Almost as long as Deputy Kenny.
I hope the Bill will win cross-party support, and am aware certain aspects will do so. The Bill achieves good consumer protection on a number of levels. It will assure the public that people calling themselves architects, building surveyors and quantity surveyors are properly qualified. It also strengthens the enforcement of building control law to ensure that Ireland's high building control standards are fully adhered to. It provides for the energy rating of houses and commercial buildings and, together with new building regulations, the measures will bring long-term cost savings to householders and businesses and will help meet Ireland's greenhouse gas emission obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The Bill also marks a further move in implementing this Government's commitment to disability by requiring commercial buildings and apartment blocks to be certified as compliant with disability access requirements.
For over ten years we have experienced the greatest and most sustained building boom in the history of the State. Building output is now estimated at around €30 billion or 20% of GNP, double the EU average of 10% of GNP. We are now completing more than 80,000 new dwellings per annum or around four times the level of completions achieved in the early 1990s. Ireland is now achieving 20 house completions per 1,000 population, the highest by far in the EU. The net result of the sustained housing construction boom is that one third of our housing stock has been built in the past ten years.
With building activity running at all-time record levels, it makes sense to strengthen our building control system and to seek to improve the energy performance of our existing and new building stock. The Building Control Act 1990 provides the statutory basis for the making of our national building regulations. This Act replaced local, and somewhat outdated, by-laws, which only applied in some areas and varied in their requirements. Modern building regulations became operative in 1992. The regulations are performance-based, rather than prescriptive, in line with the current trend in many countries. This gives more flexibility in design and construction, provided the end building meets minimum performance criteria.
The regulations specify the statutory requirements for the construction of new buildings and the material alteration of existing buildings. They comprise 12 parts, A to M, covering areas such as structure, fire safety, materials and workmanship, sound insulation, conservation of fuel and energy, and access for people with disabilities.
The related technical guidance documents provide guidance to designers and builders on how to comply with the various parts of the regulations. While use of guidance documents is optional, they are in practice treated as the bibles of building and used almost universally by the construction industry. They are a best seller, at a modest price, in the Government Publications Office and are also available to view or download, free of charge, on my Department's website, www.environ.ie.
Various amendments have been made to the regulations since they were first introduced, including the introduction of a requirement that new dwellings be visitable by people with disabilities. There has been a significant increase in thermal performance and insulation standards for new buildings and for material alterations and extensions to existing buildings.
Changes to the building code are made in accordance with best practice for modern regulation. Draft building regulations are prepared in consultation with the broadly based Building Regulations Advisory Body, BRAB, and are subject to widespread public consultation. The net result is that the definitive building regulations generally win widespread support within the industry. However, it is timely to review and update the Building Control Act, to meet the challenges of construction today.
I will first address fire safety, and this is an appropriate day to do so. The fire safety certification of the designs of new non-domestic buildings and apartment blocks by the local building control authority has had a positive impact on the quality of fire engineering and on fire prevention. Approximately 6,500 such certificates are granted annually and less than 20 certificates, or less than 0.5%, are the subject of appeals to An Bord Pleanála. Today, as we sadly mark the 25th anniversary of the Stardust disaster, we must constantly remind ourselves of the need to be ever vigilant when it comes to fire safety. Twenty five years may seem a long time ago but for those who suffered loss or injury or who were there on the night the pain is still very real. The tribunal of inquiry which was established in 1981 made recommendations on fire services, fire prevention and related matters and, in particular relevance to this Bill, the need to put in place a proper system of building control. Since then, under the Building Control Act 1990, part B of the regulations set out the legal requirements for fire safety in the construction, extension and material alteration of or change of use in buildings. The related technical guidance document B provides guidance on how to comply with part B. The guidance was updated in 1997 to include bedroom window sizes for escape purposes in the event of fire and mains operated smoke alarms. I will shortly publish further amendments to part B, together with updated guidance.
All the recommendations of the Stardust tribunal have either been implemented directly or taken into account in the ongoing formulation of policy on fire safety and the development of the local authority fire services over the intervening period. Improvements have been carried out on a comprehensive basis, covering such areas as the financing and equipping of the local fire service, its organisation and staffing, training, the legislative framework and emergency planning. I propose in this Bill to tighten and update the requirements for the fire safety certificate process, as recommended by the Building Regulations Advisory Body.
Part M of the building regulations, which was operative since June 1992, sets out the legal requirements for access to and movement within non-domestic buildings for people with disabilities. Compliance with part M is an area of some concern to me, particularly as the requirements have been extended to new dwellings. I am anxious that the overall level of compliance will improve as designers and builders gain greater experience of working to the part M standards for dwellings, which in many cases have only applied in practice from 1 January 2004. It is often too late to seek to remedy disabled access deficiencies once construction is in progress or when a building is finished. That is why the Government has decided to introduce a disability access certificate system, along the lines of the fire safety certificate system, for new non-domestic buildings and new apartment blocks. This implements a core recommendation of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities.
I think all Deputies share my view that regulations, if not backed by proper enforcement, are greatly diminished in value. Good builders follow the code but, unfortunately, others may not fully adhere to the requirements. We need to create a level playing field on which minimum building standards are effectively applied to all builders. The local building control authorities are at the heart of our building control enforcement process and this Bill will greatly enhance their enforcement powers. However, I am not happy that the authorities are uniformly and consistently enforcing the building code despite measures taken at central level to help the authorities, including approval for the creation of building control officer posts, a substantial increase in building control fees in 1998 and the development and delivery of a customised training course for building control officers by FÁS. I propose to remind city and county managers of their personal responsibilities in terms of building control enforcement. Deputies will be aware that variations exist but they are unfair and should be addressed.
We have been reminded in recent times that oil supplies are limited and periodically uncertain. The demand for oil continues to rise and the price of crude oil has reached a historic peak of over $70 a barrel. We expect to substantially reduce energy used in heating buildings and the related C02 emissions as a result of recent changes which I made to part L building regulation standards for thermal performance and insulation and plan to further increase part L standards by 2008.
However the problems of oil supplies and climate change are global issues, which cannot be addressed at national level alone. The EU has adopted the energy performance of buildings directive and Ireland has developed an integrated action plan for the implementation of all its requirements. The draft plan was published for public consultation last April with a deadline of 31 July 2005 for comments. An interdepartmental working group, including representatives of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Sustainable Energy Ireland and my Department has been working on this plan, which I expect to publish and submit to the European Commission within the coming months. On 20 January, Ireland notified the European Commission of a package of legal and administrative measures taken or in the pipeline with regard to transposing the directive. I signed amending part L regulations, partly transposing articles 3 to 5 of the directive, on 21 December 2005. Sections 4 and 5 of this Bill further transpose articles 5 and 7 of the directive.
In the recent past, householders have in good faith engaged unqualified people who passed themselves off as building professionals to undertake the design and planning of new buildings or extensions. That is unacceptable. Under this Bill, only qualified people whose names are entered on relevant national registers will in future be entitled to lawfully use the title of architect, building surveyor or quantity surveyor.
The explanatory and financial memorandum provides more detail on the content of the Bill but I would like to touch on some of its main provisions. Under Part 2, amendment of the Building Control Act 1990, the Bill provides for changes in the fire safety certificate regime, as recommended by the Building Regulations Advisory Body. Among the changes is the introduction of a seven day notice or fast track procedure which must be accompanied by a valid fire safety certificate application and a declaration that the applicant will carry out any modification works required by the fire safety certificate when granted. This will cater for builders who are anxious to commence work on urgent projects without waiting up to two months for the application to be processed. The Bill will also provide for new applications for a revised fire safety certificate where a building design is changed to comply with conditions attached to a planning permission and the making of applications for regularisation certificates where buildings have commenced or have been completed without the necessary fire safety certificate, subject to the necessary documentation and declaration that the works comply with the regulations. The 1990 Act contained no provision to remedy such cases, although authorities dealt with such problems on a pragmatic basis.
Part 2 of the Bill also provides for the introduction of a disability access certificate. Once enacted, the Bill will prohibit the opening, operation or occupation of a building until such time as a fire safety certificate or disability access certificate is granted. This prohibition will deter developers from flouting the requirements of the regulations because it will have major financial implications for those who do not comply. The powers of building control authorities to seek High Court injunctions will be extended to remove works or stop work on buildings or projects which do not have fire safety certificates, disability access certificates or regularisation certificates or where there is non-compliance with enforcement notices served by the authorities. Again, this injunctive power will have a strong deterrent effect.
The prosecution process will be simplified by providing local building control authorities with the option to institute summary prosecutions for all building code offences in the District Court as an alternative to prosecution on indictment by the DPP in the Circuit Court. In addition, the maximum penalties for breaches of the national building regulations will be substantially increased. Local authorities will get the benefit of fines resulting from successful prosecutions brought by the authorities.
I will now discuss the legal transposition of certain provisions of EU Directive 2002/91/EC of 16 December 2002, energy performance of buildings. Part 2 provides the legal basis for transposition of articles 5 and 7 of the EU energy performance of buildings directive. This will include phasing in, over the period 2007 to 2009, a building energy rating certification process for all newly constructed dwellings from 1 January, 2007, other newly constructed non-domestic buildings from 1 January 2008 and existing buildings when offered for sale or letting from 1 January 2009. Those buying or renting houses will be given clear information on building energy efficiency. The certificate will incorporate recommendations for building owners and landlords on how to cost-effectively improve energy ratings.
The Bill also requires that the design of large new non-domestic buildings, that is, buildings over 1,000 m2, or 10,800 sq. ft., includes assessment of the economic and technical feasibility of using alternative energy systems. Such systems would include district or block heating, combined heat and power, heat pumps that use geothermal energy and energy supply systems using renewable energy such as solar and wind power. Sustainable Energy Ireland is developing software to help designers and builders to carry out such assessments. This is a very innovative approach and will produce significant changes in the years ahead.
The transposition of the EU energy performance of buildings directive will bring long-term cost savings to householders and business and help to meet Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.
Parts 3, 4 and 5 provide for statutory protection of the titles of "architect", "quantity surveyor" and "building surveyor" by restricting the lawful use of these titles to qualified persons whose names are entered on a statutory register to be established in accordance with the provisions of the Bill.
The registration system for architects will be administered by the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, the RIAI. Deputy Quinn will verify that the RIAI has been calling for such a register since the foundation of the State. The registration system for building surveyors and quantity surveyors will be administered by the Society of Chartered Surveyors, the SCS. Parts 3 to 5 specify the eligibility criteria for automatic admission to registers. They also set out processes and procedures designed to ensure that all applications are treated fairly and in a transparent way.
The Bill provides for the setting up of independent admissions boards; technical assessment boards and procedures for the assessment of applicants who are not eligible for automatic registration; professional conduct committees to deal with disciplinary matters; and appeals boards to determine to determine appeals against decisions of any of the aforementioned boards or committees. There will be an ultimate right of appeal against decisions of the appeals board to the High Court. It is proposed that the majority of members of the various boards will be non-building professionals and each board will be independently chaired by a retired judge or a lawyer. There is provision for payment of registration fees and appointment of registrars to deal with administrative matters, together with penalties for misuse of the professional titles.
There will be considerable benefit to consumers when seeking to engage architects or surveyors, following the enactment of this Bill. They will have access to a statutory register with the assurance that all names registered are those of professionals with proper qualifications.
Parts 3, 4 and 5 take account of the recently-adopted EU directive on mutual recognition of professional qualifications, which will be relevant in the case of qualified building professionals coming from other EU member states. This is an innovative section of the Bill. An attempt has been made, in various parts of this legislation, to refer across to EU legislation to avoid the kind of hiatus that has arisen elsewhere, whereby we have been years late in transposing European law.
Part 6 provides for the preparation of codes of professional conduct and standards by the two registration bodies for registered members of both the architectural and surveying professions. It also sets out the procedures for the examination of complaints made to the professional conduct committee regarding alleged misconduct of registered professionals, for a mediation process if considered appropriate, for the conduct of an inquiry into such complaints and for the attendance and examination of witnesses under oath. It further details the procedures to be adhered to following such inquiry and the measures which the committee may take where a registrant is found guilty of professional misconduct.
The professional conduct committee, when acting under this section, will have the same powers, rights or privileges vested in the High Court or a judge of the High Court with regard to enforcing the attendance of witnesses, examining witnesses under oath or compelling the production of documents. Witnesses appearing at an inquiry under this section will have the same immunities and privileges as witnesses before the High Court.
There is the right of appeal to the appeals board against decisions of the professional conduct committee with the ultimate right of appeal to the High Court. In addition, the name of a registrant may not be removed from a register unless confirmed by the High Court. The processes and procedures under this Part are designed to ensure that all professionals against whom a complaint of alleged professional misconduct is made will be treated in a fair and impartial manner. While the processes appear complex, they must strike a balance between protecting the rights of individuals to vindicate their name and the wider protection of consumers using the services of people who pass themselves off as architects or surveyors.
Part 7 provides for a variety of miscellaneous measures for the effective administration of the registration scheme, including provisions regarding the procedures of the registration bodies, terms of office, payments and so forth. It also provides that registration bodies must carry out additional functions assigned to them by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government relating to the implementation of an Act adopted by the EU in regard to the professions. The registration bodies will find this very useful because it makes provision, in advance, for any EU arrangements that may arise. Part 7 also provides for the prosecution of offences.
This Bill is positive legislation which I trust will be welcomed by all parties. It strengthens the enforcement powers of local building control authorities, provides stricter and streamlined controls under the fire safety certificate regime and provides safeguards for disabled access to new buildings. It also protects the titles of "architect", "quantity surveyor" and "building surveyor" and protects the consumer's rights when engaging people so described. The Bill transposes certain provisions of the EU energy performance of buildings directive and relevant articles of the EU directive on mutual recognition of professional qualifications. It marks a further advance in making quality a key principle of construction in Ireland and offers further proof of the Government's commitment to protect the consumer. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies on this legislation and commend the Bill to the House.