A whistleblower has accused one of Ireland’s biggest housing associations of operating developments that fall short of fire safety regulations, misusing public funds, and wrongly keeping construction sites open during a Covid lockdown.
A file of alleged irregularities at Co-operative Housing Ireland (CHI) was submitted to the Charities Regulator and to the Department of Housing in recent months, and in legal documents before the circuit court.
The allegations, made by a former staff member, range from governance to fire safety, to financial issues, all of which are denied by CHI.
The housing association said this weekend it is “fully contesting” the issues and has appointed a barrister to independently investigate the allegations contained in the protected disclosure.
The organisation is a not-for-profit charity that receives substantial public funds to acquire or build affordable homes, and has provided more than 6,000 homes since its inception in 1973.
The whistleblower, who held a senior position at CHI, accuses the organisation of acquiring building or housing projects that are a “risk to life” of the tenants and staff because they are allegedly not compliant with building regulations.
Three developments in particular are not compliant with their fire safety certificate or building regulations, the whistleblower has claimed in protected disclosures.
One housing complex purchased by CHI was allegedly issued with a completion certificate, even though the building work was incomplete, and concerns remained about fire safety.
At another housing complex, an independent consultant’s report completed last year highlighted fire safety concerns, including an absence of firebreaks in the external insulation, creating the potential for a fire to spread “uncontrollably”. The whistleblower claimed remedial works were not carried out.
Another charge is that the housing association allegedly bought a “defective” housing estate, despite being made aware there were concerns about subsidence and of an alleged “bribery” attempt during the construction of the site.
The whistleblower also claims to have raised concerns about radon gas protection in at least two developments, both of which were occupied by tenants at the time.
In addition, the whistleblower claims the housing association kept some of its construction sites open during the Covid-19 lockdown in January last year by “misrepresenting” the building completion dates.
All construction sites were ordered to close at the time, with exemptions granted only to social housing projects in specific circumstances which were close to completion within a set time frame.
CHI is alleged to have “misrepresented” the completion date of the projects to avail of the exemption.
The wrongdoings claimed by the whistleblower are alleged to have occurred during a period of significant expansion of the housing association’s output in recent years.
Legal documents claim CHI told staff in late December last year that it was streamlining the organisation, and a number of roles were later made redundant.
The whistleblower, who had reported alleged wrongdoing at various times over a two-year period, claims he was effectively dismissed for making protected disclosures, most recently in December last year.
He has lodged a complaint with the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) for unfair dismissal and he has sought the protection of the circuit court pending the outcome of the WRC inquiry.
CHI said it is constrained in what it can say because the case is before the courts, but has made it clear that it will vigorously contest the claims.
“The matter for adjudication before the court is fully contested by CHI in substantial lengthy affidavits which have been completed and lodged in court and the entire matter is sub judice. Co-operative Housing Ireland has pressed to have the matter addressed by the court at the earliest opportunity,” a statement said.
“The subject matter of the allegations have been referred by the CHI Board to a very experienced senior counsel for independent investigation. Appropriate regulatory bodies are informed.
“Residential developments owned and managed by CHI are certified by qualified professionals as being compliant with relevant planning permission and building and fire regulations.
“It is of importance that publication of these matters does not cause any unnecessary distress or concern to residents, prejudice future court proceedings or compromise the independent investigation.”
CHI received at least €22m in public grants and funds to provide social homes in 2020.
It is one of around 450 housing associations, or approved housing bodies, registered in Ireland. Traditionally, community-based organisations were tasked with providing homes for low-income families in local communities, and the sector is now central to delivering on the Government’s social housing policy.
Approved housing bodies are expected to deliver under half of the 9,000 new-build social homes expected to be completed this year.
The sector is not yet subject to mandatory regulation. A new Approved Housing Bodies Regulatory Authority opened for business earlier this year, but it still has no powers to investigate complaints against housing associations.
The Department of Housing confirmed minister Darragh O’Brien had received a protected disclosure but did not provide details.
It said submissions under the Protected Disclosures Act are first assessed before a decision is taken on how to proceed. It said potential health and safety concerns are always treated as a priority.
The Charities Regulator declined to comment.