Thursday 5 December 2019

New building register provides platform for progress

The long-promised register of approved construction professionals has been launched.
The long-promised register of approved construction professionals has been launched.
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

IF the lawnmower you've just bought goes jabberwocky then you can take it back to the shop and they'll sort you out with a working replacement at the counter.

If the retailer refuses to change it then you have enforceable rights to fall back on – as underlined by Irish consumer law.

There are higher authorities to take your case to – the consumer Ombudsman being an obvious one.

The same pretty much applies to anything or any service that you pay for which doesn't work or do what it says on the tin.

From baked beans, to cars to holidays to restaurant meals you have rights. For financial packages and insurances there is the financial ombudsman to turn to for recourse.

Until this week, however, the same has not been true for a new home purchaser or the homeowner who commissions renovation or extension work. As a result, the Irish new home buyer has arguably been the most exposed consumer of all.

And there have been plenty of wonky homes and shoddy building work throughout Ireland these last few decades – particularly during the property bubble.

Through the boom when 60,000 plus homes per annum were being sold, buyers had to contend with lengthy snag lists that were often never put right.

Neither did they have any means of enforcing proper home completion and the making good of unfinished and shoddy workmanship.

Neither, as we have discovered, did they have any comeback when it all went wrong.

From recent years, when any numpty who could wave a hammer classed himself as a "builder", buyers in new schemes had to tolerate tradesmen who deliberately messed up their work just so they could come back in the evenings to earn big nixers from their victims – paid twice to put their own mistakes right.

We came to accept shoddy new home standards when we'd never have accepted a dodgy toaster.

At its worst, Irish consumers were left with real structural disasters of unsaleable, unsafe and unsound properties (the 1,000 plus pyrite cases), homelessness and, in at least one poignant case (Priory Hall), suicide.

There have been past pretences at covering the consumer's corner, not least local authorities who took big levies to pay fat-cat wages but failed to inspect buildings as was their responsibility.

There was the industry's one-time guarantee scheme. Homebond promised to protect homeowners for a 10-year period against problems which might arise.

The reality was that the guarantee wouldn't cover faults unless they were wholly "structural" – it didn't count if your driveway sank, if your electrics were cross-wired or your plumbing leaked.

And when faults which were indisputably structural arose in the form of pyrite damaged properties, Homebond ran for the hills and refused to cover the 1,000 plus homeowners affected.

So now, finally, there appears to be some hope for real consumer rights for the Irish public when dealing with building contractors, sub-contractors and tradesmen. Because this week "Big Phil" Hogan finally launched his long-promised register of approved construction professionals.

Under the new Construction Industry Register Ireland (CIRI), developers, builders, sub-contractors and tradesmen who achieve a set of predetermined standards will appear on a list of recommended tradesmen.

The register, which is available to members of the public online, will show construction companies, sole traders and builders operating in your region.

The primary goals here are to secure more tax revenue and to protect the construction establishment via the CIRI's unstated mission to wipe out the black market builder once and for all.

The body which administers the CIRI is voluntary, organised under the CIF and it meets in the CIF's premises. So far not very promising.

But Minister Hogan insisted on a public complaints process being built in and therefore, for the first time ever, the Irish public finally has some comeback.

For the consumer of construction, the new CIRI system is important for three reasons.

First: real standards are required for contractors and sub-contractors to join the list. These cover tax compliance, insurance, education and a committal to regulation compliance and ongoing training.

Second: As we mentioned, there is a complaints procedure and members of the public can make submissions in an attempt to have parties removed from the register.

Third: we are promised that the register's 10-member panel of appeal will only be half-filled with construction industry heads. The promise is that the other five are government appointed.

There must however be serious doubts about whether this process has any real teeth at all: for example, no one in the sector can seriously imagine non-paid appeals committee members plodding out to a West Dublin estate to inspect Mrs Murphy's badly plastered ceiling. And will bad builders really be knocked off the list, or simply asked politely to pull their socks up?

But it's a start.

And on its foundations perhaps some truly decent measures can at last be built to ensure a safe house for the small consumer of Irish construction.

For a start, I see that my old builder isn't on the list.

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