be sold in two weeks or 12 months. In the meantime, would it be possible to make the property available for the use of the club? I do not suggest a lease would be signed with a community group during the sale process, but instead of the property lying idle while waiting to be sold, could the Department come to an agreement with the local club for the use of the building until such time as it is sold?

I will take the Senator's three questions. He asked whether the 16 stations that have been given for community use all went through the same process where consideration was given first to their disposal on the open market. I will check this out as most of this happened before my appointment, but my understanding is that they did. The commissioners make an evaluation as to whether there is a financial benefit to the Exchequer in disposing of the properties at this time before considering community use, but I will get a follow up note on the issue for the Senator.

The Senator's second question was related to the cost of maintaining closed Garda stations. The cost is €136,000 and that is the only figure I have, but I will see if it is possible to break it down further in terms of individual stations. I will come back to the Senator on that point.

I would like to get the average figure per station.

The Senator has asked a fair question whether, even if the OPW Commissioners were to dispose of the Garda station in Kilfinane and the disposal were not to take place for a significant period, the OPW would consider an interim use. I will raise that issue with my officials and come back directly to the Senator.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.15 p.m. until 2.30 p.m on Tuesday, 7 October 2014.