Up until last Wednesday, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien was still referencing the most controversial aspect of his mica plan in responses to parliamentary questions.
Reports had been rife that the Government was planning to drop the sliding scale – a way to calculate the level of redress available to owners of defective homes based on the square footage of the property – but O’Brien still mentioned it.
Then on Thursday, he appeared before the Oireachtas housing committee and said it was “unlikely there will be a sliding scale in the final set-up”, with his comments going under the radar on the day.
When the Government announced an enhanced scheme for mica-affected properties last November, it quickly became obvious that the scale was one of the most controversial elements. The proposal was that grants would cover rebuilding costs at €145 per sq ft on the first 1,000sq ft, €110 for the next 1,000sq ft and €100 thereafter. Homeowners swiftly said the scale would have to go as it meant they could be left footing bills of up to tens of thousands of euro.
Political sources say that in an attempt to take the heat out of the issue, it was kicked on to the Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland (SCSI) to ensure that the per sq ft price was a fair reflection of the cost.
“The sliding scale was only ever supposed to be an indicator, but it shouldn’t have been put in there because it became this sort of holy grail,” a source said.
The latest fly in the ointment was the society saying it does not use sliding scales in any of its construction cost reports. And so, the most controversial element of the plan has been dropped in favour of a system which will see an estimated rebuild cost given for eight different types of houses. These range from a two-bed terrace house to a five-bed in a rural area.
Questions have immediately arisen about whether this will leave the State exposed to a significantly higher bill than the €2.2 billion already set aside.
“We don’t know yet, we won’t know until the SCSI come back at the end of the month with their final report,” one source said.
Another Coalition figure said they would be “surprised” if the bill rises much beyond what was already budgeted for.
Behind closed doors, it’s the same story as last year, with civil servants and officials trying to temper the expectations and desires of the political system.
“There is massive resistance amongst the officials to any extra costs – they were uncomfortable enough as it was,” one source said.
Indeed, some officials have expressed a belief that the demands of mica homeowners were previously “off the scale” in financial terms.
The homeowners have run a relentless and exhausting campaign highlighting the scale of the damage they are being forced to live with because of the material causing blocks in their homes to crumble, and the dangers posed by their defective homes.
The same issues look set to arise again: a desire to ensure there are controls on spending versus homeowners protesting that they cannot afford to face large costs to repair their homes.
Another pressure point building is that the works supported will only cover the cost of restoring houses to pre-2007 building standards. The Government says it was always intended that homes would be rebuilt on a like-for-like basis and it seems they intend to hold firm on this, for now at least.
One political source also cautioned that another issue could emerge as a hot potato. The Housing Agency will, in time, act as agents for each local authority in assessing, testing and categorising the redress applications received. Crucially, they may also decide which of the worst-affected homes will be prioritised.
“There is concern about this becoming a political issue, as homeowners compete with other homeowners to get their properties fixed first. What will the criteria be? What happens when disputes arise?” they said.
With weeks to go until the SCSI issues its final report, there is still a lot of road left in this long-running issue.