This Bill is welcome if it achieves what it proposes to do. It will provide additional protection to people who purchase houses and property or who enter into contracts. It also provides for regulations on the registration of letting agents. The explanatory memorandum states:
‘‘Property service'' is defined as provision in the State of any of the following services: auction of property other than land; purchase and sale of land; letting of land; and property management services. In future, auctioneers, letting agents and property management agents will require a licence from the Authority. This licensing requirement will apply both to the property services employer, e.g. an auctioneering company or partnership, and to individuals providing a property service in the course of employment or as an independent contractor. If the service is provided in the State, a licence will be required whether or not the property concerned is located in the State.
A certain number of properties which may cause indigestion in the system are located outside the State. The manner in which regulations are applied to such properties may be interesting.
The courts are at present dealing with numerous cases in which members of the public claim to have been misled into purchasing properties which transpired to have title and other impediments. An amnesty has been proposed to deal with the hundreds of individuals who now find themselves in possession of landlocked and useless properties. I ask that the Minister consider this proposal. In some cases, properties sold through established auctioneers or estate agents which purportedly passed the various legal requirements have come before the courts.
It is usually presumed that a property is valid for sale once a search does not reveal previous failed applications. However, it may also be the case that a full investigation of adjacent properties would reveal that the site in question had no chance of getting planning permission for a house. In many cases permission is being sought for a starter home.
In recent times, management companies seem to have taken on responsibilities that should not go with the whole area of management. In some cases, the construction company told the public that the management company was about to take immediate control of the development, even though it might have been just three quarters finished. In other words, a new company was being given responsibility for the rest of the duties that accrued to whoever applied for the planning permission in the first instance. There are countless cases of that nature in the courts. More of them will come to the courts in the future. The present economic climate is making it extremely difficult to ensure those who purchased their homes in that kind of environment do not suffer major losses. That is another aspect of the regulation of the construction sector.
I referred earlier to the house builders guarantee scheme and the building control regulations that were introduced in 2004. The regulations place various responsibilities on architects and contractors. They must have been interpreted loosely by somebody somewhere. There are countless cases in which those responsibilities have become vague or opaque. It would be equally appropriate to apply the term "opacity" to some of the situations in which people find themselves.
I wish to speak about duplex houses, which are found in many multi-unit developments. Local authorities do not have the same responsibility for gated developments that has traditionally been the case. There are countless circumstances in which the local authority is the most appropriate body to maintain the open spaces and to provide services. I refer to normal developments where entire buildings are owned and accessed from the ground floor up. A somewhat different situation applies in multi-storey developments where the ownership changes at various elevations. Management companies are the best option in such circumstances, in the absence of a change of responsibility on the part of local authorities.
Two or three problems have arisen with management companies. I want to pay tribute to the effective and conscientious management companies that do a good job, do not charge too much and look after residents to the best of their ability, even in difficult circumstances. Other companies do the opposite. They opt out when they find that huge arrears have built up due to residents being unable to pay. There is a difference between being unwilling and unable to pay. Nothing happens and no maintenance takes place. In many cases, the management company asks the residents to form a new management company to take over from where it left off. The whole situation is fraught with problems.
In County Kildare, like every other part of the country, there are countless multi-unit developments. There is no tradition of such developments in Ireland. A new form of responsibility for the residents needs to be nurtured in such developments. Local authorities do not have any responsibility for them, as I have said. There is a tendency for management agencies to increase these levies to the extent that it becomes impossible for residents to pay them. This is a huge problem as unemployment continues to grow. Both partners in the household are unemployed in some cases. Thousands of euro can be owed to management companies if their fees are allowed to build up. As there is no possibility of rescuing such situations, there is a case for some kind of amnesty that would allow residents to start from scratch. The benefit of these new regulations should be passed, if possible, to those who are already in situ. This Bill, as it stands, would not protect them.
I referred briefly to duplex properties. I hope we never see schemes involving duplex properties in Ireland again. The quality of some of them is appalling. Problems can arise when two parents with two or more children are living upstairs in a duplex apartment that is accessed by means of an external staircase. The parents may have to carry children and buggies up those stairs in all kinds of weather. One child might be in the buggy and the other child might be in the hands of a parent. I am familiar with countless cases of children being blown off such stairs, or people slipping in icy weather and being seriously injured on such stairs.
I cannot understand, from a health and safety perspective, how these duplex developments were ever allowed to be developed. They seem to have been constructed in the same fashion as the old farmyard granaries of years gone by. The external staircases that were used in such buildings to carry grain into the loft were always regarded as very dangerous. I do not know what can be done to address the issues that are arising in this context. Duplex properties are fine for young single people but the health and safety issues associated with them can be hugely threatening for older people and children. I ask the Minister to reflect on this aspect with a view to ensuring something is put in place to protect the health and safety of those who live in this form of accommodation.
I do not have enough time to cover the full extent of this Bill. I hope I will be able to do so on Committee and Report Stages. This legislation has been promised and threatened for a long time. I want to make a final point before I finish.