Tuesday, 15 January 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Building Control Management System
47. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government his plans to develop supports for multi-unit developments affected by fire defects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1316/19]
I raised this question with the Minister of State in the last quarter of last year, has he advanced his plans to develop supports for multi-unit developments affected by fire safety defects and other building defects? Could he update the House on progress on that in the Department?
In general, building defects are matters for resolution between the contracting parties involved: the homeowner, the builder, the developer and-or their respective insurers, structural guarantee or warranty scheme. In the case of multi-unit developments, the legislative position is clear on where responsibilities rest. Under the Building Control Acts, 1990 to 2014, primary responsibility for compliance of works with the requirements of the building regulations rests with the owners, designers and builders of buildings.
When a building is constructed and occupied, statutory responsibility for safety is assigned by section 18(2) of the Fire Services Acts, 1981 and 2003, to the "person having control" of the building. In multi-unit developments, the "person having control" is generally the owner management company. Under the Multi-Unit Developments Act 2011, the owner management company must establish a scheme for annual service charges and a sinking fund for spending on refurbishment, improvement or maintenance of a non-recurring nature of the multi-unit development.
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017, a task force was established to lead a reappraisal of our approach to fire safety in Ireland and recommendations arising from the report of the task force to enhance fire safety are currently being implemented. Additionally, in response to the building failures that have emerged over the past decade, my Department has advanced a robust and focused building control reform agenda. This work, including amendments to the building control regulations and the development of new legislation through the building control (construction industry register Ireland) Bill will continue to be progressed in 2019.
That is pretty much along the lines of the Minister of State's previous answer. No one is asking Government or the Exchequer to carry the can for every defective development. The majority of sinking funds held by management companies and owner management companies are wholly insufficient to deal with some of the deficiencies and defects. In many instances, builders and insurers have walked away, there is an argument and people are left in abeyance. The Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government did a good report on this, "Safe as Houses?", which contained several detailed recommendations. That gained cross-party acceptance at the committee. Is the Minister of State minded to accept any of those recommendations and move on them or is it a case of thanking the committee for doing the report and moving on?
The Apartment Owners Network has requested certain measures as well. I intend to bring forward legislation this month in respect of sinking fund provisions and giving more clarity. I hope we will be able to secure support across the House and in Government to move that forward speedily. There are deficiencies in this area. Management companies were relatively new in Ireland ten or 12 years ago. There is a lot of work to be done to bring them under control. We need to address this for the 500,000 people living in multi-unit developments, many with defects.
The Department is working on the committee’s report and other reports and the task force is working on implementing their recommendations. There is an issue around when a government intervenes. Governments have decided in some cases to intervene to support homeowners in dwellings subject to significant damage such as pyrite, and, in budget 2019, a decision was made to bring forward a scheme to help homes affected by mica-contaminated blocks in Donegal and Mayo. They have significant visible damage. If that is not addressed, it will lead to greater difficulties. In some cases, those homes have been rendered unusable. In general, while the Department has overall responsibility for establishing and maintaining an effective regulatory framework for building control and fire services, it does not have a statutory role in resolving defects in privately-owned buildings, including dwellings, nor does it have a budget for such matters. There has been a decision to intervene in some cases because properties were so badly damaged. Other recommendations need to be considered in the round.
The committee made detailed recommendations. What aspects of those recommendations would the Minister of State accept and move on? I fully appreciate that it is not up to the State to carry the can all the time. The Minister of State mentioned in response to a question on pyrite how the proposed levy at the time on the insurance and construction sectors was dispensed with. While the taxpayer will have skin in the game, so should the insurance and construction sectors because this problem will not go away. We do not want any more Priory Halls or Longboat Quays or the other cases that the Minister of State and I know about that residents do not even want to mention.
We can help owner management companies; it is not all about finance. I proposed having a regulator for owner management companies to provide proper advice because there have many lay directors who are not necessarily legally minded or qualified to deal with detailed legislation, insurance and construction firms and they have nowhere to go. I have published a Bill which would set up a regulator in the sector. There are things we can do that will not cost us a heap of money. Will the Minister of State read the report again? I look forward to meeting him, the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and other Members regarding the sinking fund legislation that I will bring forward this month.
There are thousands of families who bought properties before 2014 that have substantial latent defects, including fire safety issues and water ingress. The State is partly responsible for this. The non-existent regulatory regime allowed unscrupulous builders, developers or architects to build those homes.
We asked in the "Safe as Houses?" report by the Oireachtas committee for the Minister of State to look at the issue and, in the first instance, try to design a non-judicial latent defects resolution process so people are not forced to spend money they do not have to go to court or to chase builders who are no longer solvent. Second, we asked that some funds be put into a latent defects resolution fund that could be matched by industry or others to try to deal with the issue. The problem will grow. It is disappointing for the Minister of State to say it is just a matter between the homeowner and the person who sold him or her the house. I also think it is wrong to say the Minister of State has been looking at the issue when I am not aware of any work in the Department looking at any of the recommendations relating to latent defects in the "Safe as Houses?" report. I urge the Minister of State to give a commitment to at least look at it, develop a non-judicial process to resolve it and to assist with financing, where appropriate, where developers are no longer trading and cannot be pursued through that process, possibly with a fund that is matched euro-for-euro with industry contributions.
Does the Minister of State accept the idea that the consumer is the person who must be protected both on health and safety grounds and in terms of liability for defects? In that context, we should consider quality assurance and a stamp of approval issued by the local authorities, the Department or somebody which can be stood over so the people responsible for approving the poor standards, or whatever the case may be, are held accountable. It will bring to a conclusion the idea of presuming to be able to escape from responsibility and somebody else will handle it. Like Deputy Darragh O'Brien, I agree the State cannot pick up the tab for everybody who wants to build a substandard house and run away from it afterwards.
The most important thing is to clarify that when Fine Gael came to Government, the first opportunity it got it brought in the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014. It should have been done many years before that but it was done by the Fine Gael Government in conjunction with the Labour Party because we recognised the importance of addressing the unacceptable situation of building failures in the past, which were allowed to happen by what I would call lax regulation. We stepped in and changed that. We have a lot more confidence in the building sector going forward and in what is being produced today and with regard to people's protections when they buy and build properties. The owner is also part of that conversation. They have to assign competent persons to design, build, inspect and certify the building and the works thereafter, both in a one-off house where there is the option to opt out of that, which is not an option people should take. We have addressed it and rightly so and it is a pity it was not done well before that. It has certainly been done now. We have other legislation coming forward on the Construction Industry Register Ireland, CIRI, which is to recognise the construction industry and the number of people who want to develop a proper culture of top-class construction and a high-quality certification process. I am glad that over 800 companies have voluntarily gotten involved in it and many more will come through it too.
The Department takes all committee reports very seriously and has certainly taken that one very seriously. It has been working through its recommendations. It is still working on it. Both the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I have engaged with the committee on those recommendations. We will continue that work. We will also work with the committee on this area. They are privately owned properties. With regard to management companies, the Department of Justice and Equality is also involved in it. It is ongoing work. Perhaps it is a conversation we could continue on Committee Stage. That is where it stands at present.