September 8, 2009

CARL O'BRIEN, Social Affairs Correspondent

HEALTH AUTHORITIES have written to the Department of Finance seeking the urgent return of more than €40 million raised in recent years from the sale of land used by mental health services.

Some €36 million was raised from the sale of land at St Loman’s psychiatric hospital in Mullingar, in 2004 and €6.3 million from Verville Retreat in Clontarf in 2005.

However, the money ended up being used as part of general exchequer funds despite pledges by government ministers that the money would be ring-fenced for use in mental health services.

A senior Health Service Executive (HSE) official wrote to the Department of Finance last month seeking the return of this money which, the HSE says, is urgently needed to finance new developments.

These include three child and adolescent mental health residential units, three acute mental health units and community residential units.

These projects will have a crucial role to play in allowing significant numbers of residents to be transferred out of old and inappropriate institutions and into suitable community-based facilities.

The Department of Finance has previously told the HSE it would release the funding if it provided detailed spending plans on where the money would go.

In addition, HSE officials are seeking authorisation from the department to sell, next year, hundreds of acres of land that is currently used by old psychiatric hospitals.

The HSE last month also submitted a list of 10 properties sitting on almost 500 acres that it wants to begin selling off next year.

It estimates that it will raise about €50 million, taking into account the recent drop in property prices.

The list includes lands used by mental health services in Letterkenny, Clonmel, Killarney, Kildare, Ballinasloe and Castlepollard in Co Westmeath.

These funds would be used to build community-based residential units, housing almost 200 clients currently accommodated in old institutions, as well as a child and adolescent day unit, mental health hostels and new developments at the Central Mental Hospital.

This sale of land is likely to be just the start of a five-year plan to raise between €600 and €700 million from the sale of land from 14 psychiatric hospitals, as well as other properties used by mental health services.

Minister of State for Mental Health and Disability, John Moloney, said this week, that he was committed to ensuring all money raised from these properties would go directly to new psychiatric facilities.

He told a conference that he had the support of the Taoiseach and hoped to make a major announcement on the matter later this year.

Government sources, meanwhile, claim that difficulties have emerged and the Department of Finance has sought that 15 per cent of money raised be set aside for general exchequer spending.

This issue is likely to be of major importance in freeing up funding for new developments envisaged in A Vision for Change, the Government’s blueprint for modernising mental health services.

The slow progress in delivering this plan has been repeatedly criticised by mental health campaigners.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times