Tuesday, 4 December 2012
To ask the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government if, in view of the increasing incidence of post construction exposure of non-compliance with fire safety regulations in timber frame construction and it would appear that all these structures were confirmed as fire safety complied by persons who were certifying their own work or may not have monitored the construction, he will allay the concerns of thousands of home owners by instructing inspections to competent fire safety specials of all timber framed apartment blocks to ensure their safety. [54251/12]
I acknowledge the distressing and stressful situations which individuals face when building works in their home are not completed to the required acceptable standard. Since 1 June 1992, all new, extended or materially altered buildings, including those which have timber frame structures, must be built in compliance with the requirements of the national building regulations. Primary responsibility for compliance with the requirements of the regulations rests with the designers, builders and owners of buildings. Implementation and enforcement of the building control system is a matter for the local building control authority. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has no function in assessing, checking or testing compliance or otherwise of specific works or developments.
The Department is liaising with local authorities in relation to significant building control issues that have arisen in several multi-unit developments. Local authorities have extensive powers of inspection and enforcement under current legislation and have used such powers on a number of occasions where circumstances giving rise to concern have arisen. I expect local authorities to continue to use all of the powers currently available to them to address serious building defects.
This is a major issue, especially with regard fire safety. While there is an obligation of compliance, an increasing number of examples of non-compliant post-construction and completed works have come to the fore. We are talking about Priory Hall, which was partly a timber frame construction, Belmayne, which was completely timber frame, Dundrum, where people were moved out of their homes because of fire safety issues and cannot go back because the remedial works would be too much, and Airside in Swords. I have no doubt there will be fatalities in this area because of inadequate fire regulations.
The Minister is not addressing the key point, which is that although builders and architects stated they were compliant and fire safety officers signed off on them, tens of thousands of timber frame homes are not compliant and represent a serious hazard for homeowners. Will the Minister of State consider asking the Department to undertake a programme of inspections by fire safety specialists using non-invasive methods such as thermal imagery to identify the faults and organise a programme of corrections? Otherwise, how can people have certainty? They live in total fear in their homes.
Deputy Daly put her finger on the issue. Non-invasive inspections are visual inspections in many respects, and unless someone is physically examining each stage of construction as it proceeds there cannot be absolute certainty about any construction. People certified the works were in order when they were not, as the Deputy rightly pointed out.
Local authorities and the building inspection regime are very active, and local authorities are pursuing people throughout the country. In Carlow 120 premises were inspected recently. In Clare, four large apartment blocks were inspected and closed since 2006. In Longford, fire safety issues which have arisen in three residential developments are being dealt with. In Fingal, enforcement action has been taken with regard to Martello Towers estate which was built by Newlyn Developments. Court deadlines for works were certified as having been met, but Fingal County Council has not as yet signed off on them. There are also many other cases. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, announced a number of measures to be advanced by the Department with a view to improving compliance with and oversight of the requirements of the building regulations and they are being discussed at present.
We know inspections have not been thorough enough. We know architects and engineers sign off on work without being present themselves and without having an assistant or employee inspecting on their behalf. Work is being covered up and one does not know the situation regarding the work carried out most recently. If supervision is not as good as it should be I suggest timber frame has become risky for use in construction in Ireland. Masonry is much safer. Timber would be fine provided all inspections are done at all stages and it is perfect. However unless this is done it becomes very risky.
In recent years log cabins have been built in tourism areas, such as by lakes. Local authorities seem to be very lax in checking them. Are measures in place to check the Scandinavian-style log cabins being built in scenic areas? Some people are saying they are sub-standard and not made of the right type of wood and not very good in terms of fire and safety. Perhaps they have fallen beneath the radar.
I have met fire officers in local authorities and they are very active. Highly professional staff examine all of these issues and I am sure that first and foremost in their minds is identification. In Offaly, 22% of valid commencement notices were inspected in 2010 where previously the level had been much lower, perhaps 10% or 15%. A total of 408 buildings were inspected with regard to fire safety in 2010. South Dublin County Council has taken enforcement and successive court actions against Coalport Building Company Limited. A file is with the DPP at present with regard to a development in Mullingar in County Westmeath. Cases are before the High Court in respect of fire safety issues in a six-storey 100 unit apartment block in Limerick. In July the Minister, Deputy Hogan, announced measures to be advanced with a view to making improvements. These are with regard to oversight of the requirements of the building regulations; the introduction of mandatory certificates of compliance by builders and designers of buildings confirming that the statutory requirements of the building regulations have been met; the lodgement of drawings at commencement and completion stage to show all of the requirements have been met; more efficient pooling of building control staff and resources to ensure more effective oversight; standardised approaches and common protocols to ensure nationwide consistency in the administration of building control functions; and better support and further development of the building control functions nationwide.
I would not like it to go out from the Oireachtas that any house constructed of timber is unsafe. Clearly, that is not so. There must be balance in this regard. We need to make it crystal clear that it is a priority for local government but I would not create unnecessary worry in people's minds.