Opinion

Tuesday 21 January 2020

How Ireland can guard against a firestorm

As we seek a way ahead for residents of defective buildings, it is time for an independent regulator, writes Catherine Martin

The Priory Hall development in north Dublin. What can be done to support innocent victims and also give future purchasers some assurance that the State, however belated, now has this crisis firmly under control, and will never again be found asleep at the supervisory wheel? Photo: PA
The Priory Hall development in north Dublin. What can be done to support innocent victims and also give future purchasers some assurance that the State, however belated, now has this crisis firmly under control, and will never again be found asleep at the supervisory wheel? Photo: PA

Catherine Martin

When it comes to shoddy and defective construction of homes in Ireland during the boom times, occupiers are still discovering gross inadequacies - to their personal cost.

Some young families who have moved into their first homes have received the news that their apparently beautiful homes have inherent structural defects or present significant health and safety risks, rendering them fire traps.

With this unsettling news comes unanticipated financial grief and heartache. Their lives are turned upside down and they are hurled into a heartless financial pressure zone - all as a result of the deeds of greed-driven cowboy builders.

We saw this in Priory Hall in 2011. We saw it in Longboat Quay in 2015. Now, in 2017, we can see it in my own constituency of Dublin Rathdown, where lack of fire-proofing and water ingress problems have left hundreds of people worried about the danger and the financial implications for apartments they bought in good faith - wrongly presuming that basic building standards had been complied with.

And in recent days, a report has been published finding that the construction of up to 6,000 homes in Donegal and north Mayo have been adversely affected by problems in their concrete blockwork, causing buildings to disintegrate and external plastering to crack.

What can be done to support these innocent victims and also give future purchasers some assurance that the State, however belated, now has this crisis firmly under control, and will never again be found asleep at the supervisory wheel?

Each of these high-profile debacles had different issues. The only constant is the Government's failure to offer real support to those in need, plus its failure to put in place a legislative programme aimed at tackling the problem.

Government seems to prefer a rudderless 'wait-and-see' approach as we stumble from crisis to crisis.

The Building Control (Amendment) Regulations of 2014 introduced no new legal remedies for existing developments. This means the culture of self-regulation in the building industry is still the norm across certain building sites in Ireland.

Effective building regulation requires an independent regulator - and that is why many experts in this field have made a convincing case for the establishment of an independent Irish building authority, at arm's length from the vested interest of the construction industry.

An independent national body would oversee building control on a nationwide basis and provide a supervisory regulatory function in relation to all those involved in the construction industry.

But alongside this it is vital that we do not lose sight of the goal of a real and lasting long-term solution for residents of defective buildings.

This involves Government both initiating and delivering fair solutions for the families affected within a specified time frame.

Simple first steps would include clarification from Government whether or not it is serious about offering tax relief for the undertaking of essential repair works.

Giving income tax relief in respect of the repair costs incurred, together with a suspension of Local Property Tax and VAT relief (along the lines of the Home Renovation Initiative), are all practical and reasonable measures which can - if the political will exists - be done quickly to help ease the burden on residents.

Secondly, the Government should consider creating a loan fund for those who cannot pay for repairs. Section 71 of the 1966 Housing Act has a model for how this can work, and this needs to be adapted and rolled out by local authorities to give assistance to homeowners.

In conjunction with the implementation of these measures, the Government needs to introduce a transmissible warranty of quality from builders/developers in favour of all subsequent purchasers - so that damages can be sought from the original developers, ensuring there can no longer be any place to run, no place to hide for rogue builders.

A consumer-friendly dispute resolution mechanism for homeowners should be established. In order to ensure the State will never again be taken as a soft touch, it is crucial that increased resources must be pooled into this arm of local government with responsibility for robustly monitoring new builds. To be taken seriously, a properly resourced enforcement agency must work in tandem with the supervisory division to ensure that inadequate building standards will never be tolerated.

These and other measures feature in a motion being brought before the Dail by the Green Party this week.

In the rush to build the new homes that are so urgently needed, it is essential that it is done right this time - that all homes are built to an acceptable and safe standard. Last week's inferno in west London is a stark reminder that the overriding priority underpinning all construction must be the safety of residents.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about fair and equitable solutions - now is the time for the Government to demonstrate its bona fides and deliver. Any panic promises introduced to the electorate on the eve of the next election will be seen for what they are.

Doing nothing is not an option. That would represent an abysmal failure of Government.

The Dail has a responsibility to lead, to create a legislative framework which protects and provides a comprehensive set of options and solutions for all persons - young and old, with families and without - caught up in this maelstrom.

This week every TD must do everything in their power to prevent this happening to another generation of homeowners.

Catherine Martin TD represents Dublin Rathdown and is deputy leader of the Green Party The motion on Building Standards, Regulations and Homeowner Protection is scheduled to be debated in the Dail this Wednesday

Sunday Independent

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