Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Topical Issue Debate
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, has absolutely no excuse for refusing to meet the residents of Priory Hall. He offered the excuse that related issues were before the courts. He also claimed that it was solely a matter for Dublin City Council. Neither of these excuses is valid. There is nothing in law and no court order to stop the Minister from sitting down with residents to address the issues involved. If it was occurring in his constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, he would be talking to or meeting them outside the gates of Leinster House, irrespective of whether a Supreme Court appeal was pending. Mr. Justice Kearns, President of the High Court, has stated the various branches of government, including the Department and the city council, should be putting their heads together to find a solution.
This issue is bigger than Dublin City Council. It is a national issue, with implications for planning and development, fire safety regulations, on-site building inspections and the functions of local and central government. In court counsel for Dublin City Council stated responsibility lay with the Department. However, the Minister has said it lies with the city council. The Priory Hall evacuees are being kicked like a football between the two agencies. Hundreds of people have had to be evacuated from Priory Hall and are living in emergency accommodation. They do not know what the immediate or long-term future holds for them. They have received widespread support from people across the city and the country, including from individuals disgusted at the conduct of the corrupt developer, Tom McFeely of Coalport, and the failure of the system of regulation and enforcement that allowed this disaster to happen.
It is shameful that the residents of Priory Hall have been refused a meeting with the Minister. They had to protest outside the gates of Leinster House yesterday and some colleagues and I joined them in solidarity. They should not have had to picket to demand a meeting with the Minister.
I would also like the Minister and the Taoiseach to step up to the plate, as I said on the Order of Business. We need a senior Government figure, particularly the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, to become directly involved. I also met a delegation from Priory Hall yesterday. I sensed their grave anxiety as they wondered whether they would be homeless for Christmas and what would happen about their mortgages and the payment of rent. We are in a legal no man's land between the High Court and the Supreme Court. People are concerned that the buildings were damaged when Thomas McFeely went in to undertake some remediation works, as one block has been left exposed to the elements.
What can the Minister tell us about the discussions that have taken place with Dublin City Council? The city council keeps telling us that it is in daily contact with the Department. It is incumbent, therefore, on the Minister and the Taoiseach to take a hands-on approach.
Most of the residents do not want to go back to Priory Hall. They want a solution. Owner-occupiers bought apartments in good faith; they were robbed of their life savings and submitted to taking out huge loans. They were left in a dreadful position. Those who privately rent are in a similar position. Effectively, they have been left homeless.
During the hearing in the High Court Mr. Justice Kearns repeatedly drew attention to the severe plight of the 240 residents and stated the behaviour of Dublin City Council "beggars belief" because the council had launched a torpedo but did not have the wherewithal to make alternative plans to remediate the complex, carry out repairs and rehouse residents. Miss Sineád Power, one of the leading members of the Priory Hall committee, continually says that because of the liaison between Dublin City Council and the Department, this is a political issue. Repeatedly in court barristers representing the council and others this situation requires a political solution. I pay tribute to Mr. Justice Nicholas Kearns of the High Court for his diligence, legal clarity and empathy with the people. He is a recommendation for the Judiciary.
I will take this issue on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
Dublin City Council is the designated authority with powers to enforce the statutory requirements arising under the Fire Safety Act, the Building Control Acts and the Planning and Development Acts, all of which are at issue in relation to Priory Hall. The council is also the designated housing authority under the Housing Acts. The Minister and the Department must respect the independence of the designated statutory authority in these matters and cannot interfere in individual cases. The Minister's responsibility is to ensure that appropriate statutory requirements, technical standards and administrative provisions are put in place under the various Acts. This responsibility has been fulfilled and is not in dispute. The Minister has no role in enforcement activity or the direct provision of housing services.
Residents at Priory Hall and their representatives have previously been advised of this clear division of responsibilities. The consistent advice given has been that the appropriate statutory powers in this case rest with Dublin City Council and that neither the Minister nor the Department has a statutory function in enforcement activity or in determining the provision of services in individual cases. This is and will remain the position. While this may be a source of disappointment to the residents, it is important that the Minister act appropriately and within his powers, particularly in cases such as this which are already the subject of legal proceedings.
Notwithstanding this clear division of responsibilities, the Department is being been kept informed by Dublin City Council of developments with regard to the resolution of issues at Priory Hall. At the Minister's request, the Department has assisted the council, in consultation with NAMA, in securing alternative housing for many of the residents. The overriding priority is to ensure the optimum outcome for the households concerned and to facilitate as early as possible a return to their own homes. In this respect it will be necessary to ensure that these homes are made fit for purpose and that the costs of so doing fall where they should. The Minister has asked Dublin City Council to do all within its powers to achieve this objective and has asked the Department to continue to liaise closely with Dublin City Council in this regard.
The Minister believes that Dublin City Council deserves much credit for the efforts it has made on behalf of the affected residents and he urges the Council to continue to meet and communicate with the residents and to take all reasonable steps to support them while they are vulnerable. The legal proceedings relating to Priory Hall are continuing and it would be entirely inappropriate to anticipate their conclusion.
On the North Fringe, specific responsibility for the planning and delivery of this development rests with the local authorities involved, Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council.
The residents merely requested a meeting with the Minister in order that they can tell him first-hand of the problems they are encountering. They were not asking him to interfere in the courts procedure but to listen to their problems. They are still paying mortgages. In some cases there is a three month moratorium but what will happen after three months? Mr. McFeely has damaged the properties in one block, which is now completely exposed since Dublin City Council had him removed from the site.
What will Dublin City Council do about the building control investigation that was completed on 16 November? What other non-fire issues is the council aware of because there is no doubt there are other examples, such as Balgaddy. Dublin City Council, in appealing the High Court's order to provide accommodation to residents, is causing people to fear that they will left homeless. These people must get a guarantee that they will not be left homeless no matter what happens. Christmas is coming and people are terrified of where they will end up.
I also ask the Minister of State if the Government credit committee met to discuss the owner occupiers and if a case was made on the extension of the three month mortgage moratorium.
There are two reports the public has not seen, the Hayes Higgins report and the building control report. Does the Minister of State know if there will be legal action on foot of the building control report? Has Dublin City Council given a breakdown of the costs of accommodation, legal costs and the total bill to the council and, therefore, to the State and the people we represent for this mess at Priory Hall?
The developer, Mr. Tom McFeely, owns 68 of the properties in the complex. Does the Minister know if any negotiations on those properties are under way whereby they could be made part of any contribution the developer must make to rebuild the complex? Given that people were defrauded here, has the Government requested the National Bureau of Fraud Investigation or the Criminal Assets Bureau to look into this to see how the public interest may be progressed?
On Deputy Ellis's suggestion that the Minister meet the residents to be made aware of the issues that have arisen in Priory Hall, I assure him he is more than aware of all of the problems arising at Priory Hall. The Department will liaise with the city council on an ongoing basis to ensure the optimum outcome for the households concerned and to facilitate as quickly as possible a return to their homes or, as was suggested in the earlier debate, an alternative to returning, whichever is the most reasonable and optimum outcome for the households concerned.
Substantial works must be undertaken before that can happen and the city council is making every effort to achieve this objective. I urge all concerned in Dublin City Council to deal with the situation in line with the standard arrangements in place for the discharge of their statutory functions. Given that the matter is now in the hands of the High Court and moving on to the Supreme Court, it is important for all concerned to await the outcome of the court's deliberation.
Since taking office, the Minister has clearly signalled consumer protection in the area of quality construction of new dwellings is a priority for him. In this regard, he announced in July a number of measures to be advanced by his Department and local authorities with a view to improving compliance with and oversight of the requirements of the building regulations.
Deputy Ellis mentioned that there may be other issues in other developments across Dublin and elsewhere. On that basis, the Minister will introduce mandatory certification and improved inspection arrangements as key reforms that will be in place early next year and will improve the quality of buildings while ensuring problems like that those that arose at Priory Hall will never arise again.
The Minister has publicly articulated his views on the role played by construction professionals and industry interests in certifying the building works at priory hall and he finds it dismaying to witness the lack of attention being paid to this aspect of the problem by commentators in general.
Deputy Broughan asked about the mortgage moratorium being considered by the credit committee. I will ask about that and come back to the Deputy on the issue. All avenues are being pursued to ensure any costs arising from the cases and for repairs to the building so homeowners can return, will be reclaimed from those responsible for getting us into this sad and sorry mess in the first place. If there is any other information that can be provided to the Deputies, I undertake to get it to them as quickly as possible.