Tuesday 21 November 2017

Priory Hall mess highlights need for change

National blood pressure will spike if we pick up the tab for shoddy developing, writes Brendan Keenan

THE Taoiseach scored a palpable hit on Gerry Adams when he referred to Tom McFeely, of Priory Hall apartment block fame, as an acquaintance of the Sinn Fein leader.

Mr Adams missed the opportunity to score one back by asking if the Taoiseach knew Phil Hogan, who is Environment Minister, and therefore responsible for how things are built.

Of course, Mr Hogan was not there at the time. It was chaps like John Gormley and Noel Dempsey. But his officials were there, and Mr Hogan is now the man in charge. There is only one desk on which this buck finally stops -- and it is not Mr McFeely's.

Flagrant breaches of the building regulations are another of those things (like uncertified income statements for mortgages, top-up loans given under the counter, and strange goings-on at Anglo) that "everyone" knew about and yet nobody officially did.

It often seems that the dogs in the street are the best informed creatures in Ireland -- better informed than ministers, public servants and regulators claim to have been.

I'm no building specialist, but I heard more than once that various constructions were often quite different from the plans approved. This allegation was usually that more flats were built than had been approved, and that it was possible to game the system by getting more tax reliefs as a result.

Now I see a fire expert confirming something even worse -- that rooms had been built behind kitchens, creating fire traps, even though such rooms would never be approved. And this was not Priory Hall.

Perhaps the conversation which worried me most was with a building worker from the North who said he stopped taking jobs in the Republic because his conscience would not let him participate in the kind of construction scams that he had come across.

We may be about to find out how widespread all these practices were. If you think you are angry now, just wait. Most of the anger is because the taxpayer has had to cover the banking losses from inflated development. Luckily for the national blood pressure, fewer people have noticed that we citizens largely paid for the developments in the first place, so generous were the tax reliefs.

Now the possibility looms that the taxpayer may have to refit many of them to legal standards. There is no one else with the necessary funds. Oh yes, and they might get sued as well, because of the abject failures of departments, councils and regulators.

There was a lot of guff about self-regulation and light regulation as a cause of these debacles.

If you want to see how self-regulation works take a ride on Dublin's Luas.

You have to buy the ticket yourself before you get on and there is nothing to stop you getting on without one. But inspectors regularly get on too -- so regularly that most people do not take the chance of being caught.

If they came on less often, more people would risk not paying the fare. If it appeared that they never checked, I fear a very large percentage would not pay.

That is human nature, and there is no reason to think developers are better people than the rest of us, not even registered ones.

Much was made of the fact that less than 20 per cent of developments were to be inspected. But if those 20 per cent were randomly chosen, inspected rigorously, and punishments imposed for serious breaches, it might well have been enough to make the rest behave.

Yet this was not done. We are told that there were insufficient "resources". Those who call for blanket regulation, in this and other areas, should reflect on the chances that a State apparatus, which seemingly cannot properly inspect one in five developments, will be able to do the lot.

We have the human tragedy for the residents, the direct costs of dealing with the mess, and the unquantifiable costs of an administrative system that appears to be more of a drag on the economy than a support.

There were comments recently about how Ireland has fewer requirements for structural reform than Greece or Portugal, showing how much better things are run here. Perhaps they are, but one could easily make the case that the reform is not nearly onerous enough. Perhaps the IMF has not yet met the dogs in the street?

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