I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The defective concrete block disaster has haunted lives in Donegal, Mayo and beyond for too long. People who built and bought family homes to make a life in saw their dreams crumble around them. Instead of a shelter from the storms of life, their homes became prisons. With no help available, they turned to the State for support. When that support was found wanting, they took their message directly to the Government through all routes available. We have listened and heard it loud and clear. The scheme that today’s legislation underpins is a dramatic leap forward towards a 100% grant scheme. I believe it goes a long way to address the fundamental concerns and needs of homeowners.
I recognise homeowners' concerns and fears around the proposed enhanced scheme. They feel their trust has been let down before. I want to assure them here today that we are committed to making this scheme work and will continually strive to ensure it is improved where that is needed. I said in August 2020 on my visit to Buncrana in Donegal that every scheme evolves, and I have no doubt this one will continue to do so.
The intense engagement with homeowner representatives over the past year has fundamentally reshaped this scheme for the better. It is a scheme of State support that is unprecedented anywhere in the world. It is the State stepping up, and rightly so, to help those who have found no other way forward. It is a light at the end of a long tunnel for families trapped in crumbling homes. Let us give this scheme a fair chance. Let us put in place a solid framework that we can build on and get people’s lives back on track.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the homeowners and their representatives who have engaged with this process through the working group, Oireachtas hearings, submissions to the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, and the expert group as well as frequent meetings of the homeowners' forum. That work has shaped this scheme, and where agreement could not be reached, it always shone a bright light on issues. I know they will continue to press their case and work for a scheme that delivers.
I also want to acknowledge and thank John O’Connor whom I appointed as the homeowners' liaison for his hard work and commitment to improving this scheme. The immense progress we have made to date would not have been possible without his diligence. I also thank in particular my Department officials who have worked so hard on this very complex and difficult issue. In addition, I acknowledge my Government colleagues, particularly the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who is here beside me, Deputy Calleary and others, as well as Opposition representatives who have engaged with us through this process. They have been tireless advocates publicly and more often behind the scenes to press the case for impacted homeowners, not just over the past year but over several years. I note Deputy McHugh is here as well who has been of great assistance to us in this process also.
The administration of the current defective concrete blocks grant scheme has proven to be challenging for all involved: homeowners, engineers, local authorities and the Department. Difficulties with the consistent and appropriate application of the IS 465 standard, the financial barrier to scheme entry, the negotiated nature of the methodology by which the grant amount is determined, the significant number of judgment calls required of local authorities in what is a challenging local operating environment, and the adequacy of the grant amounts available were raised as significant issues. It was clear there was a need to make changes to the administration of the scheme to ensure it is as simple as possible for all stakeholders while ensuring adequate cost control, good governance and, most importantly, good outcomes for homeowners.
The draft Bill today follows on from the general scheme and reflects the decisions made by Government in November 2021 effectively to overhaul the previous grant scheme that was launched in January 2020. I take this opportunity to draw attention to the key decisions and differences from the old scheme and highlight the major steps forward.
In the new scheme, there is provision for 100% grants subject to an overall maximum grant of €420,000 per dwelling. This eliminates the mandatory 10% homeowner contribution under the old scheme and increases the cap from €247,500 to €420,000. Grant rates are in keeping with the construction cost report prepared by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland such that no homeowner will receive less funding than the construction costs recommended by SCSI in its cost report. This links the rates to an independent cost source to ensure they keep up to date with real construction costs, unlike the old scheme.
The scheme includes a Government guarantee in respect of remediation works other than full demolition or rebuild, that is, options 2 to 5, through eligibility for a second grant, if required, for a period of 40 years. That is a 40-year guarantee. Neither of those measures existed in the old scheme.
A revised application process will remove the financial barrier to scheme entry. It will only require of the homeowner to submit an initial building condition assessment at minimal cost that is recoupable on entry to the scheme. This removes the €5,000 to €7,000 entry costs in the old scheme.
An independent appeals process for applicants is being introduced, with all key decisions under the scheme appealable by homeowners. Again, this did not exist under the old scheme.
The scheme will cover alternative accommodation and storage costs and immediate repair works to a maximum value of €25,000 within the overall grant cap. Again, this did not exist under the old scheme.
Importantly, the Housing Agency is playing a key role under this enhanced scheme by taking on the financial cost of testing and assessing homes and determining on behalf of the local authorities the appropriate remediation option and the grant rate of each dwelling. Again, this did not exist under the old scheme.
There will be a damage threshold to ensure the worst-affected homes are remediated first. I assure homeowners that this threshold will be set by regulations and kept under continuous review.
The enhanced scheme will be extended beyond the current scope of principal private residences only to also cover rented dwellings registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, on or before 1 November 2021. The old scheme was principal private residences only.
The counties of Clare and Limerick will be included in the enhanced scheme upon commencement. As all present are aware, the old scheme applied to Donegal and Mayo only.
There will be a review as required of the overall grant cap and the grant rates, and adjustment, if necessary, by Government order, each year. The old scheme had no review mechanisms or criteria in place. There will be a review of the operation of the Act three years after its commencement. There was no review built into the old scheme.
Legislative provision is being made for Exchequer funding of local authority- and approved housing body-owned social homes that are affected. This was not covered under the old scheme.
Exempt development status under planning legislation will apply to remediation works carried out under the defective concrete blocks grant scheme on a like-for-like basis. This was not covered under the old scheme.
I wish to address legitimate concerns and some of the criticisms in respect of the Bill to try to dispel any uncertainty. The Government decision on 30 November 2021 called for a number of reviews to be completed to ensure this disaster does not occur again and the core problems are addressed. These included a review of the IS 465:2018 protocol, including consideration of the impact of other potential material such as pyrrhotite. It called for a review of the adequacy or otherwise of the existing foundations in homes impacted by defective concrete blocks and a review of the potential impact, if any, of full cavity wall insulation on homes susceptible to damage or damaged by defective concrete blocks. I wish to clarify that the Bill allows for the Minister to adjust, through regulations, any issues that arise from these scientific investigations. I assure the House that if a problem is found with foundations or other issues through the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, that will be dealt with.
Existing applicants under the current scheme will not be disadvantaged from being early movers and will benefit retrospectively from the increased grant amounts and allowances that will be available under the enhanced scheme. Appropriate transitional provisions will be included in the new legislation to provide a mechanism to move applications to the revised scheme once it commences.
I can confirm that the counties of Clare and Limerick have now been included in the enhanced scheme. Given the possibility that the spread of impacted homes could be wider than the four counties currently accepted into the enhanced scheme, the extension of the scheme to other local authority areas was considered as part of the wider deliberations on the scheme by the Government. I, as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, may, with Government approval, extend the scheme to additional counties where the evidence supports such an extension. Importantly, a pathway for the admittance of other local authority areas onto the scheme is now in place and it has worked for Clare and Limerick, as evidenced by their inclusion in the Bill. I assure Deputies that my Department and I will deal promptly with any submissions received from other local authority areas that seek admittance to the scheme. The Bill provides for me, as Minister, to introduce a scheme of grant assistance for local authorities and approved housing bodies to remediate social homes in their ownership that have been impacted by defective concrete blocks.
The estimated overall cost of the enhancements to the scheme and the new scheme is €2.7 billion, which includes some 7,500 homes across the State. The additional costs reflect the construction costs, as set out by the SCSI, and inflation. I reiterate that, each year, I or another Minister will be able to vary that rate on review without having to amend the legislation.
The devastating impact of the crisis and scale of the State intervention demands that we ensure this never happens again. In October, I ordered an audit of all active quarries in Donegal by the National Building Control Office arising from concerns over compliance. On Tuesday, I received a copy of the report. I am now reviewing it with a view to publication and ensuring its recommendations are carried out. I will update the House on this matter as soon as I have concluded that review. In addition, the NSAI has been tasked with undertaking a review of the Irish standard for concrete blocks, including aggregates, to ensure it is fit for purpose. That work is now ongoing. I will appoint a senior counsel to review the causes of the mica and pyrite disaster and make recommendations on the matter. I expect to finalise terms of reference and appoint an experienced senior counsel in the coming months. I will inform the House of progress in that regard.
The clear goal of these measures is to draw a red line under this scandal and ensure no other properties are impacted in future. I appreciate concerns in respect of the need to pass the Bill before the summer recess and I thank the Oireachtas joint committee for granting a pre-legislative waiver. There has been extensive and intensive engagement with homeowner representatives and other key stakeholders on the defective concrete blocks issue through the past 12 months, including the working group on the defective concrete blocks grant scheme, which was established last June and reported in September 2021, following which the Government approved significant enhancements to the scheme. The expert group on the enhanced scheme was chaired by Mr. Paul Forde, whom I thank for his work and for lending his extensive expertise, knowledge and experience to this process. The expert group reported on a significant number of technical issues that needed to be considered and advised upon. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland prepared a construction cost report for remediation works under the scheme, the findings of which have been accepted in full by the Government and incorporated in the grant rates under the enhanced scheme, as I committed to do last year. Account was taken of submissions from Engineers Ireland to my Department on the issue, as well as submissions by homeowners to my Department. There was considerable ongoing engagement with homeowners through Mr. John O’Connor, former chief executive of the Housing Agency, whom I appointed as homeowner liaison officer. The National Standards Authority of Ireland engaged with a number of reviews relevant to the defective concrete blocks issue, and the Oireachtas joint committee held a special series of hearings on the legislation.
The remediation scheme needs a legislative basis and, more important, it needs to get going. We need to move forward with real progress and implement the scheme. The Bill is a real step forward. Every Deputy is keenly aware of the scale of the crisis that confronts us. The scheme is the State stepping up to the mark as we have a moral obligation to put in place practical solutions for impacted homeowners. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good and we need to get a practical scheme moving. I reiterate that the scheme will evolve in future and we will continually keep it under review. We will continue to work closely with all Oireachtas Members and listen carefully to their views in this legislative process and in the operation of the scheme.
I think we can all agree it is essential the Bill passes through all Stages in the Dáil and the Seanad in a timely fashion and that the enhanced scheme can open for applications as soon as possible. Homeowners have been on a long, hard and often lonely journey since cracks first appeared in their homes. Today’s Bill may not be the end of that journey but I believe it is the beginning of the end. This Bill provides a clear pathway forward out of the nightmare that has haunted them for far too long. I commend the Bill to the House.