Wednesday 23 January 2019

Poolbeg saga shows we just can't do big public projects here

Work looks set to start on the controversial Poolbeg incinerator within the next few months - some 18 years after the project was first proposed.

This is a result of a decision last week from the National Development Finance Corporation, a quango that few of us had ever previously heard of, which certified that the €500m Poolbeg incinerator project represented good value for money.

The approval of the NDFC, which vets all public-private partnership projects, clears the way for building work to start on the Poolbeg site before the end of the year.

While local representatives remain overwhelmingly opposed to the incinerator - Dublin City councillors voted to scrap the project earlier this year - Poolbeg now looks like a done deal.

The councillors can vote against Poolbeg as often as they like but the decision on whether or not to proceed with the project will be made by appointed officials rather than elected representatives.


It's difficult to resist the suspicion that some of the opposition to the Poolbeg incinerator is motivated by NIMBYism - not in my backyard - rather than genuine environmental concerns.

Contrary to what some opponents of the project would have us believe, incineration and recycling is not a case of either/or.

Even with the best will in the world there will be some waste that can't be recycled and for which incineration is the most effective method of disposal.

The Scandinavian countries, all of which have high recycling rates, also incinerate a significant proportion of their non-recyclable rubbish.

This means that Dublin almost certainly needs an incinerator.

While one can argue about the size of the project - up to 600,000 tons of rubbish a year will be burned at the incinerator - it's much harder to claim that we can somehow manage without any incinerator at all.

Despite the clear need for an incinerator Poolbeg still remains unbuilt 18 years after it was first proposed. Indeed between 2007 and 2011 we were treated to the spectacle of Environment Minister and local TD John Gormley seeking to block a project that Dublin City Council, which comes under supervision of that same Department, was promoting.

The failure to build Poolbeg didn't stop Dublin City Council from spending a fortune of public money, at least €105m, on the project.

This money will be lost if the project is abandoned.

With Poolbeg looking as if it is finally going to be built ,it would be nice to think that we had learnt some lessons from the fiasco.


If we had finally figured out how to deliver complex, controversial but necessary pieces of public infrastructure then all of the delays might have been worth it.

Sadly this doesn't seem to be the case.

Now that Poolbeg finally looks like being built, attention will shift to the Children's Hospital project.

Already on its second site with €40m spent and not a sod turned, it is looking like a re-run of Poolbeg.

Will we ever learn?

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