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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Vol. 265 No. 14

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Defective Building Materials

I thank the Chair for selecting this Commencement matter, because it is very important for up to 100,000 apartment owners who are affected by structural defects caused by light-touch regulation and ineffective building controls during the 2000s. These people purchased their apartments on the understanding they were fit for purpose and, unfortunately, as we see now, they are not, and it is going to cost thousands of euro to repair them.

I very much welcome the pyrite and mica proposals that will assist homeowners who have bought houses affected by pyrite or mica. Why, therefore, is there discrimination against apartment owners and why has there been no assistance whatsoever in resolving the latent defects and the legacy issues caused by light-touch regulation under previous Administrations? This problem stretches from Blanchardstown to Cork, from Galway to Dublin, from the Beacon centre in Sandyford to the docklands area in the middle of Dublin city. Residents purchased their starter home and are not able to move on because the money is not in the management company funds to carry out these repairs.

Will the Minister of State, Deputy English, explain why there is one set of rules for one and not for the other? While I welcome that homeowners whose houses have pyrite or mica are being assisted, I want to know from the Minister of State why the Government is treating two sets of citizens differently.

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.

Perhaps the Minister of State might arrange a meeting with me as various options could help apartment owners in the short term to access money at low interest rates, and these have not been given due consideration. There is an all-party recommendation on redress that was made in 2017 but there has been no progress in that regard. The Minister of State's response is a little hypocritical. He has said responsibility and liability for legacy issues and defects will not be addressed because of numbers, as it is possible that 70,000 to 100,000 apartments will have such legacy issues. The Government will not deal with them as a result. If a person is in Donegal or Mayo and there are only 300 such properties, the Government will give a dig-out. All our citizens must be dealt with equally and honestly. This is not happening.

I could read quote after quote from Ministers about the mica problem. I welcome efforts to remediate the mica problems but apartment owners are not being addressed with the same sense of fairness. What is the difference between a redress process for problems arising from pyrite and mica and one for an apartment owner who purchased the property as a family home and who is now left high and dry? One group of citizens in the country is to be dealt with in one manner while the apartment owners will be dealt with differently. That is unacceptable.

I cannot be much clearer on this. Difficulties arising from pyrite and mica are different from difficulties with apartments. The key issue is defective material versus defective workmanship. In the case of pyrite and mica, the houses will become uninhabitable. These are very different circumstances. Expert groups and panels were set up in both cases for a number of years. The pyrite matter took approximately seven or eight years and we were a little quicker in dealing with mica. In both cases, expert panels considered how best to intervene to help people who lived in these houses. A house with mica or pyrite will eventually become uninhabitable, and that is the bottom line.

People will eventually be unable to live in these apartments.

We have also looked at apartments and a task force made recommendations. In all cases when the evidence is gathered and examined, we act on recommendations. That happened with pyrite, mica and problems with apartments. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has been very clear on this in the Dáil. I am happy to meet the Senator to discuss options and I have met others to try to discuss the potential solutions. If there are solutions that can be worked with and are quantifiable, we will consider them. The potential exposure to the taxpayer is an issue and there is also the matter of who is responsible. This is about workmanship and not materials. These were private rather than State contracts. The problems with pyrite and mica arise from the materials used, which is a different issue.

I am happy to meet the Senator and discuss this. There is no point shouting or roaring and there is no need for it. I am happy to sit down with him and go through this. The Minister has again been clear that we are happy to work with management groups and apartment owners to try to find solutions. We recognise the difficulties and the first thing to be done is to make apartments safe from a fire safety perspective. That is the priority and the main issue for most apartment owners.

The Minister of State has, quite fairly, committed to meet Senator Humphreys and that should be taken up. I am quite sure that before the year is out, if we are still here - we may well be - Senator Humphreys will not let the matter go. I thank both the Minister of State and the Senator for their co-operation. As we had a paucity of matters to be discussed on the Commencement today, my task of choosing this matter was easy.

Sitting suspended at 10.45 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.