Anyone remember the Celtic Tiger? Ah, those were the days. We all partied. Tax incentives to build houses and apartments in every town and village, from one side of the city to the other. What were we building? About 100,000 units a year at the peak? Sure, what could possibly go wrong. Banks lined up in fierce competition to offer loans to builders and property developers, the slack-bellied, horny-handed business titans of the age. Once small businessmen (and yes, they were all men) whose fortunes rose and fell with the economic cycle and who knew the rough ways of the building site rather better than the sleek deal-making of the bank boardroom, many rather suddenly became immensely wealthy.
Some of their number relished the attendant celebrity – there was hardly an edition of the Sunday Independent that didn’t throb with technicolour tales of their latest deals, their lavish parties, their palatial new homes, their gilded excess. Some developed – along with thousands of houses and apartments – entertainingly complicated personal lives. Many hit the highway to impressive obnoxiousness. “We did a very clever thing now,” one developer announced to a table I sat at in a west Cork restaurant during the maddest of the mad years. “In order to avoid all you people coming down from Dublin, we bought an island. But of course then we had to get a helicopter.”
Ah, the helicopters. Everyone had to have a helicopter. Sure you weren’t a proper developer if you didn’t swan over to the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races in your helicopter. The local wits joked that it was like the last days of Saigon during race week.
The hangover inevitably came and, by God, it was merciless. Busted banks, bankrupt developers, ghost estates of unfinished houses; for the rest of us, pay cuts, unemployment, emigration, negative equity, cuts to public services, diminished life chances and an epidemic of personal and public gloom. Half a decade of austerity that cut our society deep and upended Irish politics to an extent that continues to reverberate today.
Now, 10 years after the hangover comes another legacy of the boom years. Turns out our friends the builders and developers were not just building tens of thousands of apartments every year; they were building tens of thousands of shoddy and dangerous apartments. Tens of thousands of shoddy apartments that now have to be remediated to make them safe.
For a couple of years, rumours about this issue have been hovering around parts of the Government like a spectre. Last year, a working group of officials finally reported and found a staggering level of negligence, malfeasance and worse in the construction industry. They estimated that between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of apartments and duplexes, or associated common areas, that were constructed between 1991 and 2013, “could be affected by one or more fire safety, structural safety or water ingress defects”. This means that between 62,500 and 100,000 units will require fixing. The average cost of remediation is approximately €25,000 per unit, the Department of Housing says, which means the final total bill will be between €1.5 and €2.5 billion. No doubt, like every other building job, they will all be done on time and come in on budget. It goes without saying that the tab will be picked up by the taxpayer. Thanking you.
So let’s just recap, shall we? The Government provided tax incentives for builders and developers. The lads availed of the tax incentives to avoid paying tax, quite properly and legally. They got rich – some of them fantastically so, complete with helicopters, islands, etc – but built apartments that were not just crappy but, in some cases, dangerously so. Now all this needs to be fixed. And the taxpayer going to pay for it.
The argument has been made that, actually, all this is the State’s fault, because it failed to enforce its own standards and laws. No doubt the inspection regime was lax to the point of invisibility. But the notion that this makes it the State’s fault if builders broke the law and flouted building standards regulations is specious. It’s like saying that the State is responsible for a bank robbery because it didn’t have a garda at the bank to prevent it.
Would it be too much to ask that there might be an effort to identify the people who were responsible for the substandard construction? Surely that cannot be too difficult to do. There are records of planning permissions, etc. Wouldn’t it be instructive to see if any of our heroes are still at work?
The Department of Housing says that it is drafting terms of reference for a review by a senior counsel into the causes of defective apartments. I fear this will not be a rapid process. The Construction Industry Federation was strangely silent about the whole business, would you believe, until prompted. Then it said it was “fully committed to implementation of the highest standards of building works and their certification by competent professionals and is committed to working with Government on these matters into the future”. Which is great, really.
Given that there is now lots of fine talk about introducing tax incentives to stimulate building – which might even, God help us, be a good idea, even if it is two years too late – could we perhaps try and ensure that the same heroes who landed us with the €2.5 billion bill for their past misdeeds don’t get the opportunity to repeat the performance? Could we compile a list of who built the crappy apartments so that we might consult it when considering a bit of home improvement? Or a social housing scheme? Seeing as we’re all going to be paying – again – for these lads’ Celtic Tiger adventures, would that really be too much to ask?