I thank Senator Humphreys for raising this important issue. At the outset, I acknowledge the very distressing and stressful circumstances which the owners and residents of buildings face where building defects emerge. In general, building defects are matters for resolution between the contracting parties involved - the homeowner, the builder, the developer and-or their respective insurers, structural guarantee or warranty scheme. While my Department has overall responsibility for establishing and maintaining an effective regulatory framework for building standards and building control, it has no general statutory role in resolving defects in privately owned buildings, including dwellings, nor does it have a budget for such matters.
Primary responsibility for compliance with the requirements of the building regulations rests with the owners, designers and builders of buildings. When a building is constructed and occupied, statutory responsibility for safety is assigned by section 18(2) of the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003, to the "person having control" of the building. The person having control is required to take reasonable measures to guard against the outbreak of fire and to ensure the safety of persons in the event of fire. In multi-unit developments, the person having control is generally the owner management company. Under the Multi-Unit Developments Act 2011, which is under the remit of the Minister for Justice and Equality, the owner management company must establish a scheme for annual service charges and a sinking fund for spending on refurbishment, improvement or maintenance of a non-recurring nature of the multi-unit development.
It should be noted that, in terms of addressing fire safety issues, my Department published a framework for enhancing fire safety in dwellings where concerns arise in 2017. This framework is a guide for the owners and occupants of dwellings where fire safety deficiencies have been identified or are a cause for concern. It is generally this area where issues have been raised with Departments. It includes a range of actions that may reduce risk and improve the level of fire safety where deficiencies arise in dwelling houses, apartments or the common areas of apartment buildings.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017 and in recognition of fears expressed for fire safety, my Department’s national directorate for fire and emergency management was asked to convene a task force to lead a reappraisal of our approach to fire safety in Ireland. In its report, the task force acknowledges the importance of fire safety in apartment buildings. It makes a number of recommendations focusing on fire detection and alarm systems, evacuation arrangements, and prioritising life safety. The directorate’s management board has been tasked with implementation of the recommendations within its remit and oversight of the implementation of the remaining recommendations.
It is not possible for the State to take on responsibility or liability for all legacy issues of defective building materials or workmanship, nor would it send the right message to the industry regarding its responsibility for compliance. As the Senator said, part of the issue is that there are over 200,000 apartments in total. As the Minister, Deputy Murphy, has noted previously in the Dáil, there is no way of knowing what the exposure to the taxpayer would be if the Department took on responsibility in this regard. It is quite clear who the responsibility lies with. This is a private situation and that is how it is.
The task force has also been involved with the fire safety aspect, and this is certainly an area where we are working with apartment owners to try to find a resolution.
Such interventions by the State have been limited to very particular circumstances and that is as it should be because of potential exposure of the taxpayer. There has been an issue with pyrite in Dublin and north Leinster. Approximately 1,200 houses have been fixed but approximately 700 or 800 have had problems identified that must be looked at. There are approximately 300 or 400 houses affected by mica in Mayo, with approximately 1,200 houses affected in Donegal, although there is potential for 2,000 or 3,000 to be affected on top of that as well. Those are the rough numbers. In both those cases, expert panels were set up to examine the problems. In a similar fashion to the task force on apartments, different recommendations have been made.
Finally, in response to the building failures that have emerged over the last decade, my Department has advanced a robust and focused building control reform agenda. That happened since 2014 and was one of the major changes made under the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, as we recognised there were failings in the area in the years before. There were amendments to the building control regulations, the establishment of a shared services national building control project and the ongoing development of new legislation through the Building Control (Construction Industry Register Ireland) Bill 2017. These reforms have already brought and will continue to bring a new order and discipline to bear on construction projects, creating an enhanced culture of compliance with the building regulations. I hope that in future we will not see a repeat of what happened in the past. There are far too many defective properties out there, as we are aware. I understand why the matter has been raised and the difficulties being experienced by people. I hope this brings some clarity on where or how we can intervene, and we do that when we can.