Costly UL houses ‘unauthorised’ for students, Limerick planners say

O’Donoghue report for UL’s governing authority criticises problems with planning status of homes at Rhebogue, 3km from campus, which the university acquired for student housing in 2022

The botched student housing scheme at the centre of turmoil in University of Limerick is “unauthorised” for such accommodation, city planners said this week as UL admitted overpaying €5.2 million for 20 homes.

University president Prof Kerstin Mey took sick leave in recent days as a sharply critical report on the €11 million purchase prompted the Higher Education Authority (HEA), UL’s regulator, to initiate a new investigation into the deal and review the institution’s “general culture and governance”.

The report for UL’s governing authority by former civil servant Niamh O’Donoghue is said to have made damning conclusions about the terms on which the university settled the transaction with Silvergrove Developments, whose sole director is Limerick accountant Sean Sheahan.

The O’Donoghue report is also said to have criticised problems with the planning status of homes at Rhebogue, about 3km from the UL campus, which the university acquired for student housing in 2022.

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Although 80 students have been living at Rhebogue since October, Limerick City and County Council issued a warning letter last year to UL challenging the use of the houses for student residences. The university disputed such claims in a formal reply to the local authority but it has yet to hand down a determination.

At the height of the controversy in recent days, however, the council issued an adverse ruling to Silvergrove on its October application for retention permission in relation to boundary and landscaping issues at Rhebogue.

Limerick City and County Council said: “It appears to the planning authority that the proposed development relates to a site, the use of which is considered unauthorised for use as student accommodation. The retention of works associated would facilitate this unauthorised use and therefore the planning authority are not disposed to granting permission.”

UL had no comment on the council’s ruling or planning issues, saying the Rhebogue deal remains under review.

The Irish Times was unable to reach Mr Sheahan, who did not reply to questions sent to his work email on Friday evening. Mr Sheahan, who owns Silvergrove’s parent company, Zalbury, became Silvergrove’s sole director in December 2022 in succession to former directors Virginia Keogh and Aidan O’Brien.

The planning issues raise further questions for UL, which is facing intensive HEA scrutiny as it pushes to settle terms of reference for the new investigation. HEA chiefs have scheduled a three-day visit to UL on April 23rd to 25th for talks with senior university managers.

The reasons for the overpayment remain unclear but UL’s governing authority has said the resulting impairment has “implications in relation to governance, financial management and potential future funding”.

Although UL faces the prospect of a grilling at an April 11th meeting of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, Prof Mey has signalled she won’t attend because she is incapacitated.

The Rhebogue deal and a €3 million writedown on the value of a former Dunnes Stores site that UL acquired in 2019 are also under examination by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

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