A doubling of costs and unrealistic timelines: behind the scenes of fast-track project to provide modular housing for Ukrainian refugees

A fast-track government project to provide modular homes for Ukrainian refugees contained unrealistic timelines while the cost per housing unit ended up being nearly double what was originally estimated.

In internal emails, senior officials said a calendar provided to government on when the homes would become available for use had not proved even close to accurate.

The records also said there were issues over the “credibility of cost forecasts” with a price of €200,000 per unit put forward during early planning.

An email from a senior civil servant in the Department of Public Expenditure said: “Clearly, as things have evolved this is not the case. In particular, the costings for [an] additional 200 units appear to have almost doubled from this original estimate.

“This underscores the need for costs to be fully interrogated and have a high degree of confidence in the numbers we put forward to government.”

The Department of Public Expenditure also said there were now major questions over value for money and whether the modular units had ultimately proved any cheaper than other more permanent types of housing.

In a lengthy email to the chairman of the OPW early last year, the department’s Assistant Secretary General John Conlon also said delays and rising costs made it unclear whether modular housing would be a useful model for providing social housing.

It said: “The government decision for Ukraine modular units was exceptional – it provided fast track and prioritisation on all fronts (e.g. procurement, ESB, local authorities, etc).

“A social housing proposal would not be afforded the same prioritisation so taking all these issues into consideration the timelines presented in your document [for social housing] need to be re-evaluated.”

The Department of Public Expenditure said they also needed certainty on how long the modular units would last and what was involved in maintaining them.

The email said: “I appreciate you indicate that it is sixty years. What sort of maintenance requirements do they have versus traditional builds, is there greater upkeep costs etc?”

Records released by the Department of Public Expenditure also reveal how the OPW fast-track project was beset by other difficulties with 70% of sites put forward proving unsuitable for use.

A further update from last October from the Office of Public Works said 310 units would be made available during 2023 but acknowledged there had been delays as well as “upward pressure on costs”.

The briefing document said: “The early sites made available for development have been less than optimal and have resulted in significant site works and abnormal [costs] e.g. invasive species (Japanese Knotweed) in Mahon in Cork City, and other works.

“Consequently, [they] have required considerably more preparation than originally envisaged.”

Another email from a senior official queried how the cost had escalated so significantly from the original government announcement of 500 modular units being delivered at a cost of around €140 million.

The message said: “I have just seen a note from … colleagues that indicates the estimated cost of delivering 700 modular units is now €237 million e.g. €338,571 per unit.

“Crucially the additional 200 units (increasing from 500 to 700) now appear to have an average cost of €407,500 per unit.”