Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Ceisteanna (33)

Eoin Ó Broin

Ceist:

33. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if he will reconsider supporting the recommendations made in the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government report Safe as Houses which recommends establishing a latent defects redress scheme (details supplied) in view of recent revelations in the media that homeowners in counties Dublin and Kildare are facing costs to remedy latent defects uncovered in their properties. [37658/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

Over the past number of weeks, Niamh Towey and Jack Horgan-Jones have been reporting in The Irish Times about new stories of latent defects. Homeowners in Sandyford have had to pay €10,000 to rectify defects while homeowners in Blackrock have had to pay €25,000. One homeowner in County Clare must foot a bill of €62,000 for latent defects for which the homeowner had no responsibility. Given that it is almost two years since the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government unanimously called for the creation of a latent defects redress fund, will the Government move to introduce such a scheme?

I thank Deputy Ó Broin for raising this issue, which has been discussed a lot in the House in recent years. It is a very important issue and more cases are being brought forward. It is an issue in which the Minister, Deputy Murphy, the Department and I are very interested. I recognise the work of the Deputy and the committee on the issue. It is something of which we are certainly well aware.

The Safe as Houses report has been considered by the Department, and while I can subscribe to many of the principles in it, I believe the building control reform agenda that is already well under way provides a comprehensive road map for embedding a culture of compliance and accountability in the construction industry and for strengthening the building control framework in this country. I am conscious that many of the issues raised date from prior to the new building control measures coming into place.

The reform agenda includes amendments made to the building control regulations, the national building control management project and the ongoing development of new legislation through the building control (construction industry register Ireland) Bill. I am conscious the report mentions this and it is something we hope to publish later this year.

Local authorities have extensive powers of inspection and enforcement under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003, the Fire Services Acts, the Housing Acts and the Planning and Development Acts. Fire services may inspect buildings in cases of defects or complaints in respect of fire safety. They work with building owners to ensure immediate risks are addressed and a plan is put in place, where required, for works to bring buildings into compliance. This framework, which followed the 2015 report, is enabling and is a model that can be used to try to address some of the issues affecting some of these apartments.

In relation to legacy issues generally, I acknowledge the very stressful circumstances that owners and residents face when defects occur in their homes. However, in general, building defects are matters for resolution between the contracting parties involved, that is the homeowner, the builder, the developer and-or their respective insurers, structural guarantee or warranty scheme. The State has no general statutory role in resolving defects in privately owned buildings, including dwellings, nor does it have a budget for such matters. It is not possible for the State to take on responsibility or liability for all legacy issues nor would this send the right message to the industry regarding its responsibility for compliance now and in future.

My focus will remain firmly on ensuring the full roll-out of the building control reform agenda, to ensure all those engaged in the construction sector take their responsibilities seriously and are appropriately held to account. As part of the reform agenda, consumer protection will continue to be my core concern and any proposal in this regard will, of course, be considered. We have see some new products in the insurance market on foot of the building control measures in place. Naturally, if they had been in place in the past we would not be in this situation. There is a lot of reform going on. I am conscious the Deputy is raising legacy issues and it is the exposure to taxpayers-----

I call Deputy Ó Broin for his first supplementary question.

Given that the Minister of State said he is conscious that I raised legacy issues he spent more than two thirds of his reply speaking about the present rather than the past, which has become the stock response of the Government to avoid dealing with the real issues.

Nobody is asking the Minister of State to take on full liability for the cost of latent defects. Here is the problem: the State has already accepted liability for some, including Priory Hall, pyrite and mica block in Donegal, but has left other home owners to their own devices. What we are calling for is very straightforward. We want a redress scheme that provides a one-stop shop to assist homeowners to deal with latent defects when they find them. We also call for a mediation and dispute resolution service, not unlike the Residential Tenancies Board, to make the developer pay in the first instance. To take the one part of the Minister of State's reply relevant to my question, if we leave the home owner at the mercy of the legal system as it stands he or she will never get redress.

The Minister of State also knows there are cases where the developer is no longer pursuable and we need a fund to tackle this. In my view, a portion of this should come from industry and another portion should come from the State because the State has liability for the self-regulation that allowed this to happen. Under our proposals, the €40 million the State will lose on Priory Hall would have been €20 million because the industry would have been forced to pay its fair share. At some point, the Government must take its head out of the sand and provide some assistance - not full liability - for the hundreds if not thousands of home owners who, through no fault of their own, have ended up in properties with fire safety issues, water ingress issues or other structural problems that need to be addressed.

These people are asking for our help. A unanimous recommendation from the Oireachtas committee has given the Minister of State a pathway and he should get his head out of the sand.

This is an issue we have discussed at length and we have been very clear on the State's responsibility. The State did not accept liability in the schemes mentioned by the Deputy. With regard to the pyrite scheme that has fixed more than 1,200 houses at this stage, and with regard to the mica scheme in Donegal that was announced in the budget, the defective products and issues were not apparent at the time of construction or purchase. This is different to the failure to adhere to regulations, the building control mechanisms or workmanship. After going through the expert panels and not being able to find another solution, it was the approach taken. The State did not accept responsibility. That is not the case because they were defective properties.

We have always been very clear on this. The relationships between the builders, the owners of the properties, the purchasers, the insurance companies and the banks and lending institutions are private. We have tried to help when we can. We have always said if there are solutions that do not expose the taxpayer to an unquantifiable amount of money and we are given an opportunity to help we will try to do so. We have tried to engage where we can, through the building control mechanism, local authorities and fire services. It is a difficult situation and we accept this but what the Deputy is putting forward involves an unquantifiable amount of potential exposure for taxpayers. It is not the responsibility of the State to do this.

The State does have responsibility in this. It was the failure of Government regulation of the building industry prior to 2014 that allowed this to happen. It happened on the Government's watch. It happened because of self-certification. Most of what the Oireachtas housing committee has recommended does not lay any liability on the State. It has recommended a one-stop-shop where a householder who has discovered latent defects can get independent advice free of charge, which is eminently reasonable and doable. It also recommended a mediation and dispute resolution service, not unlike the Residential Tenancies Board, whereby a public body would have the legal authority to ensure in the first instance the developer is responsible for the bill for mediation, which is an eminently sensible response that would have a limited cost to the State. It also recommends the creation of a fund and, in my view, industry should pay. We have done it with the insurance industry where a levy was introduced to tackle the problems.

Unfortunately, because of the failure of previous Governments in this regard, the taxpayer should also make a contribution but there are ways of designing a fund. Although it was not my preference, the committee's report even recommended a long-term low interest loan whereby the home owner would still pay but at least in a way that would be manageable and affordable. In fact, it could be done through Home Building Finance Ireland.

The Oireachtas committee has recommended a range of options that does not land the entire liability or financial responsibility on the State. In some instances, the committee gave the Government ways of doing it without the State putting any taxpayers' money into it and yet, to date, nothing has been done for these homeowners. These people are asking for assistance, guidance and help and it is in the gift of the Minister of State to give it to them.

Where the State was able to find a way to deal with defective products through the expert panels it has done so. We have managed to find schemes to do this. I repeat that the issue is mainly the undetermined exposure to the taxpayer. It is unquantifiable. We have tried to step in where we can with regard to some of the changes to the legal system. We have written to the Law Reform Commission about this to see whether we can change the system to achieve easier access to civil justice. Again, it is a private matter and the State is not responsible. The regulations were there but they were not followed. Fine Gael has strengthened the system since we came into government and we have changed this.

That is of no benefit to the people with latent defects.

That is very clear and we are all in a good position with regard to building control mechanisms. Other issues can be addressed as we bring forward legislation. I understand the committee is supportive and it has made recommendations. They will be brought forward in the months ahead, which will give us a chance to deal with some of these issues as we put in place a system in which people can have trust and faith so they can understand they are buying a top class quality product. The legislation is about driving the cultural change needed throughout the system as well as putting in place building control mechanisms. I repeat there are now much more enhanced insurance products that should have been there in the past but they were not.

Question No. 34 answered with Question No. 32.