News Martina Devlin

Saturday 20 September 2014

Let's have no more Priory Halls as the construction boom cranks up again

Published 28/08/2014 | 02:30

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Fiachra Daly and Stephanie Meehan with their daughter, Cerys O'Dhalaigh in 2011
Fiachra Daly and Stephanie Meehan with their daughter, Cerys O'Dhalaigh in 2011

Priory Hall resident Fiachra Daly died because other people didn't do their jobs properly. Tom McFeely, the cowboy developer who rode the construction boom, is one - but there were others, from legislators to the local authority. His death can be laid at many doors.

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Nobody forced him to choose the nuclear option. But he was a casualty of other people's shortcomings - the butt of a rash of irresponsibility practised during the Celtic Tiger era. Someone had the brainwave that the construction industry should self-certify. Self-regulation is another name for no regulation.

Banks had the benefit of light-touch regulation, all but indistinguishable from self-regulation. But it was even handier for developers, who could self-certify - and it was legal. The State allowed profits for developers to trump the safety of citizens.

This week, we discovered from a coroner's court that Mr Daly took his own life with a mixture of cocaine and a "very high level" of alcohol in his bloodstream. But the toxicology report doesn't detract from his victimhood. He suffered because of other people's failures. His case was the most tragic, but all the Priory Hall residents were treated in an appalling fashion, and it took the loss of a man's life for the State to wake up to its responsibilities.

Meanwhile we learned that the property market is recovering, with residential property prices in Dublin 23pc higher than they were a year ago. This means a financial incentive exists for builders to turn round developments quickly, while the shortage of housing adds to that motivation.

So let's not be complacent. Not with this reminder of Mr Daly's avoidable death, while his partner and two young children slept a few yards away from him in other rooms in their temporary home. Their real home, of course, was uninhabitable.

Now that the building industry is getting back on its feet, it is important to ensure there are no shortcuts or escape clauses that can be exploited by builders. The Department of the Environment and local authorities need to be vigilant about loopholes, which are not uncommon with the introduction of new legislation.

There were many systemic failures during the boom, but Priory Hall is one of the most notorious. A systemic oversight failure led to 256 residents being evacuated in 2011, including 87 children. The High Court ordered it when a Dublin fire chief explained how a blaze could spread thought the entire complex in just a few minutes because of defects to the external walls.

The complex of 20 blocks was later inspected and discovered to be a shoddy piece of workmanship. However, Dublin City Council, like others, had received enormous sums in levies from builders - €1.7m alone for Priory Hall.

It was money for jam, as far as some councils were concerned. (Planners and councillors are also responsible for the ghost estates - they agreed to them, without considering whether they were in the community's best interests.)

In the case of developments such as Priory Hall, the building levy was banked without any responsibility to the people who would live in those homes being recognised. Councils have statutory powers to inspect during construction, but they were content to let self-certification proceed. Even if Priory Hall hadn't been a fire risk, it was a slipshod piece of work.

Clearly, the complex was not built in accordance with planning regulations. But who signed off on each stage? Has anyone been held to account? Or are victims such as Mr Daly going to be forgotten as the property recovery takes hold?

In the Priory Hall development, a raft of fire hazards was identified, including exposed gas pipes, a lack of automated opening vents in communal areas and ventilation breaches in the basement car park. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Tom McFeely, whose series of transformations took him from hunger striker to millionaire developer to bankrupt, gave six separate undertakings to complete remedial work but failed to meet them. Lack of money was cited. Works were ordered at another apartment complex in Clondalkin, for which he received a conviction. None of it would have been possible with regulatory oversight.

In Priory Hall, some 137 units of a 187-unit development were occupied by people who just wanted a toe on the property ladder, or a home to raise their family in.

They sank their savings into the development, trusting that the organs of the State would exercise appropriate controls to ensure their safety. How wrong they were.

Their misery dragged on for years, with nobody wanting to take on responsibility for the residents. A deal was finally cut, but nobody can give those people back their lost years. And nobody can give back their father to Mr Daly's children.

But let Priory Hall, at least, serve as a reminder. As the construction industry cranks up again, let's have no more Priory Halls. No more regulatory time-saving wheezes. No more listening to lobbyists who make the case for short-term gains.

Stephanie Meehan, should never have found herself in a position where she woke up one morning to find her partner's cold, dead body. People who take their own lives do so for a variety of reasons, of course.

The pressures the couple were under over their mortgage should never have pushed him over the edge. Other couples were equally stressed. But who knows how the weight of mounting burdens will affect any of us? Especially when the State proved to be woefully slow to intervene.

Unfortunately, the die was cast when Mr Daly's home, which he had naturally hoped would become an asset, proved to be an albatross.

Irish Independent

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