Having the political will to prevent another Priory Hall

Improved building regulations and enforcement measures necessary

Residents and supporters protesting  outside  Priory Hall in 2012. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Residents and supporters protesting outside Priory Hall in 2012. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Priory Hall has become a symbol of much that was rotten during the Celtic Tiger years. We had a system that was designed to fail and fail it did. It was a human and financial disaster. Refurbishment and temporary accommodation cost the taxpayer €40 million. Sixty two families went through hell campaigning for years to get proper support and redress. For Fiachra Daly the stress was too much. The 38-year-old father of two took his own life in July 2015.

While the north Dublin housing development is probably the worst case of building defects to come to public attention, it is not the only one.

Millfield Manor, Balgaddy, Longboat Quay and Beacon Quarter South in Dublin and Bru na Sionna in Shannon are just some of the private and public housing developments where significant breaches of building and/or fire safety regulations have been identified.

Elsewhere, owners and tenants, living in homes affected by pyrite and mica are still campaigning for redress.

Many other developments where problems were uncovered never hit the headlines as residents quietly negotiated settlements with developers and public bodies.

Building defects

We do not know the full extent of the building control failures from the heady days of the last housing boom. What we do know is the system failed twice. In the first instance it failed to ensure that people’s homes were built to legal standards. In the second instance it failed, and continues to fail, homeowners who discover serious building defects.

In the coming years we are going to see building on a scale similar to the late 1990s and early 2000s. Both the public and private sector are set to increase the building of houses and apartments.

The big question is whether our building control system is in better shape today than during the Celtic Tiger era. Are consumer protections any stronger than when hard working families paid huge sums of money for their houses and apartments during the boom. Is another Priory Hall possible?

The big question is whether our building control system is in better shape today than during the Celtic Tiger. Are consumer protections any stronger than when hard working families paid huge sums of money for their houses and apartments during the boom. Is another Priory Hall possible?

Everyone now accepts that the old system of self-certification and limited site inspections was responsible for past failures such as Priory Hall. In response the Government introduced the Building Control Amendment Regulations (BCAR) more commonly known as SI 9.

Since 2014 builders and developers have been required to employ assigned designers and certifiers to inspect their sites and file certificates of compliance with Local Authorities Building Control Management System (BCMS). Government also created a voluntary Construction Industry Register (CIRI) managed by the Construction Industry Federation to register contractors and deal with complaints.

Construction register

The BCAR system was undoubtedly an improvement on the previous building control regime. However, the Oireachtas Housing Committee heard compelling arguments last year that questioned its independence and warned that it remained a form of self-certification.

Concern was also raised that continuing to locate the construction register within the main lobby group for the industry was not appropriate, especially as the register is soon to be put on a statutory footing.

Arising from these concerns the recommendations in the Housing Committee’s focused on four key areas.

In order for the building control system to be fully independent we have called for a Building Control and Consumer Protection Agency. It would work with local authorities to ensure consistency in application of building and fire safety regulations. It would conduct research, hold the industry register and the BCMS. It would also deal with complaints and provide information for the public concerned about possible latent defects.

Alongside the new agency, the committee recommended significant changes to SI9. We felt strongly that the link between the certifiers and the developer/builder must be broken. This would best be achieved by the local authority employing the certifiers directly alongside a greater level of independent local authority inspections.

The report also proposes a package of measures to ensure greater protection for homebuyers, including mandatory latent defects insurance and legislative reforms including transferable warranties and longer statues of limitations.

There was also a strong feeling in the committee that the State must accept its responsibility for the failures of the past. Priory Hall was only possible in the context of a badly designed and poorly reassured building control regime. A more comprehensive redress scheme for those affected by historic defects must be put in place and our report outlined a number of possible funding options that could underpin such a scheme.

We know the human and financial cost of failures like Priory Hall. The question is whether we have the political will to ensure our building control and consumer protection systems are robust enough to ensure such failures never happen again.

Eoin Ó Broin TD is Sinn Féin spokesman on housing, planning and local government and rapporteur of the Oireachtas Housing Committee report Safe as Houses?

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