Thursday, 19 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Before I commence, I want to welcome what the Minister of State said, namely, that while wind farms and renewable energy are essential for our future, that cannot be to the detriment of the existing ecosystem and environment. There was almost a race to zone areas suitable for wind farms by local authorities, all of whom were acting with the best of intentions. Some of the areas zoned are suitable but others are not. The amount of carbon utilised in constructing wind farms does not render them nearly as effective.
I will move on to the issue of a pyrite compensation scheme. As the Minister of State knows, there are a couple of different pyrite schemes in place. One is a broad scheme dealing with concrete. One scheme was introduced this summer by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who travelled to Buncrana to announce a new defective concrete blocks scheme in August. The scheme offers five remedial options. Separate grant limits apply to each option, ranging from €247,500 for the complete demolition and rebuilding of a dwelling to €49,500 for the demolition and rebuilding of the outer leaf of affected walls only. Funding is subject to option limits or 90% of the eligible works, whichever is the lesser.
It is of course welcome that the scheme has been announced for Donegal and Mayo. However, the problem is not, unfortunately, unique to Donegal and Mayo. In my constituency, Clare, a number of houses have been found to be essentially crumbling, without exaggerating the matter, as a result of defective concrete blocks. Owners have had engineers examine the dwellings and it has been found that it is as a result of pyrite in the concrete.
One manufacturer of concrete blocks in the mid-west, that I do not intend to name in the House, links all of those buildings. It is an issue which goes beyond Clare. I understand 35 people are involved in an action group and approximately 33 houses have been identified in Clare. Unfortunately, there is a belief that the problem extends outside of Clare to other areas in the mid-west because it is a result of concrete blocks from one particular manufacturer.
If the Government saw fit to fund a scheme like this in respect of Mayo and Donegal, which I welcome, I see no reason whatsoever my constituents and any other constituents in the country who suffer from exactly the same problem should not be treated in exactly the same way by the Government. It is a matter of basic equality. I urge the Department to consider extending the scheme to Clare.
I am raising this as a Topical Issue matter because I asked a parliamentary question of the Department and was told there were no plans to introduce a scheme. That does not accord with what various Government representatives have said in the constituency. I hope they are right, that the Minister is actively looking at this issue and that an announcement is imminent. It is wrong and improper to differentiate between people with the same problem in Mayo and Donegal or in Clare.
I appreciate the issue of defective concrete blocks is a particularly emotive one for households and I sympathise with all who are caught in this distressing situation. It is very worrying for those affected. The issue came to light in 2013 when significant cracking of external walls was recorded in houses in Donegal and Mayo. An expert panel was established in 2016 to investigate the incidence and causes of this cracking. As part of its work, the panel was asked to identify the numbers of dwellings which appeared to be affected by defects in the block work in Donegal and Mayo, to carry out a desktop study, which would include a consultation process with affected homeowners, public representatives, local authorities, industry stakeholders and other relevant parties, to establish the nature of the problem in the affected dwellings, and outline a range of technical options for remediation and the means by which those technical options could be applied;
The report, which was based on extensive research, investigations and analysis, was published in 2017. It concluded that the reason for the widespread pattern cracking in the affected dwellings was primarily due to excessive amounts of deleterious materials in the aggregate used to manufacture the concrete blocks. The deleterious material in Donegal was primarily muscovite mica and in Mayo it was primarily reactive pyrite. In many of the affected dwellings, the problem appears to have been exacerbated by being in geographic areas of severe exposure to the elements and it seemed to be made worse by the extreme weather conditions of the winter we all remember in 2009-2010
The panel estimated that up to 4,800 private homes and 1,000 social homes in Donegal and 345 private homes and 17 social homes in Mayo could be affected. It put forward a number of engineering solutions that have been incorporated in the defective concrete blocks scheme. These range from removal and replacement of the outer leaf of affected walls only to the complete rebuilding of a dwelling. Varying levels of grants are available depending on the remedial option recommended in the engineer's report or 90% of the eligible costs, whichever is the lesser. Specific details can be accessed at .
The Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks in Construction (Remediation) Financial Assistance Regulations 2020 came into operation on 31 January 2020 and the scheme has been open for applications since the end of June 2020. It provides for a grant scheme of financial assistance to support affected homeowners in the counties of Donegal and Mayo only to carry out necessary remediation works to dwellings that have been damaged due to the use of defective concrete blocks. I must emphasise that it is not a compensation scheme and is very much a scheme of last resort for homeowners who have no other practical options.
I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that a lot of work has gone into investigating and quantifying the extent of the problem in Donegal and Mayo and designing a response to address the issue. While such a comprehensive analysis is not available for counties outside of Donegal and Mayo, in terms of Clare, departmental officials are in communication with Clare County Council regarding the evidential data requirements. Any consideration of an extension to the defective concrete blocks grants scheme would require the same rigorous analysis as that carried out in Donegal and Mayo. Therefore, speculation on any extension is premature at this point. Again, I thank the Deputy for his interest in this issue.
I greatly welcome the confirmation from the Minister of State that officials in his Department are in communication with Clare County Council regarding evidential data requirements. Nobody could possibly take issue with that. We have to establish that the problem arises from concrete blocks.
I believe that will be established in the facts of the cases in Clare. Many of the homeowners have prepared detailed engineering studies.
The majority of the homeowners in this instance are retirees and have family homes. They have worked all their lives and paid the mortgages on them. Like most people having paid their mortgage, they are retiring on a pension and they just do not have the money for the substantial works required. It seems to me, having spoken to the people involved, that much of the difficulty became apparent when they insulated their homes, as was the correct thing to do and as was Government policy. Because of the insulation put between the two layers, dampness built up and the pyrite in the concrete blocks interacted with that dampness, with the result that the walls have started to crumble. It is not down to the very cold winter, as it may have been in other areas. By and large - I am not speaking for everybody - it became apparent after they installed insulation. There is no reason they should not have installed insulation. In fact, it is recommended, so they were doing the right thing at all times. Now, through no fault of their own, their homes are crumbling around them.
I greatly welcome the fact the Department is liaising with Clare County Council with a view to establishing evidential data. The Minister of State might confirm that, in the event that those data show that an extension of the scheme is warranted, the Department will not be found wanting.
The Department would need to see the substantive information the Deputy mentioned that supports Clare County Council's request for an extension of the scheme to County Clare. There is an opportunity for Clare County Council to take the lead and, first, demonstrate that the issues in Clare are, in fact, due to the presence of excessive levels of deleterious materials, whether mica or pyrite, in the aggregate used to manufacture the concrete blocks. Second, the council should quantify the extent of the problem in the area.
Of assistance to Clare County Council in this regard will be the work completed in collaboration with the Department, the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, and Engineers Ireland. The NSAI has put in place a protocol for the assessment, testing and categorisation of damaged buildings incorporating concrete blocks containing certain deleterious materials, namely, IS 465:2018. Engineers Ireland has established a panel of engineers who have the necessary professional experience and completed specialist training on IS 465:2018. Working within this framework, Clare County Council may be able to provide the evidential data necessary for the consideration of any extension of the scheme, which would be helpful to the Department in its deliberations. The Department will continue - I give a commitment to that - working with Clare County Council in this regard to, I hope, reach a satisfactory conclusion.