NCT for housing needed that prioritises safety risks
Will it take another Grenfell or Berkeley balcony collapse for action to be taken?
Five years ago, Construction 2020, the Government strategy for the construction sector, promised to address legacy issues including ghost estates, pyrite, and developments such as Priory Hall and envisaged an industry which “puts consumer interests and protection to the fore”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
A legacy used to be considered a gift. The “legacy issues” from the boom years of housebuilding are proving to be quite the opposite with windfall profits for those who built, to the cost of those who inherited.
Many who bought residential property during the boom years have paid twice, in high-priced homes and now in the slow unravelling of the consequences of poor quality construction, non-compliance with standards, deficiencies in block management, a lack of maintenance during years of austerity, and a blind eye from the State.
Uncertainty hangs over dozens of developments where residents are concerned about the unknown costs of remediation, the effect on property values, and, most importantly, the safety of their families.
It should not be is acceptable for the construction sector to regulate itself – as it continues to do
One property management company reports fire safety defects in almost all of 60 apartment blocks that it manages, prompting the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) to call for a national review to establish the extent of the problems. In recent years Nama alone has spent more than €100 million remediating residential property.
In Ireland, about 50,000 buildings (with two or more units) are home to more than 450,000 residents.
Not all were built in the last 20 years and not all have defects, but what is clear is that recent problems are systemic and that they are in houses as well as apartments.
Homeowners with little consumer protection and no recourse to insurance are now looking to the State for help.
A 2018 Oireachtas report, Safe As Houses?, has suggested a redress scheme supported by an industry levy, interest free loans or tax deductions. The government seem reluctant to expose the problem or to support the residents.
One of the barriers is a lack of transparency and inconsistency of approach. Some individual owners and management companies have engaged their own professionals to inspect their buildings, while others are reluctant to uncover problems. Some residents are unaware that they are in danger.
What they need is a standardised NCT for housing that prioritises safety risks and differentiates them from routine maintenance works. This checklist could provide immediate reassurance and allow works to be programmed and budgeted over a number of years.
It could also give confidence to purchasers, lending institutions and insurance companies, who currently may be overestimating the risks and further penalising the owners.
The Government response that building defects are matters for resolution between the contracting parties their insurers and warranty schemes reveals a focus on property.
The 'legacy issues' in housing have severely damaged public confidence in the sector
It also ignores the fact that building construction is regulated and that the core purpose of those regulations is “making provision for securing the health, safety and welfare of persons in buildings”.
Are we to wait for another tragedy? In recent years, the Grenfell Tower fire and the Berkeley balcony collapse caused catastrophic loss of life and trauma for the communities affected.
Closer to home, there have been a series of “near misses” where fires occurred in daytime or were contained quickly. The frontline staff in the fire services, whose own lives are being put at risk, have also called for a national audit, saying that “local authorities must act now in order to ensure we do not experience a preventable fire tragedy in this country”.
It should not be is acceptable for the construction sector to regulate itself – as it continues to do – and for the most significant purchase of most people’s lives not to have consumer protection. Food safety is effectively regulated, as is aviation, hospitals, creches, and workplaces, because it is not just about public safety, it is also a matter of public confidence.
These problems are not new. In 1978, a Dáil debate about housing defects in Finglas heard that “this is a tragedy because many of these people are mortgaged to the hilt . . . and not only can they not take [the builders] to court . . . they cannot afford to get these repairs done themselves”.
A year earlier, the Law Reform Commission had highlighted the deficiencies and the need for legislation, saying that “the modern purchaser/tenant . . . highly mobile unit living in an urban environment.. lacks the finance to make more than minor repairs” . It recognised the inherent weaknesses in speculative housing where buyers have no certainty of recourse to a developer or access to meaningful insurance.
A failure to protect buyers in the following 25 years is at the root of the problems we see now. The Building Control reforms in 2014 did not introduce any new rights or consumer protections. As such, buyers in 2019 have no more certainty about resolving future defects than the Finglas homeowners did in the 1970s.
Five years ago, Construction 2020, the Government strategy for a renewed construction sector, promised “to address legacy issues arising from the boom, including ghost estates, pyrite, and developments such as Priory Hall” and envisaged an industry which “puts consumer interests and protection to the fore”.
Looking ahead, the challenge of growing sustainable cities will only be met if more dense housing communities are more attractive than traditional alternatives.
Density is not about high rise, it is about homes in closer proximity to each other, and that brings more risks and more shared responsibilities.
The response must be quality design, higher standards of space and construction, and robust systems for management, maintenance and consumer protection.
The “legacy issues” in housing have severely damaged public confidence in the sector. It can only be repaired by opening up and fixing the problems.
Orla Hegarty is an assistant professor and course director for the professional diploma (architecture) in the school of architecture, planning and environmental policy in UCD