Building regulations: Politics over planning

Once-off housing not in the best interests of towns and villages

Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly is a political fixer of some renown. He "fixed" Irish Water with downstream consequences that have left it on the Government's balance sheet. He tried to fix homelessness by requisitioning vacant Dublin City Council-owned flats, until councillors baulked at the idea. And now he's fixed the Building Regulations not by carrying out a thorough review, but merely by effectively exempting a whole category of housing – single houses in rural areas – from having to comply, with the aim of avoiding allegedly "excessive" fees charged to bungalow builders by architects or structural engineers for carrying out inspections to ensure compliance.

This classic piece of political clientilism was executed by Mr Kelly and Minister of State for Housing and Planning Paudie Coffey, both of whom represent rural constituencies, against official advice that it would leave the owners of single houses "vulnerable" in a situation where "risks to public safety are known to occur".

The officials also debunked the notion that bungalow builders were being “held to ransom” by professional certifiers by noting that the general level of fees charged were reasonable, at €3,000 to €4,000 per house – significantly less than the overblown claims. Yet the two ministers went ahead with their amendment, for purely political reasons, without addressing the wider issues.

Announcing this “major reform” to his own constituents, Mr Kelly said it “will benefit people in Co Tipperary who want to build their own homes by lifting a huge burden of cost and red tape off their backs.” And so, the Building Regulations – ostensibly designed to avoid another Priory Hall fiasco – were bent to cater for them and for others throughout the State building their own homes in the countryside, adding to the estimated half-a-million already built. Yet Mr Coffey is on record as saying that he wanted to see economic recovery “taking hold in our towns and villages”. If this is really his objective, the last thing he should be doing is giving another bonus to the one-off houses that are literally sucking the life out of towns and villages.