Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this very important issue. The defective concrete blocks scheme is a scheme to remedy the blocks used to build homes in counties Donegal and Mayo. The scheme as outlined is not working and is actually adding to the immense stress people are already under as a consequence of having pyrite, in the case of the County Mayo houses, in their blocks. They are not at fault; the residents did not put the pyrite in. It was in the blocks when they came from the quarry.
In the short time available I will outline the difficulties of the scheme. First, the cost of testing for pyrite is prohibitive. That is how a person enters the scheme and many will not be able to do that. Second, many costs are excluded so the scheme which the Minister of State will say covers 90% of costs covers nowhere near that amount. The limits on each of the options are nowhere near the current cost of building, and many homeowners will not be able to reinstate their home. The key word here is "home". I cannot begin to describe the stress homeowners are under as a consequence of pyrite and of the scheme and through no fault of their own.
At the weekend thousands of angry people marched in counties Donegal and Mayo to demand justice over the use of mica and pyrite in the construction of their homes. Their demands are most reasonable and must be met. They are victims of light-touch self-regulation without oversight, recourse or penalties during the building regime which dominated this country during the Celtic tiger boom. Ironically, the brick supplier in the case of the mica-contaminated bricks in County Donegal, Cassidy Brothers, still supplies Donegal County Council and has contracts with it. These people, therefore, deserve 100% redress. They deserve all their costs for relocation and assessment to be paid fully and they deserve a public inquiry. They are not alone. There are 5,000 mica homes in the north west. There are 2,000 pyrite homes in County Dublin and another 100,000 apartments that are detective as a result of the Celtic tiger light-touch regulation. All these people deserve justice.
I thank the Minister of State for taking this Topical Issue matter. Thousands of people lined the streets in counties Mayo and Donegal last weekend because of the sense of unfairness and unjust treatment they have been getting from this scheme. All they want is equity and fairness. They want equity, in that 90% is not sufficient to cover the costs. The big problem is the people who can least afford it are locked out of this scheme as it stands. Also, no provision has been made for families who must move out, which is most of them, to have their rent paid while they are moved out. As it is at the moment, funding has not been allowed for the energy savings. That can be fixed and must be looked at. The windows and doors need to be included. To add insult to injury, all these families are forced to pay property tax. The Minister of State must review this scheme.
Thousands of families in Dublin and north Leinster were devastated by pyrite in their homes. The Government put in place a scheme for those that was 100% funded. A scheme was introduced a year ago for the thousands of affected homeowners in Donegal and Mayo, with the Government asking that it would be 90% funded, with the banks playing a role. The banks are nowhere to be seen and people are paying a hell of a lot more than 10% of the cost. How can it be that only families in Donegal and Mayo are asked to pay sums of more than €100,000 to make their homes safe? They had no responsibility in this and it was Celtic tiger cowboys at their worst who did. There must be a fully funded scheme and equality for the people of Donegal and Mayo with the people of Dublin and north Leinster.
In my 20 years in politics, I have never come across a matter that has caused so much stress, anxiety and fear. Campaigners such as Ms Ann Owens and Ms Eileen Doherty worked on a scheme that we wanted 100% covered. We were presented with a 70:30 scheme and we worked really hard to get the scheme covered completely. We got as far as a 90:10 split, which we accepted at the time on the basis that it might have worked. The scheme is not working, it will not work and it cannot work. It is not working for so many people and people cannot get access to the scheme. The price of timber has increased by 40% and steel has increased by 35%.
The goalposts have completely shifted from this time last year, when we were presented with the scheme. It must be reviewed immediately and examined on the basis of accessibility, which is not there now. That is a massive concern. I have spoken to the Minister of State's colleagues, the Ministers, Deputies Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin, as well as my party colleagues. This matter must be sorted quickly around the Cabinet table. Otherwise we will be faced with houses falling down, leading to a conversation of a different kind here.
I appreciate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle giving discretion to the Deputies to make their contributions, given that five Deputies brought it forward. It is very important and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is committed to meeting residents in Mayo and has met families in Donegal as well.
The cracking of the external walls of dwellings in Donegal and Mayo due to crumbling of concrete blockwork came to light in 2013 and an expert panel was established in 2016 to investigate the matter. The panel, chaired by Mr. Denis McCarthy, formerly of Waterford County Council, and representatives from the National Standards Authority of Ireland, the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland and the Institute of Geologists of Ireland compiled the report, which was published in 2017.
The report concludes the disintegration of concrete blocks used in the construction of the affected dwellings in Donegal and Mayo 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.
The National Standards Authority of Ireland published a standardised protocol in November 2018, IS 465:2018, for the assessment, testing and categorisation of damaged buildings incorporating concrete blocks containing certain deleterious materials. Rigorous analysis, therefore, has been carried out on the circumstances that led to the defective concrete block issue and the existing scheme was informed by the work of the expert panel and finalised in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The process also took account of the comprehensive engagement that took place between my Department and both Donegal and Mayo county councils, which operate and administer the scheme.
The grant limits agreed on foot of this engagement ensure the scheme can be budgeted for with the potential financial liability known at all times and also to ensure that the available budget can benefit the majority of properties and the maximum number of people. Mindful that the scheme is being funded from the Exchequer, the scope cannot be open-ended. Funding of €20 million has been provided to administer the scheme in 2021 and the scheme will be demand-led, meaning the level of funding may vary between the two local authorities.
The grant scheme targets a restricted group of homeowners who have no other practicable options to access redress and it is not a compensation scheme. It is provided in order to remediate the matter of the defective blocks or return the building to a condition it would have been in if it had not been affected by the use of deleterious materials in the blockwork, namely, mica or pyrite.
The level of funding available is subject to the maximum limits, depending on the remedial option recommended in the engineering report, or 90% of the eligible costs, whichever is the lesser. The maximum grants payable range from €247,500 for option 1 to €49,500 for option 5. I take on board the points raised about additional costs to homeowners.
The decision to go with a grant scheme as opposed to the type of scheme provided by the pyrite remediation board was intended to give homeowners the flexibility to manage their own projects and allow them to deal directly with their appointed contractor. Initially, the grant was proposed at 80:20 but following further consideration and political representations, it was changed to a 90:10 split. The Department, in formulating the scheme, concluded that a contribution of 10% from affected homeowners was appropriate to control costs, incentivise the use of appropriate remediation options and promote the reuse of materials where this is feasible.
This is also in line with how similar Government grant schemes operate or have operated in the past. The applicant contributing to the costs is a key requirement. The programme for Government sets out a number of commitments in respect of the important policy area of building defects and provides for an examination of defects in housing, having regard to the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government report, Safe as Houses.
In this regard, my Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been actively engaging with key stakeholders, and the Minister has had several meetings with stakeholder representative groups on this matter. The Minister appointed Mr. Seamus Neely, former chief executive of Donegal County Council, to the position of chair to the independent working group and he will oversee the effective implementation of the group's terms of reference.
The Minister of State has said the grant scheme targets a restricted group of homeowners who have no other practical options to access redress but this is not a practical option for many families. This will not return a building to the condition it would otherwise have been in, which is another aim of the scheme.
Tonight there are families who will leave their bedrooms to sleep in living rooms because wind is going through the house because of the effects of pyrite. That is if those people are sleeping at all because of the stress they are under. We heard today from the Irish Home Builders Association that building costs for an average semi-detached house could rise by €15,000 by the end of the year. As Deputy McHugh has said, this scheme was well-intentioned and many people fought very hard to get it working. Many people are physically and mentally exhausted by the work they have put in over a number of years. This scheme must be reviewed urgently in light of the information provided.
It is kind of hard to believe, in hearing the Minister of State's response, that the Government is not being shamed into admitting that these families - all 5,000 that are affected - deserve 100% coverage and redress for what has happened to them. They could not be compensated enough.
An Oireachtas committee report has been mentioned and in 2017 that committee, in its mission statement, indicated that ordinary owners who purchased in good faith should not be liable for costs of remediation caused by incompetence, negligence or deliberate non-compliance. I would add greed to this, as it is the kind of ethos that dominated the building regimes in the Celtic tiger. The Governments of the time allowed a lack of oversight, redress or penalties. The State owes these families more than what it is willing to give. If the State does not give this funding, these people will be out marching again and again. We will all be beside them. This is not a Dublin versus Donegal matter. It is a human rights matter for all these homeowners suffering from these defects.
It is clear from listening to the contributions across parties that this scheme is not fit for purpose. Mayo and Donegal will not stand for being treated differently from people in another part of the country. We need an immediate review. I have seen how people have got sick and been brought to their knees because of what has happened to their houses through no fault of their own. They have been left hung out to dry. I plead with the Minister of State to do something about this. The scheme must be reviewed. It can be corrected and this must happen sooner rather than later so people and families can get on with their lives. I thank the Minister of State.
There were 2,000 families in Dublin and north Leinster supported through the pyrite remediation scheme. It was 100% funded and that was correct. This is very simple. There are thousands of families in Donegal and Mayo being asked to pay a second mortgage to fix their homes. Older people will just see their homes fall apart. It is the current state of play.
Any suggestion that this should be kicked to some kind of independent group to do more consultation is utterly unacceptable. We are seeking equality between the families affected in Donegal and Mayo and those that had problems in Dublin and north Leinster.
It is as simple as that. It is a simple principle. We do not leave families behind or abandon them through no fault of their own. I will say again that these homeowners are left with this situation due to Celtic tiger cowboys. Those people must be helped on an equal basis to those in Dublin and north Leinster.
I take it the Minister of State is getting the message here this evening. I will just say a couple of things. I ask the Minister of State to picture this: I spoke to a woman today who lives on her own and her mother lives in the house next door. Both houses have to be demolished. They live beside each other and the daughter is the carer of the mother. They had to scrape together €12,500 as money up front for engineers' fees. This is the reality of a scheme that is not working, and which should be scrapped immediately. People should not have to be put in a position of coming up with €5,000 or €6,000 for engineers' fees straight away.
The Part 8 planning process, which councils introduced for their own planning applications, should be revisited again now the issue is to the fore. Can the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, fund and help these homeowners in the context of windows and doors? The woman I spoke with today told me that her mother's back door cannot open and her windows are warped. She has been told she can use the kitchen in the other house but it is damp and both houses are leaking. These people are living the ultimate nightmare and have been for years. We need to deal with this as speedily as possible. I thank the Minister of State for coming in.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving the Deputies the opportunity to have their say on this. It is across the parties and is coming across loud and clear. On the comparisons in relation to intervention and pyrite scheme costs, this scheme would be double that of the average pyrite scheme. The aim of the scheme is to help, insofar as is possible, to reinstate the average-sized dwelling to the condition it would have been in the original blockwork, had it not been affected by pyrite and mica. Mindful that the scheme is being funded from the Exchequer, the scope cannot be open-ended. The funding that is available must be used prudently to achieve the most efficient and cost-effective outcomes.
On those initial engineering costs, it may be possible for applicants and an appointed engineer to come to an arrangement whereby an engineer is willing to wait for the local authority to pay out the grant funding in respect of the work. That is just one option.
The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and our Department officials are working closely. I spoke with Deputy Calleary earlier this evening about the issues in Mayo and I believe the Minister has committed to go there to meet people. He has also met with residents in Donegal.
I emphasise that the Department is engaging with the SEAI to explore synergies between existing grant schemes and the defective concrete block scheme. It is our aim to ensure that eligible applicants can access these grants while remediation works are under way.
I believe that the scheme is fair and equitable, and that it will work for the vast majority of affected homeowners with the five remediation options available. It must be acknowledged that the scheme is available to those with no other practical means to return the dwelling to a condition it would have been in had it not been affected by the blockwork conditions, namely mica pyrite.
I am taking on board and will take back the concerns raised by the Deputies, and I acknowledge the suffering and hurt it is causing to so many people in Mayo and Donegal.