Sunday 23 October 2016

Paul Melia: Government is ignoring mistakes of the recent past

Published 14/08/2015 | 02:30

There were fire safety issues at Priory Hall in Dublin
There were fire safety issues at Priory Hall in Dublin

To be clear, the decision by Government to relax the building regulations for one-off homes and extensions has nothing to do with protecting consumers from unscrupulous, over-charging building professionals.

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It is all about protecting the rural base of under-pressure coalition TDs, many of whom are far from confident of retaining their seat in next year's General Election. One-off housing is a real issue in rural Ireland, where people prefer to live close to the homestead on larger sites than would be available in built-up areas.

The figures tell the story. Half of all homes built between January 2013 and June this year are one-off. In 13 of 31 local authority areas, 70pc or more of the total units constructed are single dwellings, rising to 80pc in Kilkenny.

So it's therefore no surprise to read a press statement from Environment Minister Alan Kelly announcing the changes, which states the move will "slash costs and reduce red tape" for people who want to build their own homes.

"The major reforms I am announcing today will benefit people in Co Tipperary who want to build their own homes by lifting a huge burden of cost and red tape off their backs," he said, appealing to his constituents.

He doesn't mention that it was his government that introduced that same red tape to protect consumers.

He failed to mention the official report revealed today which said the costs ranged from €3,000 to €4,000 per inspection, which given the enormous sums involved in building a house would seem reasonable.

What the minister also failed to mention was the enormous costs the State will bear putting right the wrongs of recent years due to little or no regulation.

They include fire safety issues at Priory Hall in Dublin, pyrite contamination of homes and the costs of completing unfinished housing estates.

The bill stands at almost €50m - €10m has been allocated towards resolving problems in ghost estates, with another €27m earmarked to repair properties at Priory Hall. At least €10m will be needed to remediate hundreds of homes affected by pyrite.

But preventing future costs to the State - and more importantly homeowners -pales in comparison with the cost of losing an election or seeing colleagues removed from office, it would appear.

Of course, the Coalition isn't the first Government to take a course of action which could be considered less than best practice. Back in 2004, former Environment Minister Martin Cullen announced measures to relax stringent rules about one-off houses, introducing a raft of changes.

They included allowing people build homes in environmentally-sensitive areas, allowing local authorities to grant permission where ill-health required a person to live in a particular area or close to family, while emigrants could also qualify for consideration if they returned home. The minister at the helm when the changes were introduced in 2005, Dick Roche, said the guidelines represented a "presumption in favour" of one-off housing.

What happened? The number of one-off homes steadily increased, putting pressure on services like roads and water, while also making it difficult to provide decent public transport links.

So why introduce the changes now? Simply because despite being announced in a fanfare as offering a high level of protection to consumers, they no longer suit.

While homeowners can pay to have their properties inspected if they so choose, it's highly unlikely to happen. The upshot of that is when the house is sold, the new owner will not be afforded the same protections as those who buy a home in a housing development, which has been subject to inspection.

These changes are bad news for consumers, and bad news for the construction sector. Pretending that self-builders were being ripped off insults our intelligence. The last thing any government wants is to be seen as introducing unnecessary costs. The fact that this inspection regime is far from unnecessary, as recent history has proved, appears to be an irrelevance.

Irish Independent

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