Lessons of Priory Hall

Tue, Oct 15, 2013, 01:00

Few victims of the property bust have been quite so unfortunate as the 240 residents of Priory Hall. Not only did they pay inflated prices for their apartments on the north fringe of Dublin City in 2007, but it turned out that they had purchased the equivalent of a pig-in-a-poke. The shoddy buildings, developed by former IRA hunger striker Tom McFeely, were found on inspection to be major fire hazards and all of the residents had to be evacuated.

They were put up in hotels initially and later in apartments under the control of Nama – all at the expense of Dublin City Council. It is estimated that this has already cost well over €5 million and that the final bill could be as high as €7 million; an appeal by the council to the Supreme Court is still pending.

Two years passed, with no sign of an end to the trauma inflicted on Priory Hall residents. Tragically, it took the suicide of one of them, Fiachra Daly*, and a heartfelt plea to Taoiseach Enda Kenny by his partner, Stephanie Meehan, to galvanise action at the highest level. Remarkably, this knocking together of heads produced the terms of a settlement after three weeks of intensive negotiations.

Under the deal, the banks will write off mortgages and give new ones to owner-occupiers for (more affordable) housing elsewhere, while the council takes over the abandoned buildings and brings them up to acceptable fire safety standards at an estimated cost of €10 million; most of the units will then be sold on the open market, presumably under a new name.

But Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan cannot avoid dealing equitably with the wider issue of building control. The amended regulations made by him do not go far enough, as they leave architects or engineers exposed to personal liability by certifying that the buildings they have designed comply with the regulations in every respect.

This is particularly unfair in the context of a building industry that remains largely unregulated, with only a commitment to introduce registration for contractors on a voluntary basis with a view to making it a statutory requirement in 2015 – if the Construction Industry Federation will agree.

Widespread unease among architects about the way some believe they are being “hung out to dry” led to several former presidents of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) to call an extraordinary general meeting of its members in Dublin tonight. What galls those involved is the apparent determination of the Department of the Environment to evade any responsibility on the part of the State or local authorities for failing to ensure that buildings are being built in compliance with the regulations, through regular inspections during the course of construction.

This disgraceful evasion must end.

*This article was edited on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

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