Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Maeve Sheehan: Minister had plenty of options before backing Mater site

THE board responsible for developing the national children's hospital is to meet on Tuesday to consider the shock decision by An Bord Pleanala to reject the controversial Mater Hospital site.

The decision to turn down planning permission for the €650m facility took the development board completely by surprise and caused the steering group to cancel a planned study visit to Manchester children's hospital last week.

Health Minister James Reilly will ask an expert committee to review the options but he suggested last week that a scaled down version of the project could go ahead on the Mater site.

An Bord Pleanala ruled that the planned 16-storey building would have a negative impact on the city skyline and constituted over development of the site.

Dr Reilly backed the Mater location after an expert group recommended it as the best on offer last year. According to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, Dr Reilly was inundated with alternative proposals for a children's hospital after he took office.

Those turned down included a free site near the M50 in north Dublin and an empty Elm Park office block in Blackrock, developed by Bernard McNamara and now in Nama.

The empty Elm Park office block, near St Vincent's University Hospital, was suggested by a private asset management company, F&C Reit.

An architect also proposed the same site, which he said was "slow to let" on the commercial market. Eugene Dunne, of KMD Architecture, argued that the block could be converted to a hospital, solving both "a headache for Nama" and meeting the requirement for a children's hospital co-located beside an adult facility.

In another submission to Dr Reilly, a solicitor acting for Frank and Fergus Connon offered land in Sillogue, north Dublin, "gratis" and urged "those with appropriate expertise to take a quick look at the site and its potential and consider generally the merits of this most generous offer."

George McGrath, of DFGM Properties in Galway, offered part of a 77-acre site in Kinnegad in Westmeath which is currently being offered for sale.

Gregory Alken, of Brunello Developments, offered a site at Newlands Cross, which would be put together by a "small tidy development team" that offered to deliver the new children's hospital well under budget and within a speedy time frame.

Dr Khalid Jaber, the Deputy State Pathologist, meanwhile, proposed that Dr Reilly should consider building a children's facility beside the James Connolly Memorial Hospital.

Dr Jaber's proposal was included in a shortlist of three alternatives examined by an expert group last year, before it gave the go-ahead to the Mater site.

The two other sites rejected were one near Tallaght Hospital and an offer from the developer Noel Smyth of a free site at Newlands Cross which he claimed could be developed for €200m less than the Mater site.

An Bord Pleanala's decision has reopened divisions that have beset the development of a national children's hospital at the Mater.

It has also left consortiums interested in tendering for the project in disarray, with millions spent already on preparing bids. It is believed the project could also generate up to 1,500 construction jobs.

The past chairman of the children's hospital development board, Philip Lynch, was forced to resign for questioning the viability of the Mater site.

His successor, John Gallagher, resigned when Dr Reilly announced a review of the Mater site soon after taking office.

His review team again approved the Mater site after rejecting three alternatives; Tallaght, James Connolly Memorial Hospital and Noel Smyth's Newlands Cross.

The new hospital, which was due for completion in 2015, was to merge the three existing children's hospitals into one 16-storey building adjacent to the Mater Hospital, with 1,000 underground parking spaces.

Read the article @ The Irish Independent

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