Tuesday 27 September 2016

If McNamara is to be allowed to build again, let him sort out Longboat Quay first

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Bernard McNamara has a family background in building
Bernard McNamara has a family background in building

The Edwardian house on Ailesbury Road, in Ireland's most expensive quarter, was not grand enough. So the new owner demolished it and built a 16,000 sq ft monument to his success, complete with basement swimming pool beneath a transparent ballroom floor. The detail, the finish, the gadgets - the compliance with building standards - were not found wanting.

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Elsewhere, however, Bernard McNamara had little concern for the detail, the finish, the quality, the fire regulations or compliance with building standards.

The failure of his apartment development at Longboat Quay to meet fire safety standards puts 600 residents at risk of evacuation, not to mention financial ruin.

The nine-year-old gated complex of 298 units is located on the south side of the Liffey, at Sir John Rogerson's Quay. Back in January, the Fire Brigade considered evacuating residents, but issued a Fire Safety notice this week. Also, this week, at the Public Accounts Committee, Nama announced it had spent millions of euro on repairing other McNamara developments.

In 2011, Mr McNamara announced he was 'broke' and owed €1.5bn. He then resigned from 60 companies. Why, now that he is conveniently out of bankruptcy, is he allowed to develop property for other people to live in? It's like welcoming Volkswagen's latest model on to the market.

Unlike former IRA prisoner and bricklayer Tom McFeely, developer of Priory Hall and an Ailesbury Road neighbour, Bernard McNamara comes from a building dynasty. His father Michael McNamara founded the company and Bernard, who should know better than to cut building regulation corners, was a Fianna Fáil councillor.

It took the death of a father of two small children for Phil Hogan, the predecessor of Alan Kelly as Environment Minister, to take any notice of the fire safety debacle at Priory Hall. What will it take this time to redress the Longboat Quay apartment building failure?

The owners and occupiers may be in mortgage debt or paying high rent, and are now faced with repair work of €4m, some of which the nominal landlords, Dublin Docklands Authority, has pledged to pay.

But Docklands is in the process of being wound up. Nama owns 18 of the apartments and a receiver is involved in the development.

To avoid years of nightmare for the residents, the entire mess must be settled outside of litigation, the Environment Minister must lead on this one. It is all too easy for our public administration to defer responsibility behind defence lawyers.

Millions are spent in court, instead of providing the services they are supposed to provide.

McNamara is not the first developer to leave his eye off compliance detail. Developers rarely visit their building projects. Their part in the scheme is to pull the funds together to buy the land, do lunch and let the legals take over. They will use an architectural firm which is already owed money on a previous project and appoint a project manager who will be their eyes and ears at meetings.

Obviously, before anything can be approved for construction, the local authority must examine design, services, traffic, fire, etc. Once permission is granted, regular inspections should be carried out by public service officials, based on accurate submissions from consultants. The keepers and enforcers of our building regulations are employed to do this. They are not paid to ignore the specifications of their role. Similarly, ministers and junior ministers have sought a public mandate to ensure public policy is implemented. Yet the failure, oversights and shortcomings of all those responsible for Longboat Quay has ultimately impacted on the innocent residents, who bought in good faith.

Nominally, before the Priory Hall regulation amendments, there were robust building by-laws in place. In particular, since the Stardust tragedy, fire regulations are the most stringent. I am aware of this as a historic building specialist. A fire officer will tell me the preservation of a Georgian staircase is immaterial, compared to saving lives. If a fire-proof lobby is needed and the decorative plasterwork is disturbed, so be it. Yet, when it comes to new construction, where it should be easier to comply with standards, corners are cut, so that greater profits are made.

If non-compliant elements are concealed within walls, it is impossible to tell whether service ducts are fire-protected unless opening up works are carried out.

The result? Innocent purchasers are duped, their investment plummets in value, their home, their sanctuary is disrupted and their daily lives turned into a wretched battle with bureaucrats.

The Department, Docklands, Dublin City Council have a lot to answer for. If Bernard McNamara is building again, let the first project be the supervised repairs to Longboat Quay at his own expense. Anyone else who owed €1.5bn and didn't pay it back, would be in jail.

Deirdre Conroy is an Architectural Historian. Twitter: @DeirdreConroyIE

Irish Independent

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