Consumers must come first after Priory Hall debacle

 

OPINION:TWO WEEKS ago Priory Hall residents received the devastating news that their homes were unsafe and would have to be vacated. This stressful ordeal has been visited on these people through no fault of their own and my thoughts and sympathy lie with the residents at this time, writes PHIL HOGAN

Understandably this has led to much debate on the role of the building control system and as Minister, I have rightly been subject to close questioning in the Oireachtas and in the media.

A press release from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) on October 19th and media comments from its members have taken a selective view of how the building control system operates.

The building regulations state that the responsibility for compliance rests primarily with developers and builders, who engage professionals such as architects to ensure statutory requirements are met. That trust with the industry has been broken and the only appropriate response to such legacy issues is to strengthen the system, which will give more protection to the consumer.

Last July, I announced measures that will improve compliance with the requirements of the building regulations and oversight of construction activity. This will mean, among other things, more inspections.

While it may not be much consolation to the residents of Priory Hall, Dublin City Council has brought those responsible for the building failures at Priory Hall to account under section 23 of the Fire Safety Act 1981.

There is much that can be done to improve the building control system to further protect the consumer. The department and the RIAI agree on the importance of quality of design and quality of construction.

I will introduce mandatory certificates confirming compliance by designers and builders with the statutory requirements of the building regulations. These mandatory certificates will mean what they say and will be signed by professionals who understand and accept their responsibilities and the liability that goes with the results of failing to meet those responsibilities.

As mandatory certification depends on the integrity of those concerned it must be balanced with more meaningful oversight of construction activity. All stakeholders, myself included, agree that a more rigorous inspection regime is needed.

I have approved proposals that will involve pooling of building control staff and resources across the local authorities to ensure more efficient and effective inspection arrangements, standardising local approaches to ensure nationwide consistency in building control administration and supporting the further development of the building control function.

In the last couple of weeks, the RIAI has painted a convenient picture of a light touch regulatory system in which the architect has limited involvement and is even prevented by some contractors from playing a meaningful role at construction stage. This is not the case. A few facts need to be established to round out the picture.

First, the State has a clear three-dimensional statutory framework for building control:

There are clear legal standards in the building regulations;

There are detailed technical guidance documents outlining how these standards can be achieved in practice, with responsibility for compliance resting primarily with developers/builders, and the professionals they hire, to ensure statutory requirements are met;

Responsibility for enforcement rests with local authorities. In this context building defects at Priory Hall were identified by Dublin City Council several years ago. Issues relating to compliance with planning permission conditions and with fire safety and building standards requirements have since that time been the subject of ongoing enforcement activities. Failure by the developer to honour court undertakings to remedy certain defects led to the latest High Court proceedings.

Second, the developer of Priory Hall was a member of homebond in 2004 when works commenced. Units there are registered under the Homebond Guarantee Scheme.

Third, the homes there were sold when provided with an architect’s opinion on compliance with building regulations (form 1), a document published by the RIAI in agreement with the Law Society for conveyancing.

Relevant forms for Priory Hall were signed by a registered member of the RIAI and accompanied by the membership stamp confirming that architectural services were provided at design and construction stages at the level known as Schedule A Services of the RIAI Client-Architect Agreement for the provision of Architectural Services (stages 1-8) 2002 edition; designs (based on drawings submitted by the signatory) are in substantial compliance with the building regulations, fire safety certificates were properly obtained.

The homebond scheme and the completion of the RIAI form depend on inspection activity, and this is relevant to any full understanding of the situation at Priory Hall.

Consumers need the system to be strengthened.

I believe that mandatory certification in tandem with increased inspection activity by local authorities and industry will significantly strengthen our system and give consumers the protection they deserve.


Phil Hogan is Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government

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