Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 31 January 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill 2017: Discussion (Resumed)
At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members and visitors in the Public Gallery are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on their device. It is not sufficient just to put phones on silent mode because it will maintain a level of interference with the broadcasting system.
No. 5 on the agenda is detailed scrutiny of the Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill 2017, which is a Private Members' Bill, and we will have two sessions on it today. In our first session, I welcome on behalf of the committee Mr. Alan Baldwin and Mr. Noel Larkin from the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, Mr. David Browne and Mr. Joe Kennedy from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, and Ms Orla Hegarty and thank them for attending today.
Before we begin, I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call Mr. Baldwin to make his opening statement.
Mr. Alan Baldwin:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak here today. I am a chartered and registered building surveyor and director of The Building Consultancy. I am chairperson of the SCSI building surveying professional group. I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Noel Larkin, who is also a chartered and registered building surveyor. He is principal of Noel Larkin and Associates and vice chairman of the building surveying professional group.
The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland is the professional body representing more than 5,000 chartered surveyors in the property, land and construction sectors across a number of surveying disciplines in Ireland.
Our membership incorporates disciplines from building and quantity surveying to estate agents, planning surveyors, property and facility managers and geomatic surveying. The SCSI is a partner with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, RICS, the global body for chartered surveyors, with more than 180,000 members and trainees around the world.
The SCSI welcomes, in principle, the Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill 2017 as a step forward in reducing the timeframe required to seek necessary permits for redevelopment, especially of those vacant and underutilised properties in urban areas. More than half of our membership base is located outside Dublin and we are aware of the challenges facing towns and villages to breathe new life and vibrancy into urban centres. This year, the SCSI has placed the topic of the rejuvenation of our rural high street at the top of our policy and research agenda, and this will include highlighting the issues facing property owners when redeveloping their properties. Derelict, empty and underutilised buildings are a blight not just on rural towns but also on our cities, and we support practical and sensible measures that will improve vacancy rates, especially if they alleviate the housing supply crisis.
We also welcome the concept of a one-stop-shop where competing regulatory requirements such as accessibility and conservation, which can currently create contradictions that cannot be overcome in a practical and economic way, are dealt with in a holistic way. However, we have real concerns that any reduction in standards and processes does not come at any price to people's safety or deliver any unintended consequences elsewhere.
The SCSI is concerned about elements within the Bill's wording which we believe is very much open to interpretation, particularly relating to aspects of the replacement of the existing building control procedures with the works permit and the interpretations in Schedule 1. The building industry has come a long way in terms of improving building regulations and building control regulations, and it would be counterproductive if derogations are made available to undermine or deflect from the standards which are properly in place to protect a building's occupants. The timeframes envisaged by the Bill will be exceptionally difficult to implement without significant resourcing and a specific requirement for sufficiently detailed plans and drawings to assist the panel's assessment of compliance with regulatory requirements.
This Bill proposes a one-stop-shop to consider applications for renovation or change of use applications for existing properties, of which the majority is likely to be of considerable age and built during a time when building regulations were not in place. Any proposed structural changes to existing buildings impacting on a number of areas covered under the building regulations and already catered for by the existing building control amendment regulations, BCAR, procedures could be compromised due to the tight timeframe proposed and lead ultimately to structural failures. Consideration should be given to building or structural surveys of these buildings being carried out to ensure that the proposed alterations can facilitate the new loads or alterations proposed for the change of use or redevelopment. The SCSI is concerned that any general arrangement drawings used to consider an application would be in isolation of sufficient drawings and detail to demonstrate compliance with structure.
Resourcing of the proposed fast-track process to ensure that the proposed changes are workable solutions is unclear at this stage. The speedier turnaround process will increase the workloads placed on local authorities and therefore will require additional resources before a new expedited process is implemented. It is also important to ensure that a two-tier system will not develop for the standard of housing being delivered. The Bill is not clear on the definition of "relevant professionals" of the proposed "panel" and it also mentions the establishment of a register. There are already established registers for professionals in this area. The society is the registration body for buildings surveyors and the RIAI registers architects. We are unsure, therefore, of the need for an additional register. We are also unclear as to whether the authorised persons are local authority staff or private sector professionals. Following a recruitment embargo and the early retirement of many technical personnel, there must be real concern that many local authorities simply will not have the ability to provide this one-stop shop service and will be challenged to scale up to respond to what could be a deluge of applications. If non-local authority staff are required to undertake this activity, it is likely to place a higher risk of local authorities or indeed the State being held to account for future failures given the apparent light-touch nature of the interpretation of technical guidance contained in the amendments proposed in Schedule 1.
This proposed legislation appears to impinge on established third party rights to comment on or object to any proposed redevelopment. We are interested to hear how this process will work and what impact the proposal will have on the current statutory planning observation rights. We are not convinced that the legislation will have the impact that is intended on the creation of housing supply. With such a high demand for short-term accommodation in many urban areas, renovated properties may be utilised for Airbnb-type accommodation and, instead of being utilised ultimately to assist with the overall housing accommodation crisis, will fuel the short-term letting supply. The Bill does not appear to contain any restriction in terms of building or project size, nor does it contain any limitation on the number of permissible units to be created by subdivision or refurbishment. The implications of intensification of use which will impact on parking and local services, which are important planning considerations, may need to be considered in the overall impact study for this legislation.
While it is outside the scope of the Bill, legislators may also want to consider the potential legal and financial implications that these exemption provisions may create. Will banks provide finance for subdivided units created under these exemptions on the basis of a certificate of conformity? Will the legal profession view this type of certificate as sufficient for conveyance or other purpose? Will residential property tax be applied to such properties?
From reading the Bill, the SCSI is concerned that there is not sufficient distinction made between the planning process and building regulations and building control regulations. We feel that further consideration is needed to separate these two distinct processes and we look forward to working with the Department to ensure that the legislation, when adopted, is fair, fit for purpose and merges properly with the current processes and procedures for the delivery of the built environment.
Mr. David Browne:
I thank the committee for the invitation to speak to it on the Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill 2017. I am from RKD Architects and president of the RIAI, and my colleague, Joe Kennedy, is from Smith + Kennedy Architects. We are both practising architects working on the design and delivery of a broad range of building types - industrial, commercial and housing projects, both large and small, throughout Ireland and abroad.
The RIAI has a diverse group of practitioners working right across Ireland and the vast majority of our members work on exactly the scale of buildings envisaged in the Bill. They are available and willing to help right now with solutions. A total of 53% of architects are in practices of fewer than five people and a further 28% are in practices of fewer than 15 people, so the work proposed in the one-stop shop system is work in which they would be eager to participate.
The RIAI welcomes and supports in principle many of the concepts contained in the Vacant House Refurbishment Bill 2017, including measures that assist in providing residential accommodation to address the housing shortage, the restoration of vibrancy to towns and villages and providing accommodation for the smaller household sizes that are a growing part of society. We support the provision of co-ordinated local authority meetings where planners, fire officers, accessibility and applicable conservation officers are present. I believe that point has been raised in earlier debate on the Bill. We also welcome any measures to speed up the preconstruction approvals process for housing delivery so that the refurbishment of vacant buildings for housing may be implemented urgently.
In principle, many of the concepts in the Bill are consistent with previous RIAI recommendations and are to be welcomed, in particular moving away from self-certification by builders or developers and the verification of plans before work commences. Our comments and recommendations are made with positive intent with a view to improving and strengthening the Bill, increasing clarity in achieving its aims, and ensuring consistency with other complementary legislation. However, the RIAI has significant concerns in respect of many key aspects of the Bill in its current format which we believe render it unworkable and which we will set out. That said, we are keen to work further with the committee if requested to address the issues we raise. I will outline our observations and Mr. Kennedy will outline our recommendations.
The primary concern of the RIAI with this Bill is in its potential to undermine the safety of occupants of any new dwellings. SI 9 of 2014 was enacted to improve delivery of safe and well-built buildings, particularly in the apartment and housing sectors. Alignment of the Bill with SI 9 is critical to provide proper protection of the public.
If the Bill's proposals to compile lists of so-called authorised persons to oversee its implementation are introduced, we will end up with three separate systems for building control.
Those will be the systems under this Bill, SI 9 of 2014 and SI 365 of 2015. This will be inefficient, confusing and unsafe for the public. The RIAI believes that, in order to ensure the competency of the "authorised person" and the panel of "relevant professionals and authorised persons", they must comprise professional, trained people with the competence and experience to carry out assessment of applications and independent inspection of works.
The Bill proposes that the technical guidance documents, TGDs, be revised to indicate how the amended requirements detailed in the Schedule 1 of the Bill can be achieved in practice. The RIAI believes that this approach will have a number of negative results. There will be a two-tier system of building regulation and building control, which will be inefficient, confusing and unsafe for the public. It will be difficult in practice to achieve effective, robust change to the TGDs, given their current complexity. An effective relaxation of the building regulations, as proposed by the Bill, has serious potential to put at risk the occupants of new dwellings, particularly vulnerable individuals.
The Bill provides for a radical change to the current planning and building control systems. There is significant potential for unintended consequences. For example, a worst case scenario could result in the conversion of a relatively small non-domestic building into, for example, six bedsits with shared bathroom accommodation and substandard fire separation and means of escape if proper guidelines are not issued and rigorous inspection procedures are not implemented.
Therefore, it would be prudent to limit the lifetime of this Bill, in a revised format, to two years so that the outcomes may be understood. At the end of that period, it is recommended that a review of SI 9 and SI 365 be completed and the contents of this Bill and the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2018 be aligned.
No reference is made to zoning, vacant houses or vacant buildings in the Bill, nor any definition of what they comprise or the period for which they should be unoccupied to be considered vacant. The Bill does not provide for first or third party appeals. It also assumes that local authorities have the resources to deal with the additional workload that will result from it, which we do not consider to be realistic.
Mr. Joe Kennedy:
Turning to our recommendations, the health and safety of the public and occupants of new dwellings that may result from implementation of this Bill must be its primary intent. The Bill should be aligned with a revised version of SI 9 as envisaged in the Safe as Houses? report of last December. The draft Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2018 support the exemption of vacant town centre properties for change of use to residential under the Planning Acts. We would support the introduction of that definition into the Bill. The Bill should avoid introducing a third system of building control to this small country. Specific guidance to ensure the competency of the authorised person and the panel of relevant professionals and authorised persons should be set out or provided for in the Bill. We do not support the revision of the TGDs as proposed in the Bill. The Bill should be limited to two years in order to avoid perpetuating unintended consequences and should be aligned with other relevant regulations at the conclusion of that period after review. A definition of "vacant house" or "vacant buildings" and the period for which they should be unoccupied to be considered vacant should be included. The Bill should provide for first and third party appeals. Local authorities have to be given adequate resources to deal with the additional workload.
Ms Orla Hegarty:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to contribute during this session. Existing buildings are the most readily available, cheapest, quickest and most sustainable source of housing supply in the short term. In addition to the estimated 183,000 vacant dwellings recorded in Census 2016, there were more than 28,000 vacant commercial addresses in mid-2017, a national vacancy rate of 13.5%. Upper floors of buildings in cities and towns were traditionally used for housing. These buildings exist, do not require infrastructure, have connections to utilities and drainage, and are close to shops, services and public transport. They are ideally suited to one to three-person households, which is the demographic of highest demand. Providing housing in existing communities, particularly for people who live alone, gives immediate access to services, generates commercial activity, reduces urban sprawl, supports sustainable transport, consolidates urban regeneration and reduces social isolation.
As an aside, and so that members can envisage the scale of building that could occur under this process, the Bill's 500 sq. m limit is approximately the size of two pairs of semi-detached houses.
A study by UCC in Cork city centre indicated that North Main Street had 388 residents, with the potential to treble its population within the existing building stock. Other studies by Dublin City Council and Space Engagers confirm a vast untapped potential in city areas and regional towns where there is high demand. The UCC study found that, contrary to "what is sometimes suggested, planning is not the problem here". It goes on to read "discussion with property owners and the local authority indicates clearly that the problem is actually a mix of bureaucracy (the complex/expensive building control regulation regime) and viability (the difficulty for building owners in securing credit)." This is confirmed by the limited impact of the previous living-over-the-shop schemes. Currently, the living city initiative provides tax relief for owners of residential and commercial buildings, but these schemes are largely concerned with financial incentives and do not deal with the most significant barriers, those being, regulatory cost, complexity and uncertainty.
I will give an example to demonstrate the problem in respect of this type of small building. If an owner of a shop with vacant upper floors that may have been used previously as a solicitor's office or a hairdresser's decides to convert the space to two small apartments, there are three separate regulatory approval processes to do so compliantly: planning, fire safety certificate and disability access certificate. The three go to different parts of the local authority, have different submission requirements, technical reports and drawings, have separate fees and operate on different timescales. The owner makes a substantial outlay to prepare these drawings and reports but carries the risk that, if any one of the three is refused, the project cannot go ahead. The conditions set by a fire officer or conservation officer could be in direct conflict with each other. There is no formal mechanism to get all of the people together to agree a workable and safe solution and no TGDs for interpreting the regulations for this type of work.
If the owner is successful in all three applications, a planning development levy is due. The owner then engages, and pays fees to, four separate statutory appointments: a design certifier and an assigned certifier under building control, a project supervisor for the design process and another project supervisor for the construction stage under the health and safety heading. Statutory notices are made to the Health and Safety Authority and the building control authority. A substantial amount of technical and regulatory information is uploaded to the building control management system, BCMS, for record keeping rather than verification or technical checks. At completion of the work, another submission of site records, certificates and technical documents are uploaded with a certificate of compliance. Separately, a statutory safety file is assembled for the owner by the project supervisor.
All of these procedures can be triggered by something as simple as changing the use from office to residential, subdividing a room, extending a bathroom or reconfiguring a staircase. Importantly, the checking of design and inspection of construction is done by certifiers appointed by the owner and who act for the owner, not the State. There is no independent inspection.
The regulatory system has, therefore, become a barrier to compliance. In the absence of active enforcement, there are widespread problems of illegal and unsafe conversions. "Slum landlords" have little fear of sanction and openly advertise on reputable letting websites. In one case that was highlighted by RTÉ, 40 tenants were accommodated in ten bedrooms. Overcrowding, illegal conversions and shoddy construction are putting lives at risk. Limited resources are available for enforcement.
The Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill addresses the shortcomings in previous schemes.
It gives certainty and reduced cost for owners; safer buildings for occupants; and a workable system of approval, control and enforcement for the local authorities.
In summary, there are four stakeholders in this process: the owner; the local authority; the architect or professional adviser; and the future tenant or resident of the building. The current does not work for any of them. This system would give the owner one-stop-shop approval, take uncertainty out of the process and allow him or her to have an expedited start on site. The local authority can streamline its administrative systems, generate flexibility for staffing and on-call expertise. Importantly, the system gives local authorities consistency and trust in the inspection regime and allows them have preventative controls so that premises are inspected before they are occupied and not afterwards.
Importantly, from the professional point of view, the system allows more collaboration, sharing and upskilling. Finally, for the future resident or tenant, the system gives the transparency of a national system that works across all of the various safety inspections. The resident or tenant is not the party that must take enforcement. A third party, prior to occupation, will carry out enforcement, which is reassuring. There is also a possible alignment of the various branches of inspection that takes place at the moment. Again, that will streamline the system and make it more efficient.
I welcome the witnesses before the committee. I thank them for sharing their views and observations on the Bill.
People have referred to SI 9 of 2014 and the recent building control regulations that have been introduced to protect the citizen who may be building or residing in a particular building. That is all very important and must be acknowledged. As Ms Hegarty mentioned, the existing housing stock in cities and towns must be prioritised for refurbishment. Despite the fact that we have all this regulation and construction levels have started to rise again, why have we not seen the activity in the over-the-shop type of premises in towns and villages that we need given the infrastructure and services that exist? Two reasons that have been outlined are the cost and the bureaucracy associated with such work. That can lead to two things, ether inaction, which means a premises will remain vacant, or it can mean there is shoddy workmanship. For example, people may not have engaged the services of professionals like they should, take on the job themselves, hire a small contractor and, literally, renovate the premises and let it without anybody knowing and probably in a substandard state.
I want to identify the best approach to take. I am interested in hearing further views from the witnesses sat opposite. Would they rather see an underground renovation system? That seems to be happening in some cases but not in others. Would they like the system reformed whereby the concerns about standards and technical documents expressed by the professionals here were taken into account? Would the witnesses prefer if local authorities provided independent oversight? It is a fact that in this country local authority inspections of the built environment are not at as high a percentage as in other countries. We should learn lessons from the Celtic tiger years, particularly well known cases such as Priory Hall and others that had serious infrastructural and structural issues. Despite the fact, presumably, that the work was signed off by architects, engineers and surveyors we still had problems. I foresee that the problems existed due to a lack of independent oversight. For that reason I am of the view that we should support more independent inspections from an independent source, and who is better placed to carry out such inspections than local authorities?
Have the professionals experienced the bureaucracy, that we have heard about from their clients, when they engage with local authorities? Planning certificates, planning permission, disability certificates and fire certificates are required. As a witness has said, three different timelines are associated with the certificates and permission and three different Departments are involved. Is it a good proposal to streamline the process and create a one-stop-shop situation in local authorities? The proposal seeks to reduce the amount of bureaucracy and make it easier for Joe and Josephine Citizen to renovate their property. There are barriers that we need to address. This Bill, as written, addresses the matter to some extent. The bureaucracy is one element and one solution is a one-stop-shop system. Can the witnesses tell me about their experience of the situation? Do they agree that bureaucracy is a problem? Do they agree that a one-stop-shop system in local authorities would alleviate the amount of bureaucracy?
In terms of oversight, do the witnesses, as professionals, support more independent oversight and inspection by appropriately trained and competent professionals employed within the local authority services? I await the replies with interest.
Ms Orla Hegarty:
I was in practice for a long time but I am not currently. In my experience these systems are very difficult to explain to clients, they are complex and there is a lot of uncertainty. I mean one must wait for decisions and try to get decisions at the right time. I suspect that in a lot of cases when people are advised by a professional they go down the route of just getting a builder and do not engage with the system. Such a situation is a concern.
I fully support independent oversight and it is very important that we have it. It would dovetail into the commitment that 25% of residential rental properties would be inspected by 2021. Resources have been set aside for the initiative. This system could be a vehicle for the initiative and, therefore, one could overlap the two. The final inspection could effectively be a document that is also used for the Residential Tenancies Board. One could use a resource that has been made available in a more strategic way to do two things at the same time. The proposal could prove very useful.
Mention has been made that people in the local authorities could do the work. I understand that there are fewer than 70 building control officers in the country. Obviously a flexible resource is needed to expand that pool of staff. Probably the best way to do so is by establishing a panel and framework. I do not agree that such people need to be registered professionals. At present fewer than five of the 70 staff are registered professionals because building control differs from the job of a design professional although there are overlaps. The type of people who might be taken on to do this work might be somebody who is a clerk of works, a retired site foreman, somebody who has worked in the building control industry in the UK or somebody who is an architectural technologist. A wide pool of people exists that can do this work as, effectively, building control officers.
Mr. Alan Baldwin:
I am very much involved at a commercial level, in almost every county in Ireland, with retail clients. The Bill makes a distinction about vacant properties. Perhaps, there is a misconception that the property that sits above a retail unit is vacant but it belongs to a tenant and to a landlord. We must be careful and explore that aspect a little bit further. If one goes up and down the high street in any town one will discover that several occupiers have long leasehold interests. Leasing the upper floor of a premises is complex. Many commercial occupiers have no interest in residential management. Their sole focus is to run their business from the ground floor and they have no interest in the first, second or third floors. That does not mean that the opportunity does not exist. There is a process and a system involved. If one of my clients takes a leasehold interest in a property then he or she must apply to the superior landlord for consent.
I shall return to the point made about complexity. Before we even get to a point of making a statutory application we must obtain the superior landlord's consent. However, an awful lot of properties are held by funds.
I take the point the Senator made about individuals. There are many individuals the length and breadth of the country who own property. I am sure they would be more than willing to engage in the process of refurbishing the premises.
It is important to make a distinction. Earlier Ms Hegarty made the point that there are 28,000 commercial vacant properties on the register. In reality, there are complexities around that situation. When I walk down the main street in my home town I can recognise the vacant properties. The reality is they sit with a superior landlord who has no interest in the complexity of managing residents.
The Senator asked about the process of statutory proposals. I will share my experience. We are making applications to the local authority quite frequently and in various counties throughout the country.
Unfortunately, owing to resource issues, we are experiencing delays. For example, we could submit a fire safety certificate application and wait upwards of 20 or 25 weeks for a decision. The process should not take that long.
Mr. Alan Baldwin:
Absolutely. We are not against the Bill and have only had a short time to consider it since we received in on Thursday. To explain, the Senator asked about our experience. My experience is that there are considerable delays in the system. Unfortunately, with planning, fire and disability access certificates, some of the delays are causing significant problems for commercial occupiers who just want to open shops and trade. A system that provides a more streamlined platform would be welcomed, provided it was properly resourced. Our concern is that we will experience further delays in the making of commercial applications if the resources are moved from one side of the county council to another to deal with one-off applications.
Mr. David Browne:
We experience that bureaucracy in all of the statutory aspects in making applications in respect of buildings. The introduction of SI No. 9 of 2014 has put much greater discipline on the inspection of buildings and we have seen a notable change for the better where it is competently carried out. On the other hand, there have been incidences where it has not been properly carried out and that is a concern. The system has only had three years to bed in and needs a number of years before we can make a full judgment on it. I know that there are moves afoot to improve it.
We support fully the idea of a one-stop-shop. It would be excellent in the development of vacant properties within towns. It is interesting to note that the recent statutory instrument on the planning and development (amendment) (No. 2) regulations 2018 provides for an exemption of the type of development the Senator envisages. We believe that could well be-----
Mr. David Browne:
The principle could be applied because it has a lot of merit. We need to be cognisant of SI No. 9 of 2014 because we brought it forward for specific reasons. They were to ensure better and more safely built buildings. We need to be careful to try to maintain as much of it as we can in the development of these buildings. Speaking to Mr. Joe Kennedy earlier, he mentioned the problem posed by radon. Dealing with the provision of a radon barrier in a new build is technically relatively simple. In an old building with a shop below and a residence above it might be much more difficult to deal with it. The rise of stairs in older buildings can tend to be somewhat dangerous and if we are trying to encourage them to come and live in towns and take advantage of their communities, we need to be careful that we are cognisant of the safety of older people.
Mr. David Browne:
Yes, if they were properly resourced, either by resourcing them internally or providing for them to outsource, as is the case in Britain, although there are problems with that system also. It may be that there should be a fee-based system associated with the one-stop-shop arrangement to provide financial resources to support the local authorities.
Mr. Joe Kennedy:
In our submission in 2015 to the Department with responsibility for the environment we strongly recommended independent inspection and raised serious concerns about self-certification and its advocacy. We were disappointed to see SI No. 365 of 2015 which removed experienced professionals from the core of building houses. We support independent inspections and have continually called for them.
I thank all of the delegates for their contributions. I appreciate the manner in which they have scrutinised the Bill and made known their views on it in order to ensure we will have a Bill that is fit for purpose and will do what we want it to do. I will not go into it in great detail, but, as others have alluded to, there are cost and time barriers to development taking place and there is also a housing crisis. We are elected Members of Parliament and it is our duty to help and assist and provide the means and mechanisms to address it. This is one such way to do it.
All of the delegates welcome the Bill and its intent and have acknowledged the need for it, but they say there are difficulties. Apart from Ms Hegarty, two, in particular, went about providing reasons the Bill should not proceed any further. We will take on board the recommendations made on definitions, clarifications and resources, as well as the issue of numbers. The delegates said that in the case of refurbishment works, the number of units within a particular building was not defined. In no way do we wish to compromise standards, safety or competence. In fact, I take offence to the implication, regardless of whether it was intentional. That is not our intention. As others said, there is provision within the Bill for competent, professional and independent assessment. We take on board the suggestions made in that regard and will further define it to make it easier for the delegates and the public to understand.
It is our intention to reduce the costs associated with certification. They are too dear and a cost barrier to construction. With others, I am interested in addressing that issue. There is a cost of construction issue related to the supply issue and certification is part of it. Development charges, the cost of finance and VAT are others. We will do what we can in that regard. The cost of certification in other jurisdictions is a lot lower and there is no compromise on standards. SI No. 9 which was referred to is as up-to-date as it gets and we would not deviate one iota from what is being provided for in it.
I again thank the delegates. In particular, I thank Ms Hegarty for her comments. She set out effectively and eloquently the reasons this has to be done. On Mr. Baldwin's contribution, I know that there are complexities with buildings and that there are more associated with those in the cities and where trade is greater. There are buildings in small towns and villages throughout the country that need an opportunity, an incentive and a reason to breathe life back into them.
The statutory instrument brought forward last week was also welcome, but it must be accompanied by relevant guidelines for refurbished buildings. It is not fair or appropriate and a barrier to have the guidelines for refurbishment works led by guidelines for new buildings. It is not and should not be the case. They have to be separated. Mr. Browne referred to old staircases and so forth. We want to make it easier. If the repair and lease scheme and the incentives associated with it are improved and the recommendations of the Commission on Taxation are taken on board in a future budget, there will be further reasons this could happen.
That will get rid of the complexities fairly quickly as the lad will see there is a buck to be made here, and more luck to him. There is a provision for an effort to broaden the amount of property available in the market, which in turn would address affordability. That is our intention and what we want to do. I thank the witnesses and there are many well-intended suggestions that we will take on board.
Deputy Cowen has probably covered most of the issues relating to the Bill and the presentation this morning but I will comment on some matters mentioned. Nowhere in the Bill do we refer to new buildings but new buildings have been mentioned by both people in submissions. This refers to existing and vacant buildings. With regard to the planning process, the local authority has an opportunity to ensure through the one-stop process that it can deal with planning, exempted planning, fire certification and disability certification. At no point in this Bill do we want to compromise standards. That is not the intention or purpose. Reference has been made to SI 9 of 2014. We would still conform to fire and disability certification but we are saying that a works permit would have to be submitted under the building control regulation rather than fire, disability or planning exemption certification. We are replacing it with one certificate but we are not reducing what the statutory instrument requires with respect to fire or disability certification.
It has been indicated in a number of meetings now that we are talking about renovation of existing buildings. Building control regulations relate to new buildings and one cannot have exact guidance documents relating to refurbishment, as one can with respect to new buildings. Corridor widths would be different and it would be very difficult to convert many existing buildings to new building standards. We have identified these as weaknesses and it is why we clearly said the technical guidance documents are needed to ensure the likes of corridor widths are maintained, as well as ventilation and fire certificates. We are not dealing with new builds but existing buildings. The Bill seeks the technical guidance documents to ensure safety.
The Bill also brings independent inspection and it is one of the key aspects. Most people agree we need to move away from what is there at the moment, where the builder or developer is paying the assigned certifier to sign off on buildings. We are singing from the one hymn sheet in that this element of building control must be done by independent assessment rather than somebody paying the piper. This Bill gives the opportunity to introduce this independent inspection. It is a welcome move in the right direction.
Mr. Joe Kennedy:
I will make a couple of quick comments that I hope can clarify some matters. There was reference to "new" dwellings. When we convert an existing building into six units, for example, they would be deemed to be new dwellings. The building regulations apply to existing buildings as well as new buildings; that is other than simple refurbishment.
We can take Part M of the building regulations, relating to access for all. We used to call it the disability provision. It has two sections, with the first referring to new buildings. The second section refers to existing buildings and makes the point that one cannot always provide the full requirements under the first and second section. It is a very practical way of adapting the technical guidance documents without having to have new ones. It is a simple provision that one would go as far as possible within practical measures, as long as this does not go below the bar of safety. That is worth remembering.
There is also the cost of certification. We are just finished the first phase of the Ó Cualann affordable housing scheme in Ballymun. We are working very closely to develop these affordable models. The cost of certification of those houses is €1,800 per house for design and assigned certification. In other private schemes we are doing, the cost of certification is between €2,000 and €2,500. I have not a clue where the figure I have seen in various posts of €30,000 is coming from. I have never heard of it in the real world where practitioners work. There is a cost but it is relatively small for what one gets. The Ó Cualann model is a great way of how to quickly improve the housing stock. We are really in favour of the intent of this Bill, especially if it is limited to town centres, where there is much societal benefit in bringing older people living in isolation in the countryside into the towns.
Mr. David Browne:
As an architect in a separate practice from Mr. Kennedy, I confirm the certification figures he mentioned. They are in the order of approximately €2,000 per unit. That is for private developers. The matter of independent inspection was raised and the types of people who should carry them out. We find that clients are now becoming very dependent on us interpreting technical guidance documents for compliance because they have become so complex. Within the technical guidance documents there are embedded in the order of 500 references to Irish, British or European standards. It takes quite an amount of technical expertise and education to be able to verify that one is compliant. One would have to take a very careful look at how authorised persons are qualified and what are the criteria for qualification.
Ms Orla Hegarty:
I draw the distinction between authorised persons and certifiers. Authorised persons are defined under the 1990 Building Control Act and there is nothing new in that respect. I mention it because they are given much legal powers. An authorised person has the authority to go on a site and take samples of materials, as well as seeking documentation and, effectively, take enforcement through the local authority. It is a very powerful role. Certifiers do not have authority to go on a site unless permitted to take samples and get documentation. They act for the owner, who appoints them, rather than the local authority. If a certifier sees something that is remiss or about which they are concerned, they could be fired by the owner of the building and replaced by somebody else. The local authority would be none the wiser. An authorised person has duties to report and would be involved in the enforcement process. It is an important distinction.
Another benefit of having an independent system is something we are seeing now with the Carillion collapse. One of the issues in this jurisdiction is that the entire certification process is tied up in contracts. People due to be paid and to whom moneys are outstanding can now effectively hold certifiers to ransom by withholding certificates through the chain of construction contracts. An independent system takes that completely out of it and allows the State, in a case where there is a contractual complexity, collapse or a default, to still do the independent inspection, sign off and open the building on the other side. We could be in a position where certificates would not be available, for example, if people are not paid. The assigned certifier at the top of the chain would not have documentation, meaning the building could not be occupied. We have created a very difficult and complex position by putting that into contract and not keeping it independent.
Mr. Alan Baldwin:
I have some observations. It was very useful to hear Deputy Casey's interpretation of the Bill. We have read it and put our own interpretation to it. What I have taken from Deputy Casey's explanation is that the information submitted to the local authority with the work permit will be to the same standard we would submit if we did it through the normal channels. There was a concern - I have no doubt others might share it - that it might have given rise to the old system where builders would build from planning application drawings.
There was an absence of detail and clarity around that. That is an important distinction.
More often than not, my professional fees are less than the local authority charges. If my client is submitting a planning application, a fire certificate or a DAC, disabilities access certificate, the local authority charges involved could be in excess of the professional fee my client will pay me. There are costs involved in everything but some costs are going into the local authority.
Mr. Noel Larkin:
We all agree reform is necessary. There needs to be clarification around the technical guidance documents, TGDs, because local authorities' hands are tied when it comes to them and the flexibility is not there. As Mr. Joe Kennedy mentioned, there is provision within the new Part M to allow flexibility when dealing with existing buildings or protected structures that can easily be applied back across all of the TGDs.
In a case where an assigned certifier is unhappy or falls out with a developer and is sacked, he or she must inform the local authority that his or her appointment has ceased and give reasons why. It cannot transfer to somebody else without the local authority being informed, if one is following the SI 9 strictly.
Some of the information Ms Orla Hegarty provided the committee was interesting. I represent the Cork North Central constituency. The figures she gave from the UCC report about Cork's North Main Street, a street I know well, are interesting. This points to reasons to support this Bill. We want to support this Bill but we have some issues and reservations which we have flagged before.
Ms Orla Hegarty touched on the issue of overcrowding and illegal conversions. We saw the RTÉ exposé at the end of last year about massive overcrowding in some premises on the south side of Dublin city. We have a concern about the inspection regime. We do not want to see it outsourced. We believe it should remain in the hands of the local authority. However, if there is to be genuine independent oversight, one needs to have inspectors who can do the job. Currently, more than 60 are employed in this area but fewer than 40 are physically involved in visiting premises. What are Ms Orla Hegarty's thoughts on the idea that this Bill should not progress until such time that it is linked to a significant increase in the oversight capabilities of local authorities?
Similarly, the Green Party and Civil Engagement in the Seanad are interested in supporting this legislation. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, and the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, RIAI, raised concerns about the competence of authorised persons who will carry out the inspections under the system. The authorised person regime has been in place since 1992 and is the basis for all local authority building control inspections. This objection makes no sense. If the Bill is not passed, the same regime will continue to apply. Local authority building inspectors do not have to be registered under the 2007 Building Control Act as assigned certifiers do.
Both the SCSI and the RIAI raised concerns about local authority resources. With them both trenchant in their support of the Construction Industry Register Ireland, CIRI, without having been given any evidence how that system is to be resourced and how the CIRI system register will be used to assess the competence of builders, the resourcing of local authority building control is a significant problem of long-standing as recognised in the Safe As Houses report. The recommendation that local authority building control be reviewed and resourced in the Safe As Houses report would align with an increased role for authorised persons as contemplated by this Bill. Will the witnesses comment on that?
Both the SCSI and the RIAI suggested the Bill would compromise safety, which obviously would be a significant issue for the committee and, moreover, for the public. Will they explain why a system where there will be inspections by authorised persons under the existing Building Control Act regime before a certificate of occupancy is granted can be less safe than the existing system where there may be no inspections, given that many local authorities report they inspect only 12% to 15% of construction works?
Ms Orla Hegarty:
The issue of overcrowding and illegal conversions is not going to go away. If anything, it is getting worse. There are no mechanisms or resources to deal with enforcement. There are multiple different inspections for different purposes with many overlaps. All of these inspections have the same purpose, whether it is for these conversions, for HAP, housing assistance payment, or for the RTB, Residential Tenancies Board. They are all about the safety of the resident, effectively, and personal safety. Many of them are looking at exactly the same thing such as whether there is a fire alarm, is it working, is there a fire exit or is there ventilation in the bedrooms?
It is an ad hocarrangement. I have spoken to people involved in these inspections for local authorities. Some are being done by environmental health departments in local authorities while others are done by building control. Some are outsourced by the building control department into frameworks with private operators reporting to the local authority. There is no consistency with the checklists they are using or the fees they are paying. There is no transparency for people who have a property.
For example, if one had a HAP tenant in a RTB-registered converted building, notionally one could have a BCAR, building control amendment regulations, inspection if the two apartments in the building were fitted out. One could then be on a list for a RTB inspection sometime between now and 2021, which is a different process. Similarly, one could then have a HAP inspection, which should happen within eight months of a tenant moving in but often is longer. This could impose a third checklist on the landlord to do work or the HAP payment will stop.
The potential of this authorised person regime would give a local authority a panel of people who would be appropriate to the needs of whatever the inspection was and who could be ticking off the same list. In some cases, it might be checking if there is a fire alarm and a fridge in the kitchen. In other cases, it might have to call in a fire officer to look at something more complex. It would effectively streamline the various processes which are all doing the same thing.
Mr. Alan Baldwin:
On our concerns around how the Bill might compromise safety, to be fair, there was a misunderstanding on my part around what level of technical information was going to be submitted. I genuinely had a concern that we were going to create a scenario where only the minimum information would be submitted which might give rise to creating health and safety issues down the line, a reduction in standards, etc. In fairness to the committee, it has clarified that distinctly today on what the expectation is.
Likewise, if we are going to adhere to certain standards - we expect to see the technical guidance documents being amended and updated - it will reduce any concerns we had in terms of any reduction in living standards. This was how the submission was framed. It was around not knowing the level of technical information could be submitted.
Mr. Noel Larkin:
On inspection by an authorised person, I understand what is meant in terms of the powers they have, more so than someone who is working under BCAR or SI 9. The numbers of inspections dictated by BCAR are at critical milestone points in construction before work is closed up. I would be concerned that if there was an inspection at the end by a local authority, that key points could be missed, covered or would not be available for inspection. If the local authority is to inspect, it would have to be under the regime of BCAR with a similar number of inspections at milestone points. That will be hard for a local authority to resource.
I am concerned that it might come to a final inspection and be equated, as Ms Hegarty has said, to a Private Residential Tenancies Board inspection where they check if there is a fire blanket, ventilation and other simple things like that. A building control (amendment) regulations, BCAR, inspection will involve itself with typical structural things behind the scenes so I would still be concerned unless the inspection regime is tied down in this Bill.
Mr. David Browne:
It is worth reminding ourselves that building is complex and the requirements to ensure compliance between 1990 and now have grown quite considerably. Section 11 of the 1990 Act refers to the authorised person. It states who that person is but I wonder if it would now make sense to set further criteria for what their qualifications might be to deal with this much more complex world that we live in. On the Construction Industry Register Ireland, CIRI, system, if one wishes to move quickly with the aspirations of the Bill, the CIRI system has been set up in reasonable good faith, I believe, by the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, and has a degree of robustness about it. It may be a milestone on the way to achieving full independent certification or registration of builders. It may be that it could be implemented on a short-term basis to enable the system to proceed. On local authority resourcing, as I have said, there is a very large issue to be faced with regard to increasing resources so that they would be adequate for inspection requirements.
Mr. Joe Kennedy:
I have a brief issue with the concerns we have raised about potential safety problems. In brand new buildings, designed from scratch, there is a growing problem with indoor air quality and mould growth. It arises from competing intentions of different parts of building regulations, particularly the near zero energy building, NZEB, standard, which gives us highly-insulated, airtight buildings. The ventilation regimes are difficult to impose on residents and occupants. It is the fastest growing area of legal action in France and the UK at present. It is even more challenging when one is converting a 1920 two-storey shop. We are not saying that this cannot be done safely but that there are big challenges in ensuring the safety of the most important stakeholder in all of those, which is the person who will live in those buildings.
I apologise for having to step out there but I will check the transcript for what I missed later. I will re-emphasise, and am sure that everybody else said this at the start of their comments, that those of us who are sympathetic to this legislation do not in any way want to compromise fire safety or building standards. These sessions are very useful because they allow us to clarify and identify problems which, potentially through friendly amendment on Committee Stage, we might be able to resolve. We also share a desire to see a faster turnaround of vacant properties, particularly above shops. The current system is not achieving that for us. The discussion we are having today is not unlike the discussion we had last week about the Government's planning regulations with regard to exemptions, because standards are paramount for us.
As I listen, I wonder if part of the solution to this problem is not unlike part of the solution that many of us came to during the report on building control issues, which is that we are not really looking at a potential third inspection regime but at the old inspection regime with the new standards that come with BCAR. If there is some way to merge those two in a cost-effective and speedy way, that might be the way to do it. For example, clarifying the legislation about authorised persons might be a way to do that. Having a greater level of BCAR-type inspections by the authorised person worked into the legislation through amendment might be another way. Many of us are of the view that we would like assigned certifiers to continue operating under BCAR but not to be directly employed by the builder or developer, but essentially as authorised persons by the local authority, with the cost to be borne as it currently is. If all of that were to be done in the context of this legislation, which would not require substantial amendment, one could end up with the best of both worlds, which is a faster system with no questions on any of that. Maybe we can consider that as we go. Perhaps people have suggestions on how some of that could work.
The clarification of the point about the level of technical information that would be required in this Bill is important. We might look at clarifying that in the legislation because that is clearly the intention of the drafters. If that is where this conversation ends, I presume, if it is done right, that it would satisfy many of the concerns of the people on this side. My question relates to timelines because we obviously want to do this all more quickly but without compromising. Mr. Baldwin mentioned timelines. Does he have a notion of what a more appropriate timeline would be, particularly in the context of what I have outlined as a potential inspection regime and merging the two processes, or is that something he could maybe think about and come back to us on? That is more of a general point but perhaps people want to respond to that.
I will address the inspection process again and tease it out a little bit. We are all on the same hymn sheet and want the same result at the end of the day. Deputy Ó Broin hinted at it too. At the moment, if I refurbish a building, is there an inspection under BCAR?
All this Bill introduces is that that is done independently, copying that process, and we follow the same procedure and that the same documents are submitted. What we are looking at is to have that person assigned in an independent manner and not paid for by the developer, builder or whoever, but by the local authority. There is no extra cost in that because that cost has already been incurred or will be incurred if done under the normal processes. There is the same negotiated fee or whatever it is. There is no cost to the local authority to do this independent inspection because it has to be done anyway. The other point, which was mentioned earlier, is the panel at local authority level. That panel is already there. It just operates in different offices and one has to apply to different offices for different certification processes, and at a different timeframe. All we are doing is bringing that panel of people into the same room at the same time to make a decision on this. I think we all want to get to the same end result. I just thought that it would follow the BCAR system but be done independently rather than being carried out by the builder.
Mr. Joe Kennedy:
We are all working towards the same thing and can summarise very quickly everything that we agree on. We have strongly proposed independent inspection as the norm rather than self-certification. We believe that town centres would benefit from this type of a Bill. We are happy to hear some of the clarifications, as Mr. Baldwin has mentioned, about the rigour of the documentation because it is very complex. Unfortunately, it may be getting unsustainably complex. Perhaps we could address some of the more practical concerns. We were a bit concerned about the lack of definition as to what existing buildings this might apply to. We were afraid that somebody with an industrial unit up in Sandyford could put six units in it. Some 500 sq m is quite big. It is the floor area of six two-bedroom houses. None of us would want it to be misinterpreted. If we could foresee the unintended consequences now, they might be avoided.
Ms Orla Hegarty:
Unintended consequences were mentioned earlier. The exempted development provisions discussed last week would be an automatic entitlement to an owner to just go ahead and do the work. There is a safeguard in this Bill for that type of work whereby one does not have an automatic exempted development. The planning authority has to say that one fits the criteria for this. It gives the local authority its own control, without anybody automatically getting into this system, to say there is not adequate parking in the area, there is no amenity, or whatever else. It is a much more effective tool for the planning authorities than the blanket exempted development provision which was brought in which did not have an upper limit on the size of the building.
It is a much more effective tool for planning authorities than the blanket exempted development provision which was brought forward but which did not include an upper limit for the size of a building.