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Church betrays its public-interest legacy by school-land sales

Disgraced religious orders are making unholy sums from selling school green spaces that betray their public-interest legacy and crystallise imperatives for a healthy Church-State relationship

Assets that are social not just financial

Ireland’s housing crisis and swirling property prices threaten precious and irreplaceable green spaces in our cities and suburbs with housing developments. House prices have risen more in the first six months of this year than the entire twelve months of 2016. Recognising the opportunity for maximum prices to take care of an aged clerical population and reparation commitments for historical abuse, religious orders are selling off their most valuable assets (after their faith) – their land. Unfortunately these sites are not vacant lands. Agonisingly they are where the children go at breaks and lunch-time, they are the schools’ resort for children’s sports and funding fairs and often community resources for dog-walking and exercise and simple relief from the traffic and commotion. Dublin has the highest land valuations and so has seen the biggest rise in the sale of school land in recent years. Infamous examples include Oatlands in Mount Merrion, St Paul’s in Raheny, and Notre Dame in Churchtown, carried through despite a shortage of schools in these areas. Holy Faith Convent in Killester, adjoining the school of the same name, is currently for sale. The brochure from WK Nowlan Real Estate Advisors suggests the zoning allows 70 apartments on the attractive one-hectare site which also contains a large former convent building. The same agent will sell the former St Teresa’s school in Blackrock, which closed in 1988, by auction on 21 July. It describes it as an “Exceptional Development Opportunity and period residence on approximately 3.92 hectares (9.7 acres).

Holy Faith, Killester

Large Residence, Gate lodge and former school buildings on mature landscaped grounds”. Of course in sales of mature institutional lands from Kilcoole to All Hallows WK Nowlan, the reverends’ favourite, publishes expensive marketing materials that suggest that the opportunities to cover these attractive lands in second rate housing is an occasion for public celebration.

There has never been a greater market for education in this country. The population of the country continues to grow and projections for new schools continue to grow. Doctors complain that our children are not exercising enough. Institutional lands cannot be replaced once built on. A future generation, richer and more civilised than ours, will certainly curse us for the betrayal of our legacy of fine institutions on elegant grounds. So whose interest is being served by their ubiquitous sales over the last generation and in its desperation to deal with a severe housing crisis are the government and local authorities sleepwalking us into an educational crisis in Dublin?

 

 


God’s Land

The Catholic Church owns €3.743bn of land and property in the State. It owns or occupies more than 10,700 properties across the country and controlled nearly 6,700 religious and educational sites. The assets owned by the State’s 26 dioceses and 160-plus congregations and other district Catholic organisations have been accumulated over more than two centuries of providing religious, educational, health and other services to a once comprehensively devout populace. In the case of many orders the congregations transferred the running of institutions to separate bodies which are invariably charities, for example the Edmund Rice Schools Trust (ERST) which was set up in 2008 with responsibility for 95 former Christian Brother schools and 37,000 pupils. Its objective (as stated on its website) is “to foster the advancement of education”. Interestingly, and showing that Richard Bruton’s proposal to preclude Catholic schools from discriminating against those who have not been baptised in the Church is, at least in the case of the Christian Brothers, pushing an open door, its schools “promote equality of access and participation – in other words, children of any faith, or none, at every level of ability, of any nationality or ethnic grouping are all welcome in our schools”.

 

 


Addressing the Redress Scheme

Apart from peak land price, the tiptoe to the auctioneers is driven by clerical abuse and its financial legacy. The Catholic Church has surrendered ownership of 44 properties worth €42m to the State as part of the 2002 Residential Institutions Redress Act. In the wake of the 2009 Ryan report, the Government wanted the religious orders to pay half of the total bill of €1.4bn due for redress payments and legal costs. But the religious orders still have a long way to go to reach the €700m the State in the end demanded. Minister for Education Richard Bruton spoke out in March of this year, following the publication of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) which showed that in total €209m has been received by the Irish Government from religious groups to address historical child abuse. Bruton condemned religious organisations for failing to help meet the costs of residential institutional child abuse. It might be argued that the Church should have met sanctions at the upper end of the financial scale and as a result transferred not just ownership, but control, of the institutions over which it is widely accepted it exercised control well out of proportion to its mandate in today’s society. Many of the schools, hospitals and clerical-training colleges could have been transferred to the Republic, with little unfairness since much of the money subscribed in the first place was for progressive-secular, as well as religious, purposes.

In addition the funds raised from these sales are to meet the challenges arising from declining and ageing congregations of nuns, brothers and priests. The average age of the Christian Brothers is 79 and of the Sisters of Mercy 74 with over three-quarters of the nuns aged over 65. Part of the cost of maintaining retired members and the staffing of their care homes will be taken from the final price fetched for the school land sales.

 

 


Celestial Figures

The sale of these lands is not only taking away green spaces from the schools but it also ignores the need for new and expanding schools in light of anticipated population growth in these areas. There are currently 345,550 secondary-school pupils in the Republic (excluding PLC students) and 583 secondary schools (excluding PLC courses). According to the Department of Education and Skills this figure will increase by 8 per cent to 372,715 pupils in 2020 and by a further 10 per cent by 2025, to 410,756. In the few cases where the Department has stepped in purchase land, it has been to save the land of primary schools, even though during the same period primary school pupil numbers are expected to contract by 8.5% (- 47,000).

Village decided to look at representative educational land issues in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, where the local authority area under most pressure.

 

 

“Exciting development opportunity at former St Teresa’s School, Temple Road, Blackrock,
Co Dublin”

 

 


Zoning

The problem is that a lack of seriousness of purpose and deference to the religious orders and to the perceived rights of property have led councillors to lose their nerve in defending the public interest in the zoning of institutional lands. These lands should in principle remain in institutional use. A balanced society depends on healthy institutions providing facilities for their users. But our local authorities insist on the rights of the institutions, including schools, to build houses on their grounds. Even lands that are still zoned ‘institutional use’ may, in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown which is typical, be developed for housing, providing a mere 25% is retained as open space. The Development Plan says “There are still a number of large institutions in the established suburbs of the county which may be subject to development pressure in the coming years”. The word “still” almost suggests such places are an affront to nature. Moreover it is only because the makers of the plan, the local authority councillors, have allowed such lands to be developed that they have come under pressure. Nobody puts pressure for housing on the Phoenix Park, for example, because it is understood that the public would not tolerate it!

But amazingly most of the lands have not even remained zoned institutional.

St Mary’s Donnybrook run by the Religious Sisters of Charity went to the High Court to grant them a judicial review of the rezoning of their land to Z15 ‘Community and Institutional Resource Lands’ (Education, Recreation, Community, Green Infrastructure and Health) in 2010 for the 2011-2017 Dublin City Council Development Plan as the Sisters believed it applied unfair and restrictive zoning conditions on their lands. Under the terms of Z15, privately owned land is treated as resource land for use by the community. The Sisters claimed this redesignation unfairly targets their 108 acres across the city. The zoning had a significant impact on the property interests of the Order.

After this review Dublin City Council in 2013 changed the zoning of St Mary’s Donnybrook from Z15 to ‘residential’ and included other religiously-run schools including Muckross Park College, Donnybrook; Alexandra College, Milltown, St Louis High School, Rathmines.

They have been pre-emptively rezoned for housing. It is this zoning of school land as ‘residential’ that has increased the value and made it more vulnerable to development. 93 out of 105 secondary schools in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown for example are land zoned ‘A’ residential, and 25 of the 33 primary schools are zoned residential – this is extraordinary and clearly precarious if an avalanche of land being sold off for residential purposes is permitted as it seems legally it must.

Recent issues with St Joseph’s Clonkeen College in Dean’s Grange and Our Lady’s Grove, in Goatstown – both in Dun-Laoghaire-Rathdown, have caught public attention, most notably with an RTE Prime Time feature which aired on 29 June. Both Clonkeen College and Our Lady’s Grove are located on lands with the zoning objective ‘residential A’, described in the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Development plan 2016- 2022 as “To protect and/or improve residential amenity”.

 

Clonkeen College

 

On 18 May the ERST informed Clonkeen College that the sale of 7.5 acres of playing fields had been finalised by the Congregation of Christian Brothers for €18m. Clonkeen College is a public school with 550 boys and the opening of a new extension will increase the roll to 620. The decision to sell this land had been taken solely by the Congregation of Christian Brothers. The ERST Board of Directors has always been clear that this decision is the responsibility of the Congregation. ERST does not own the land in question so it could not be its decision to sell it. Of course the news stung for a school with a strong reputation for soccer and GAA. After the sale two of its three playing pitches will be gone for a housing scheme. The sale here is to meet the final €10m instalment of the organisation’s financial commitments to the Redress Scheme. The Order said it was also proposing to transfer about 3.5 acres of land (valued at €7.5m) bordering the college to the ERST for the permanent use of Clonkeen College. The Order said it would also donate €1.3m each (inclusive of a €100,000 contribution for school works) to Clonkeen College. Pulling at every heartstring, even secular ones, the congregation informed the Board of Management that monies raised go to fund the development of schools in Africa and an unspecified amount for the upkeep of the mainly elderly members of the religious order. Under the Congregation’s proposal, it will transfer the playing fields attached to the schools to the ERST, who will hold them in trust for the schools. In addition, 50% of the net sale of the proceeds of any Playing Field sold in the future will be offered to the State. There will be no change to the use of the land adjoining Clonkeen by the school until after Summer 2018 at the earliest.

 

Our Lady’s Grove, Goatstown

 

Similarly the sale of Our Lady’s Grove (a mere fortnight after Clonkeen College) is by the Trust for the Sisters of Jesus and Mary. Just over 5.4 acres of land has sold to builders Durkan Residential, all of the last green space, attached to Our Lady’s Grove primary and secondary schools for €13m. The nuns say they will fund a new astroturf hockey pitch for the secondary school at a cost of €600,000. The plot sold could accommodate an estimated 70-80 ‘homes’; a mix of houses and apartments. This means that there will be no green space attached to the schools and no room for expansion in the future. The primary school already has so little recreational space that children are sadly required, for safety reasons, to take turns running in the yard, at break time. The secondary school will be at a particular disadvantage as it is the only public girls secondary school in the area and is surrounded by private girls schools with excellent facilities. The order sold a first tranche of land in 2012 and a retirement home and residential development have been built. It should be pointed out that the Order does not owe any money as part of the redress scheme so it is hard to know why the land is being sold. The Goatstown area is in need of more public services and infrastructure for the many young families in the ever fashionable neighbourhood. Intensification of use of the remaining school lands will exacerbate the pressure on schools and facilities in this area. Additionally there will be significant traffic through the school from the new houses leading to environmental and safety issues for the children and residents.

Transport Minister Shane Ross TD invited parents’ representatives from Our Lady’s Grove to meet with Minister Richard Bruton TD in Leinster House on 21 June. Also present were Catherine Martin TD, Josepha Madigan TD, Senator Neale Richmond, Senator Gerry Horkan, and Councillor Seamus O’Neill. Minister Bruton adamantly refused to concede that the area was in need of investment from the Department of Education. Approximately 1,000 houses and apartments will be built in (and on the boundaries of) the catchment area over the coming few years. Shortsightedly, he said that when the fruits of the development mature, only then will it be up to the local public authority to source a site for new schooling. His attitude definitively discounts the factual reality that institutional lands and playing fields are a dwindling resource that simply cannot be replaced.

Bruton also made the point that urban schools should lower their expectations regarding green space. The Minister, a rural TD, stated that a rural school starting from a green field site would most likely have green space due to rural land being cheaper than urban land. However this was utterly irrelevant as urban schools do not have this luxury, due to increased land cost. National policy must address the potential iniquity of urban children not having the same opportunities in sport and outdoor activities as rural children. Parents and neighbours of Our Lady’s Grove have started a blog and online petition.

 


Solutions

The Department should purchase the land, perhaps, if viable, renting out facilities to clubs to generate a return for state investment. This was the solution found when the Holy Faith Order informed St Brigid’s National School in Greystones that they intended to sell adjoining lands of 0.6 acres in 2015. The night before it was to be sold at auction by Savills the Board of management was informed that the Department had secured the land in a deal with the convent. It was an extreme example – the school had very little land and its space per student was just one quarter of the Department’s guidelines.

This topical issue evokes important choices for a modernising society, how to balance Church and State, the environment with money, private interests with the public interest. Green Party Deputy Leader and TD for Dublin Rathdown Catherine Martin said “Minister Bruton needs to work closely with the local Authority to provide greater protection for the open space requirements of institutional lands in the County”. Barry Ward, Fine Gael councilor for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, told Village “I think there is a high-stakes game of chicken going on here between certain religious orders and the Department of Education, but I am not sure that the answer is for the Department to blink first and spend considerable amounts of taxpayers’ money buying large tracts of land. It seems to me that religious orders involved in this are trying to avoid their legitimate obligations to the State. Religious orders that still owe the State money for past sins, and that are trying to offset selected assets against their liabilities are gambling irresponsibly with future students’ sporting facilities and open spaces. I do not think that organisations indebted to the State should be allowed to sacrifice future school children to help maintain their bottom line. The reality is that the orders have many assets that could be liquidated to satisfy their financial liabilities; it is not a coincidence that the assets they have chosen are the most emotional ones and the ones that could exert most political pressure. Yes, the Minister for Education should intervene, but by making it clear to religious orders that they already have a good deal on their liabilities to abuse victims and that taking further advantage of that will not be tolerated”.

Blanket protection should be afforded these lands, until a proper national debate on this issue takes place. The public interest can be served by public ownership, though this should have been guaranteed a generation ago when Bertie Ahern and Michael Woods sold the state short. More realistically the national interest and the common good can be pursued by mature rezoning. Compensation is not always payable for downzonings in the public interest. If the Orders challenge such downzonings it would be an appropriate opportunity for a debate and for the state to assert the primacy of its agenda and the consequences of clerical abuse for the role of the Church in this society.

Certainly all the lands detailed in this article are private lands and the usual property interests are concerned that councillors’ using their power to simply down-zone lands to preserve a local objective would open them to compensation claims though there seems no ethical reason, in a country that purports to enshrine the overriding common good, and has a rising population of children, why institutions given land for educational purposes should ever have been encouraged, or even allowed, to transfer it for residential development. It illustrates a delinquent attitude on behalf of our private representatives, perhaps better categorised as ‘private representatives’, and their deference to the needs, particularly financial of institutions, particularly religious ones even in the face of the common good.

Nevertheless and encouragingly, as Village was going to print, Councillor John Bailey (FG) was to put forward a motion on 3 July to provide a variation to the Development Plan to downzone lands at Clonkeen College.

Unless a robust vision of the public interest in institutional lands, especially educational lands, is promoted there is a danger that once again the dysfunctional relationship between Ireland’s Church and its state will be to the long-term disadvantage of its vulnerable children.

 

By Emma Gilleece

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