The state spent more than €195m on sites for schools between 2005 and 2009, which experts say could have been bought for as little as €25m, a Sunday Tribune investigation can reveal.
Among the major beneficiaries of the sales were some of the country's best- known property developers, religious orders and dioceses, as well as several local authorities.
In a revelation which has prompted the Labour Party to call for an investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Department of Education figures reveal €56.7m was spent on just 32.5 acres of land for schools last year. This equates to roughly €1.75m an acre at a time when property prices had collapsed nationally. Between 2005 and 2008, it paid a further €140m for just over 292 acres of land, frequently generating 'windfall' profits for the sellers.
The department has refused to provide details of the prices it paid for these 2009 sites, citing "commercial sensitivities".
But among the extravagant prices it paid for sites is €7.1m to the Rosminian order in 2005 for the 1.08-acre former Rosminians school in Woodstown, about 11 kilometres from Waterford city.
Development land experts in Waterford were surprised at the price paid for the land, pointing out that developer Gerry Barrett paid less than €1.5m an acre the following year for a 32-acre development site in Waterford itself. Until now, the price paid by Barrett was believed to be the record price for land in the county.
By contrast, the department paid just €10 for a five-acre site in Naas, which was handed over as part of a wider rezoning by the local authority.
Experts say this practice should have been the norm, but was instead the exception. Conservative estimates provided to the Sunday Tribune indicate that the most the state should have expected to pay was €25m for the lands it bought between 2005 and 2009.
Instead, developer Séamus Ross sold a 0.8-acre site in Littlepace in north Dublin to the department for €800,000 in 2006 and the following year his Menolly Homes sold a 2.5-acre site in Dunboyne, Co Meath to the department for €1.1m.
Joe O'Reilly of Castlethorn, who owns the Dundrum Town Centre, netted nearly €3.3m for a 2.88 acre site in Sandyford in south Dublin in 2005. Two years later, he also sold a 3.1-acre site in Adamstown for €1.77m. Michael Cotter of Park Developments sold 2.5 acres in Sandyford to the department for €2.8m in 2006 though his company Viscount Securities.
Meanwhile, the department also paid €5.675m for 1.864 acres owned by Manor Park Homes subsidiary King of the Castle in Ongar in west Dublin in 2007. The company is owned by developer Joe Moran and his family.
Three years ago, the state paid €7m to the trustees of Presentation Brothers for the former Presentation Glasthule school site and buildings in south Dublin while a trust administered by the Dublin Catholic archdiocese received €10.4m that same year for the 4.6-acre Archbishop McQuaid senior school in Loughlinstown, Co Dublin.
As late as 2008, Wexford County Council received over €10m for an 18-acre school site in Gorey, while a 17-acre site in Greystones Co Wicklow cost €15.29m.
The vendors of this site were Newlyn Group and its owners George McGarry, Robert Kehoe and Christopher Dowling.
One leading planning consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity, was scathing of the way the system worked. "Local authorities did not see it as their obligation to reserve sites for schools when they were rezoning and the department wasn't thinking ahead so they arrived in long after the horse had bolted. In effect, they then paid the retail value of the site instead of the wholesale price," they said.
"There was an absence of proper linked-up thinking between the department and the local authorities. If the department needed a site for a school, the local authorities should have been aware of it and it should have been part of the rezoning negotiations.
"They should have been getting the school sites free as part of a wider rezoning or buying it at agricultural value plus a small bonus, so maybe €20,000 to €50,000 an acre... the bill should have been 10% of what it was. They should have reserved areas for schools."
Another land expert, who has acted for a number of leading developers, described the lack of joined- up thinking between the Department of Education and the planning authorities as "madness". He said that "done right they could have got most of the land for free.
"If a plot of land was being rezoned, the developer would have had no issue handing over three to five acres of that land for nothing for a school."
Labour Party environment spokeswoman Joanna Tuffy called for the C&AG to investigate why the state paid such inflated prices for the lands. She also warned there were few signs the situation has changed since.
"The developer should have been paying the state to provide schools, not the other way around," she said. "The state, by providing schools and other pieces of infrastructure, was helping the developers to make a double profit on the land as having a school there increased the price of the houses they sold.
"This is unfortunately typical of Fianna Fáil's approach to the property market and the waste of public money. They could have strengthened planning legislation to allow school sites to be identified as part of rezoning."
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