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Tomorrow’s deadline for fire safety submissions comes over 20 years after building regulations were promised, writes PAT IGOE

TOMORROW AT noon is the deadline for the submission of suggestions to the Department of the Environment on how to improve fire safety in apartment blocks.

The Government’s proposals will then be published later this year for comment by the public and the building industry.

Since taking office, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan TD has repeated the Government’s promise to strengthen building controls for apartment buildings, including their fire safety.

Last year’s programme for government promised “tougher and clearer rules relating to fire safety in apartment buildings”.

It is loosely estimated that more than 500,000 people in Ireland live in apartments. For them, Government plans to tighten controls on the quality of buildings and their fire safety will be welcome.

But the extent to which the Government’s plans can improve the situation at existing apartments is uncertain.

There is broad consensus that current safety protections are inadequate. There is also broad consensus, and indeed sympathy, that apartment owners were, and are, entitled to believe that the developers, the builders, the banks, the builders’ surveyors, the banks’ surveyors, their own surveyors, the solicitors, the estate agents and the local building authorities would surely provide sufficient protection for them to have proper fire safety standards.

But measures in the Building Control Act of 1990 to ensure that important safety parts of the building regulations would be implemented have still not been introduced, more than 20 years later.

The Act followed the tragic Stardust fire in Artane, Dublin, in 1981. The new regulations reflected international best practice in terms of standards to be attained, but they did not provide adequately for enforcement, according to architect Tony Reddy, former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.

It could be argued that the fault lies with both the Department of the Environment and the builders.

The State has not taken on legal responsibility for ensuring compliance with the building regulations, part B of which cover fire safety.

Builders, for their part, do not want to be held up by public inspectors delaying progress by inspecting the building materials and procedures, including the fire safety, at every stage.

Instead, to give apartment buyers some degree of protection, voluntary “opinions on compliance” with the building regulations by architects were agreed and are now standard documents.

But these are non-statutory documents. They are also subject to serious limitations, including that they can state that the architect is relying on information provided by the builder.

Most – but perhaps not all – builders are truthful in their assurances to architects.

It would require a considerably greater time commitment by an architect to give an unqualified opinion on compliance with all regulations, including those regarding safety.

But without the State checking compliance by builders, as happens in most developed countries, this is what the apartment owner should be getting.

The Government’s proposals include that such unqualified opinions be provided by architects. They will be submitted to the local Building Control Authority and will be available to the public on a public register.

The 1990 Act provides for certification of compliance with the building regulations at three stages – before, during and after the building work.

But this has not happened.

The 1990 law also provides for issue by the local Building Control Authority of a certificate of approval.

This has not happened either.

The appalling Stardust tragedy in 1981 led to significant improvements in rules for buildings and safety.

However, there is broad consensus that a lot more needs to be done. Apartment dwellers are now looking to Mr Hogan for significantly greater protection.

Pat Igoe is a solicitor in Blackrock, Co Dublin