The Irish Times view on poor construction standards: Government is ignoring a dangerous situation

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy must take action to protect consumers

‘Within the past year, more than 2,000 homes and apartments have been found to be in breach of established fire safety and structural standards.’ File photograph: Getty Images

‘Within the past year, more than 2,000 homes and apartments have been found to be in breach of established fire safety and structural standards.’ File photograph: Getty Images

 

Within the past year, more than 2,000 homes and apartments have been found to be in breach of established fire safety and structural standards and are likely to need expensive remedial work. Problems are not confined to Celtic Tiger buildings. Inadequate consumer protection legislation, corner-cutting and large-scale bankruptcies mean that the cost is likely to fall on the owners of these properties rather than on developers and their insurers.

There appears to be a deliberate policy in Government to ignore the problem, not just in terms of its scale but by refusing to address its causes in a robust fashion or by offering those affected some prospect of financial support. Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has recognised the “absolute need” to do more to protect consumers. At the same time, however, he has ruled out the prospect of taking on “an open-ended liability” that the State could not afford.

Whatever about providing a life-line for unfortunate occupiers facing penury or homelessness, Murphy can take action to prevent a recurrence of dangerous building practices and to strengthen consumer rights. There have been calls for a housing regulatory authority with responsibility for inspections, to ensure building regulations and fire safety certificates are properly enforced. Such a body is urgently needed. It would also adjudicate on disputes between apartment owners and management companies.

The first task is to prevent further breaches of planning regulations and to protect consumers

Legislation introduced in 2014 to address an unregulated and ambiguous building environment has not worked. Bad old habits have re-emerged under a self-certification system where an assigned certifier, employed and paid for by a developer, carries out inspections under direction. As for fire safety requirements, local authorities issue these certificates when development plans are lodged and then rely on self-certification. Unlike in the UK, defects here must be reported and acted upon within six years of home completion – rather than after they become apparent.

More than 40 years ago, the Law Reform Commission identified the lack of legal protection for homebuyers and suggested strict insurance and licensing for builders. There has been limited change since but developers remain largely unregulated. And as Niamh Towey has reported in The Irish Times, a trickle of badly built and dangerous apartments is becoming a flow. Nama reported, four years ago, that half of the vacant properties under its control represented fire hazards. That is a scary situation.

The first task is to prevent further breaches of planning regulations and to protect consumers. The second is to establish the size of the problem. Involved agencies favour a methodical assessment of buildings across the State, so that remedial action can be taken over time. Elsewhere, reforming legislation is urgently required.

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