The lessons of Priory Hall

 

THE PLIGHT of nearly 300 residents of Priory Hall, on Dublin’s northside, must send shivers down the spines of apartment-dwellers throughout the State. They are being forced to evacuate their homes by the High Court and move into a hotel for up to five weeks while urgent remedial works are carried out to deal with serious fire safety risks that should have been put right two years ago.

Developer Tom McFeely, who has had a slew of similar cases elsewhere following the discovery of defects, has undertaken to “work night and day” to remedy the problems afflicting Priory Hall; the one-time Maze hunger-striker has been ordered to surrender his passport by High Court President Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns and to supply the court with a statement of his financial affairs on Friday.

Fires in multi-storey buildings obviously present greater risks to people’s lives compared to ordinary houses. If there are no functioning smoke detection alarms, no fire doors to contain the spread of fire and structural defects that might even facilitate a greater conflagration, it is clear that the dangers are very real indeed.

Such defects may be more widespread now as a result of the “lash it up lads” modus operandithat seemed to apply so liberally during the boom years, with corners being cut and certificates of compliance signed off without inspection of newly-completed buildings before they become people’s homes. The fact that the entire regime of building control has been based on “self-certification” – by architects, engineers, surveyors and even the builders themselves – has undoubtedly facilitated such abuses.

The Building Regulations run to several volumes, with fire safety as a core concern. But despite being backed by “heavy penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for breaches” – in the words of the Department of the Environment – the current regime embodies the same type of “light-touch regulation” that turned the financial sector into a quagmire.

For without inspections by qualified personnel from local authorities, how can breaches be discovered? Yet such inspections were the exception, rather than the rule, during the boom years when there were so many apartment blocks under construction that local authorities – even in Dublin – did not have the resources to check that “self-certified” compliance certificates for new buildings reflected the reality on the ground or were not worth more than the paper they were written on.

With the once white-hot construction industry virtually at a standstill, local authorities can more easily police compliance with the Building Regulations for the relatively few buildings being built.

But they, and the under-employed building inspectorate in the Department of the Environment, should be poring over the backlog of uninspected apartment buildings from the boom years to ensure that others do not suffer the same privations as the residents of Priory Hall.