Saturday, February 18, 2012

Taxpayers' Money and Priory Hall

I was listening to Matt Cooper this morning on Today FM's Very Last Word about the subject of the Priory Hall residents. I have complete sympathy for the people in Priory Hall and the predicament they find themselves in. Those who rented there may have been able to move on rather than have to rely on Dublin City Council to provide them with alternative accommodation. Those who bought, however, are in a different position; they have mortgages and entered into private contracts with the builder, so I can understand that they are in a really bad position. In the circumstances of the evacuation, it seems reasonable that Dublin City Council should have housed them in the short term under emergency provisions; but, in the long term, I would expect normal contract law to prevail, although the builder appears to have been declared bankrupt in the UK.

Dublin City Council, correctly in my view, is appealing to the Supreme Court a decision of the High Court that is must house the residents and pay the accommodation, storage and rental differential costs incurred by the residents. According to a report in the Irish Times, the Council is doing so because it "was concerned about the implication of such orders for the taxpayer and for its role as a fire safety authority." There are serious points of principle and law involved here, and Dublin City Council is right - indeed, it has a duty - to appeal the decision. Were the High Court order to stand the implications for a public body in relation to a private contract - and the responsibilities being placed upon the public body - could be enormous. Lawyers for the residents are expected to oppose the application.

None of these matters concern me, as such. The residents found themselves in an awful position last Christmas and it was right that something was done to look after them. While I know that the circumstances they are in are far from good, at least they are out of those awful properties.

What annoyed me about Cooper, in his interview with two residents, was his criticism of Dublin City Council for "using taxpayers' money" to take the case to the Supreme Court. He ignored entirely, of course, the cost to the taxpayer of housing and providing for a group of people who entered into a private contract for the purchase or rental of property at Priory Hall. I know the issues are complex, relating to fire safety inspections, building regulations, etc. But it is the knee-jerk reaction of Cooper - now typical of so many journalists and commentators - to instantly criticise, in throw-away comment, public bodies (and in many cases public servants as well) for doing what they believe to be right (and in this case, I think they are doing the right thing) that really galled me. This was a one-sided treatment of the subject that ignored the huge cost to the taxpayer of dealing with a problem that was, essentially, a matter of private contract.