I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on this very important legislation. The quality of construction affects everyone's lives, not only Members but the people we represent. In particular, it affects the new generation buying houses and, in doing so, making the biggest investment of their lives. The building control legislation should protect them. The quality of construction also affects those who use public buildings.
I too want to refer to the Stardust disaster. We should all remember those who lost their lives in the tragedy and also their families who are still asking questions that deserve answers.
I will address the main point of the Bill. The explanatory memorandum states:
On foot of recommendations made by the Building Regulations Advisory Body (BRAB), the Bill introduces revised procedures for issue of Fire Safety Certificate (FSC), by local Building Control Authorities, confirming compliance with Part B (Fire Safety) of the Building Regulations of designs of new Non-Domestic Buildings (offices, factories, shops, hotels, etc.) and new Apartment Blocks.
The Building Control Bill, which has been sought for some considerable time, has important implications in this area. It is important that all the regulations be enforced. It is a waste of time making regulations, printing them and sending them to local authorities and inspectors if they are not adhered to. Quality should not vary from county to county or region to region. When ensuring fire safety, it is imperative that the standards laid out be upheld without exception. Otherwise there will be no sense in having the legislation.
The explanatory memorandum also states: "The Bill introduces a Disability Access Certificate (DAC) confirming that the designs of new Non-Domestic Buildings and Apartment Blocks comply with Part M (Access for People with Disabilities) of the Building Regulations." We must all agree with this. How many times have we heard examples of inaccessible buildings to which a great number of people need to gain access for one reason or another? Unless there is access for all and unless we meet the requirements, we are wasting our time. I welcome disability access certification.
The Bill widens the right of building control authorities to seek injunctions from the High Court. Under this legislation, such authorities will be able to seek injunctions to stop the construction or use of new buildings, the design of which has not been granted a disability access certificate. That is fine, but it is too late to take action if the construction of the building has already been finished. A system of inspection needs to be in place to ensure that buildings are being developed in the correct manner. I accept that the Bill will allow court action to be taken to ensure that construction does not continue if developers do not adhere strictly to the rules. We must accept and support that.
The Bill will give building control authorities the option of bringing summary prosecutions for all building code offences in the District Court rather than in the Circuit Court by means of prosecution on indictment by the Director of Public Prosecutions. That measure will simplify the prosecution process only if local authorities take action on time. We are aware that on many occasions local authorities spent ten or 15 years complaining and writing about problems which were staring them in the face before they brought such matters to the courts. In such circumstances, judges usually ask the representatives of local authorities why action was not taken sooner. Judges do not look after local authorities if 20 years have elapsed, which means that liability is assumed by the relevant supervising local authority. I hope the legislation under discussion will avoid a repeat of the mistakes which were made in the past.
This Bill does not provide for the completion of estates and compliance with planning conditions in the manner we would have wanted. We need to deal with two or three matters in this regard. Local authorities have always been able to control the manner in which development takes place. They employ development control officers to alert them to deviations from the accepted code of practice or from the conditions set out in the planning permission. If local authorities do not take action when such deviations take place, there is no point in them pointing out five or ten years later that there was no compliance in a certain instance.
Similarly, there is no point in someone coming in after 15 years and highlighting the lack of compliance in some cases. Such problems should be dealt with as they occur. How often have we heard about developers moving on to build a new housing estate without having completed the previous one? It is often found that work has stopped on three or four estates without planning conditions having been complied with. If the work standards of a developer are so slipshod and haphazard that he does not bother to complete a housing estate in accordance with the conditions of a planning permission, can we be certain that all other aspects of the construction of the development are in accordance with best practice? I ask that question as a matter of seriousness.
While I welcome most modern building practices, I am not sure about some of them. The marriage of steel and glass, for example, is much in evidence, but I am not sure it is the right thing to do. It is imperative that all the tolerances should be tested fully in the course of the construction of a building.
When I was in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris some years ago — I am not sure whether the Ceann Comhairle was with me on that occasion — I examined the configuration of the roof of a building that had recently been constructed. As an amateur with no qualifications in this area, I said to someone that I was not sure that type of construction — a high concentration of light steel or aluminium — would stand the passage of time. When I asked whether it would last, I was told that it would because the people who designed it were sure to have known what they were doing. As we are aware, however, the roof in question did not wait much longer before it fell in and there was no snow on it when it did.
We could learn some lessons from incidents of this nature. The roof I referred to fell in, whereas the roof of the National Aquatic Centre fell out. I advise those who are experts in the building industry, of whose activities I am seeing increasing evidence, to look carefully at issues such as tolerance, load transfer and load bearing before they scoff at innocent people who raise questions about their designs.
Previous speakers have discussed the Bill's provisions for the registration of various professionals in this area. Similar measures have been taken in respect of a number of other professions. The EU has decided to group various professions together to be administered in the usual way. I hope the proposed system will work in the way it is supposed to work. Many discerning professionals are anxious that the highest possible standards should prevail, the new regime should be all-embracing and bad practices should be avoided.
Like other Deputies, I received an e-mail that raised some questions about certain aspects of the proposed system of registration. It suggested that some competent and capable people who are fully qualified in every aspect of the construction industry could be squeezed out of the inner circle as a result of these provisions. I hope that will not be the case. On Committee Stage, we should give due consideration to the various professionals in this field. Nobody should be squeezed out because they are not part of an inner or upper circle. Decisions on registration should be made on the basis of one's competence and ability to do one's job. I compliment those who have set a high standard in the industry over the years. Like everyone else, I agree that there is a need for such standards to be maintained.
As the relevant Fine Gael spokesman, I especially welcome the section of the Bill that provides for the transposition of the relevant provisions of the EU energy performance of buildings directive. It will ensure that buildings, just like vehicles and electrical appliances, are the subject of energy rating and labelling, which is very important. Up to 30% of heating costs can be saved by the construction industry through proper conservation, labelling and the elimination of the escape of heat. That applies to public buildings and private buildings. I do not suggest that we should revisit the issue of the installation of the ventilation system in Leinster House 2000. Those of us who work in that building day-to-day know that the system leaves some room for improvement.
When one considers that the new regulations must come into force on 1 January 2007, it is impossible to understand why strict instructions were not issued by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government over the past six or seven months in respect of the pouring of foundations in affordable and local authority housing. I do not understand why builders were specifically requested not to provide for the new insulation and labelling standards. It would not cost much more to meet the terms of the new provisions now. It will cost quite an amount to do so in the not too distant future. I have already spoken about the energy conservation requirements for larger buildings. The legislation also provides for the registration of architects, which I have mentioned.
As someone who is interested in the simple and practical aspects of DIY, I have received representations from plumbing and electrical contractors who believe there should be an ongoing upgrade and evaluation of the standards which apply to encourage best practice and discourage practices like taking short cuts — no pun intended. The contractors in question have specifically requested that such measures be taken. When contractors take responsibility for a contract, they need to be sure that the standard of their own work is as high as possible. They readily say they can perform huge improvements in areas like heat conservation and the delivery of heating through proper wiring and properly constructed plumbing systems. That is what they tell me and I have no reason to disbelieve them. That is not to suggest that half the industry is slipshod, but it is an indication that someone out there has an idea or two that, if put into practice, would be very useful.
When construction was being undertaken on the Naas Hospital a few years ago, a gentleman approached me and indicated that he could reduce the overall cost of management of the sites, the plans and the layouts by a considerable amount without cutting corners simply by adopting new practices. They have since been adopted. Instead of getting a Kango hammer and charging a channel along the side of three of four walls, the channel should be provided for before precasting or in the construction of the wall. In that way, a builder does not have to go back over it. The same simple practice can be applied to floors. Great savings can be made on the construction of buildings, public or private, in this way.
Years ago, great emphasis was placed on cube tests on concrete. When the previous Building Control Bill came before this House — it was not today or yesterday — I remember raising that question. There is considerable scope for raising that question again. There is a tendency to rely on the minimum tolerances. It is like the maximum speed limit. One does not have to drive at the maximum speed limit; one can drive below it. Likewise, one should not necessarily rely on minimum tolerances becoming the standard. I presume that all the standards laid down for this Bill will have regard to that so that recognition is given to an extra requirement and that the minimum should not always apply.
I want to speak about the terrible blight on development nowadays. Up to ten or 15 years ago, the quality of development in this country was exceptionally high with the exception of some of the places mentioned. Most three-bedroomed houses for first-time buyers were of a high standard and had adequate space and a small garden in which children could play. That is not the case any more. Now we have what is known as the duplex system. This is essentially the construction of one house on top of the other with an external stairway leading into the upper house. There are shared playground areas and so on. I do not know who thought this was a great system. It saves space and it makes more money for the developers who get involved in them, but it does nothing for the people who live in it. In the middle of winter, an elderly person or a small child walking up or down those stairs will be blown right off by ice on the steps.
I do not understand why the wise guy who invented this system thought it was a great idea. I heard someone speaking to an estate agent indicating that the duplex system was great. They should be banned now. Consideration in the first instance should be given to two things, namely, the quality, durability and efficiency of the building as well as the quality of life for those who live in a duplex. It is no good saying that a new large block of flats built right beside a railway station looks good and caters for thousands. It will be tomorrow's slums if we go on like that. It is an appalling blight and it is a new phenomenon that has come about as a result of high property prices, not high land prices. In ten years' time, whoever is in this House will reap the whirlwind of it. It will be as bad as, if not worse than, Ballymun.
In a country of our size, we still have space to provide adequate accommodation and space for families, both young and old. It is not necessary to run scared and to pretend that Ireland will be like Holland soon. If Ireland had the same density of population as that which exists in Holland, there would be about 48 million people in the country. We are a long way from that. I do not accept the notion coming from some quarters that we must build upwards indefinitely. While we must do so to some extent and, if it is good quality, it can look nice, we need to have regard for tomorrow's families, generation and population when we decide to condemn them to one kind of development or another.
The previous generation may not have had much money, but we did have a place for the kids to play in the garden. We did not have to get involved in altercations, walk up duplex stairs, get blown down off them or break our necks on the ice on them. We did not have mothers trying to bring prams up the same duplex stairs. We have come a long way in many ways, but we have lost sight in many other ways. I hope this particular Bill regains some of what we have lost.