Wexford County Council bought a house from one of its councillors, despite being advised by its technical staff that the property was not suitable for social housing.

The vendor, Tony Dempsey, sold two houses to the council under a government programme in April 2019, a few weeks before he retired from politics following the May 2019 local elections.

Under this programme, known as the Buy and Renew Scheme, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage provides funding to local authorities to acquire and repair vacant properties.

In 2017, as the government grappled with the housing crisis, the Department introduced the scheme to help increase the number of properties available for social housing and encourage urban renewal.

In April 2021, Wexford County Council completed an internal audit report, which reviewed 17 properties acquired by the council under this scheme.

RTÉ Investigates obtained a copy of this audit under the Freedom of Information Act.

The property addresses were redacted in the audit report.

However, RTÉ Investigates established that two of the properties reviewed in the audit were previously owned by Mr Dempsey, a former Fianna Fáil TD and Mayor of Wexford, who once managed the Wexford hurling team.

Former Mayor of Wexford Tony Dempsey

Property records show that in April 2019, while still a sitting councillor, Mr Dempsey sold a house at Dempsey's Terrace, Wexford Town, to the council.

According to the audit, council technical staff inspected this house in November 2018 and February 2019.

The November 2018 inspection report said that "this property is in poor condition throughout" and detailed many problems.

It said it suffered from "extensive leaks and is extremely damp" and noted that the main structure would need to be re-roofed, and all windows and doors would have to be replaced.

"I do not think this property in its current condition would make a suitable property for social housing," the inspection report said.

Despite the condition of this property, a tenant was living there at the time of inspection.

The internal audit explained that the house was rented to the council under the Rental Accommodation Scheme. While the council pays the landlord rent on behalf of the tenant, the landlord is responsible for maintenance and repairs at the property.

The audit noted that although there was no further correspondence on file between November 2018 and February 2019, "it appears the owner had been requested to carry out a schedule of works listed in the first inspection report of November 2018."

'I would recommend NOT to purchase this property'

But the second inspection report, completed in February 2019, noted that the only work "undertaken by the landlord is the painting of 3 rooms and even the paint is to a poor standard."

This inspection report also found that repair costs for this property "would be excessive and well within the range of €70,000-90,000 repair costs."

"I would recommend NOT to purchase this property," a council engineer stated in his report. "I would suggest there would be better value-for-money and houses in better condition for sale over the coming months."

According to the audit, in April 2019, the council bought the house for €97,000, having previously valued the property at €130,000.

The audit further stated, "There was no justification on file for the decision to proceed with the purchase."

'Your comments have been noted'

The audit includes a section where the council management can comment on the purchase of each property. However, management did not explain why it had purchased this property when its staff had recommended not to do so. Instead, it was quoted in the audit as saying, "Your comments have been noted."

In a statement, Mr Dempsey told RTÉ Investigates that the council inspected this house before renting it out. He said that the council had carried out "many inspections yearly of these rented accommodations."

"I had not received any indication from them that any major work was required to be carried out until 2018," Mr Dempsey said.

He explained that in 2018, the council inspected the house and requested a list of refurbishments and repairs.

"I decided to sell the house and asked WCC to vacate," he said. "After a long time, the Council was unable to find alternative accommodation for the tenant, and as I would not evict the tenant, I sold the house to WCC."

'There are broader issues…'

Each year, sitting councillors must submit declarations of interest, including the properties they own and any contracts they had with local authorities. However, this requirement does not apply to former members. As Mr Dempsey retired from the council in May 2019, he was not obliged to disclose any contracts made with the council in 2019 while still a councillor.

Meanwhile, RTÉ Investigates asked the council why it had ignored its technical staff and bought this property.

A council spokesperson said: "While the recommendation of our technical staff is an important factor when considering the purchase of a property, there are broader issues beyond the physical state of repair of the property which may influence the Council's ultimate decision."

The spokesperson said that those factors included the council's "desire to address derelict or unsightly structures, the security of tenure of any tenancy of that property, and the desire by the local authority to enhance the general streetscape in that property location in support wider town renewal objectives."

'No refurbishment works have been carried out to date'

The internal audit also referred to another property purchased under this scheme, a two-bedroomed terraced house bought in April 2019.

A council Executive Order – an official council document authorising the purchase of the property – states that the council approved the purchase in February 2019 and that the vendor was Tony Dempsey.

The audit stated that when the council acquired this property in April 2019, repairs were estimated to cost €38,800, down from €57,000 at an earlier inspection.

"There was no explanation on file for the downward revision of the estimated refurbishment costs," the audit noted, adding, "It appears that no refurbishment works have been carried out to date."

In response, the council management did not explain why the refurbishment costs were revised downwards, other than saying, "Your comments have been noted."

'The Department is looking into the information'

Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

According to the Department, for houses to qualify under the Buy and Renew Scheme, they must be vacant.

In the application form for this scheme, local authorities must state the "Estimated period for which the house has been vacant."

A departmental circular also explains, "Where a property submitted under the Scheme has been occupied not long before acquisition, you should clarify the reasons as to why it is suitable as a Buy and Renew property."

But the properties at Dempsey's Terrace and William Steet were occupied when the council bought them in April 2019.

The tenant in the former later left this property, but the tenant in the William Street property remains.

According to the council, no refurbishment had been carried out on the William Street property as this "needs to be vacated for the refurbishment works to be carried out."

RTÉ Investigates asked the council how it purchased the two houses, given that both were occupied at the time of the sales and were therefore not eligible for the scheme.

A council spokesperson said: "The property owner advised the tenants of both properties that vacant possession was being sought as the properties were being offered for sale."

The spokesperson also said that the council could not re-accommodate the Dempsey's Terrace tenant before the sale was completed but could do this afterwards.

He also said that the tenant in the William Street property remains in place and that "refurbishment work will commence once the Council has sourced suitable alternative accommodation for the tenant."

When RTÉ Investigates asked the Department how the properties could have qualified under the scheme when they were not vacant, a spokesperson replied: "The Department is looking into the information supplied by RTÉ."