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Fire Safety

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 14 November 2018

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Questions (62)

Darragh O'Brien


62. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government his plans to assist residents of multi-unit developments and housing estates that do not meet fire safety standards and building regulations. [47096/18]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Housing)

The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, requested the national directorate for fire and emergency management to convene and co-ordinate a task force to lead a reappraisal if our approach to fire safety in Ireland. What is the status of the work of that task force? The building defects and fire safety issues at Priory Hall and Longboat Quay have been well publicised. Unfortunately, there are many more similar buildings around the country. What plans does the Minister have to assist residents of multi-unit developments, in particular, and housing estates that do not meet fire safety standards and building regulations?

Primary responsibility for compliance with the requirements of the building regulations rests with the owners, designers and builders of buildings. As such, in general, building defects are matters for resolution between the contracting parties involved, namely, the homeowner, the builder, the developer and-or their respective insurers, structural guarantee or warranty scheme.

It is incumbent on the parties responsible for poor workmanship and-or the supply of defective materials to face up to their responsibilities and to take appropriate action to provide remedies for the affected homeowners. In addition, 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. Where apartment buildings that are defective from a fire safety perspective come to the attention of the local authority fire services, they work with management companies and other stakeholders to ensure that appropriate levels of fire safety are achieved to minimise the risk to life.

In response to the many building failures that emerged in the last decade, my Department has been driving a comprehensive building control reform agenda. The measures involved include the introduction of the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014,  the establishment of a national building control management project and progressing primary legislation such as the Building Control (Construction Industry Register Ireland) Bill through the Houses. The aim is to promote a culture of competence, good practice and compliance with the building regulations in the construction sector and this will continue to be the subject of focused attention in the months and years ahead.

In regard to the fire safety task force, in the aftermath of Grenville in June 2017 and in recognition of the fears expressed by the fire safety services, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, under the direction of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, the national directorate for fire and emergency management was asked to convene and co-ordinate a task force to lead a reappraisal of our approach to fire safety in Ireland. The work of the task force has been completed and its findings are related in the Fire Safety in Ireland report. The report acknowledges the importance of fire safety in apartment buildings. The reply provided to me contains a detailed summary on the work of the task force, which I can provide to the Deputy. In essence, it is estimated that up to 500,000 people live in approximately 200,000 apartments across the country. From a fire safety perspective, the person having control of the apartment and the building-premises is the owner management company. The key to life safety in all apartment buildings is a two-stage fire detection alarm system, together with an evacuation strategy and involving the residents in preventing nuisance alarms and knowing how to react in the event of fire alarms being activated. There is ongoing work in this area. We have asked the local authorities, as the local lead fire authorities, to engage directly with management companies.

Much of the Minister of State's reply restates the obvious. As mentioned by him, approximately 500,000 people live in multi-unit developments. These are the people at the coalface on this issue. I am seeking an update on the implementation of the recommendations in the Fire Safety in Ireland report. What is the mechanism by which the task force reports to the Department? Do I take it from the Minister of State's response that this matter is the responsibility of the owner management companies and residents can sink or swim. Speaking of sinking, the issue is that in many cases the sinking fund is insufficient to deal with building defects and fire safety issues. If the bond holder, insurance company or builder does not return to fix defects, what are the residents to do? Members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government will be aware that this issue was raised directly at a meeting of the committee by the Apartment Owners' Network. How often does the Department receive updates on this issue and does it have a handle on the scale of the problem in terms of building defects? Will the Government examine mechanisms to assist in this area? This is a ticking time bomb as many of the owner management companies are verging on insolvency and do not have the funds to carry out the works that are required.

We are working through the recommendations of the fire safety task force and the Minister, Deputy Murphy, recently met representatives of the apartment owners' association to discuss their concerns, specifically those relating to sinking funds and who covers costs etc. It is ongoing work. The key recommendations of the task force were to have the registration of fire safety subcontractors and to outline the roles and responsibilities of building management companies, such as to review and maintain fire safety arrangements, keep a fire safety register and advise residents on what to do in the event of a fire and alarm. All that work is very important. Each local authority fire service should offer training to building management companies on key fire safety matters. They should work with management companies through the process. There is no recommendation for a full investigation of all properties as the number of defects identified was quite low.

They were quantified.

Procedures have been put in place. The work is ongoing but the task force indicated clearly that management companies, owners of properties and resident associations need to deal with local authorities, which are the local building control authorities, to work through the issues. We are very clear where the responsibility lies. We understand and know there are issues around sinking funds, costs and so on and that work is ongoing. The responsibility lies with owners and managers of these properties, including the management companies.

It is good to know that the Department is trying to quantify the issues, as the Minister of State mentioned. He said the level of defects that has come back is quite low. That surprises me to some degree but I suppose it really depends on how seriously one takes the existing defects. The primary issue is fire safety and that is where we have seen the most publicised incidence of people having to be evacuated from apartment blocks and multi-unit developments. There are others out there and I know both the Minister and Minister of State are aware of them, with owner management companies and owners trying to work through those issues. Nobody is working to abrogate those responsibilities but they are seeking support.

The Minister of State said implementation is ongoing but has a timeline been set for the implementation of the recommendations? Does he see this as an ongoing process? Will we get to a stage where we would establish in the area of owner management companies a proper regulator? This would amount to a go-to office for owner management companies that might be able to collate this information. It surprises me somewhat that the level of defects found so far seems to be quite small, according to the response. I do not know the percentage.

The work is ongoing and no final decision has been made as to whether a regulator is required. We are clear that the procedures put in place by the 2014 Act will certainly ensure this will not be an issue in future. We are confident of this and we must ensure we can continuously enforce the procedures through local authorities as the lead building control authorities.

The first interim review was in June and the work is ongoing. It is something on which we will engage directly with each local authority and the management companies. We are very clear where the responsibility lies. It is with the individual owners, management companies and people who built these properties. It is an area of ongoing work and I am conscious that the committee has done much work on this as well that feeds into some of the work we are doing through legislation. It will be an ongoing conversation as we work through this.