Thursday, 15 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Defective Building Materials
I wish to state at the outset, no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, that it is deeply disappointing, given the seriousness of the issue that I am raising, that neither the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage nor the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is available for this discussion. I am aware that the Land Development Agency legislation is currently before the Seanad, but both the Minister and the Minister of State are not required for that. I would like to convey my dissatisfaction at the absence of a line Minister.
Across the State, thousands of homeowners - apartment, duplex and house owners - are living in defective properties. The properties were built during the Celtic tiger, and through no fault of the purchasers of the properties, they currently have significant fire safety and other structural defects. The programme for Government contained a clear commitment to examine the issue of defective housing in the first 12 months of Government, "having regard to the recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing report, 'Safe as Houses'", which was published in 2018.
The Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage took action on that commitment.
He announced a working group on defective buildings in September. It has been meeting since March but I have significant concerns about what we are hearing from it and its lack of progress to date. Before I detail those concerns, it is important to put on record what the unanimously endorsed report Safe as Houses?, produced by the Oireachtas housing committee, states about this matter, namely, "Government should establish a redress scheme to assist home owners with latent defects". It also states the mission statement of the scheme should be, "Ordinary owners who purchased in good faith should not be liable for the costs of remediation caused by the incompetence, negligence or deliberate non-compliance of others". The recommendations state such a redress scheme could be funded through an industry levy, Exchequer contributions, tax reliefs and long-term no-interest loans, for example.
The Minister has said that he wants to deal with this issue head-on. He has direct experience of it in his constituency, as do many others in theirs, particularly because of pyrite but also because of inadequate fire safety and water ingress in buildings. The problem, however, is that the year has come and gone and the working group has not completed its work. In fact, it has not even been able to agree terms of reference. There is genuine concern among representatives of homeowners on the group to the effect that its work is being interfered with by departmental officials. The working group is meant to be independent. It is chaired by the former chief executive of Donegal County Council and has representatives from various bodies, in addition to home and apartment owners, yet it has not yet formally agreed its terms of reference. On the front page of the Irish Examineron the Saturday before last, a significant report was published by Mick Clifford, who has been tracking this issue. According to the article, homeowners are saying departmental officials are deliberately narrowing the scope of the terms of reference in such a way as to prevent effective redress for homeowners but also in a way that runs contrary to the spirit of the Safe as Houses? report.
I would have liked to have asked the Minister four questions. In saying that, I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State who is present. The first of my questions is whether the Minister can tell us why the working group is not going to meet the clear programme for Government commitment to report within a year? Second, is he concerned about the views of homeowners to the effect that departmental officials are inappropriately interfering with the independence of the group? Third, can he tell us when the group will conclude and make its recommendations to the Government? Fourth, crucially, can he guarantee us that there will be a redress scheme in budget 2022, announced in October, to ensure 100% redress for all those apartment, house and duplex owners currently living in buildings built during the Celtic tiger era with fire safety and structural defects, caused not only by shoddy workmanship and bad oversight by developers and builders but also by a weak regulatory regime put in place by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As he is aware, the programme for Government sets out several 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 in the Joint Committee on Housing's Safe as Houses? report. In that context, a working group to examine defects in housing was established. The Minister appointed Mr. Seamus Neely, former chief executive of Donegal County Council, as chair to the independent working group. The chair will oversee the effective implementation of the group's terms of reference, which have recently been adopted.
The membership of the working group includes representatives with relevant expertise and experience from Engineers Ireland, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, the Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland, the public sector, the local authority sector, the legal sector, the Department of Finance, the Construction Defects Alliance, and the Apartment Owners Network. The group's terms of reference, as set out in a response to a parliamentary question, include:
1. Examine defects in housing having regard to the recommendations in Item 4 "Addressing the legacy of bad building and poor regulation" in Chapter 4 of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government report - 'Safe as Houses? A Report on Building Standards, Building Controls and Consumer Protection'.
2. Establish the nature of significant, wide-spread fire safety, structural safety and water ingress defects in purpose built apartment buildings, including duplexes, constructed between 1991 - 2013 in Ireland through consultation with affected homeowners, homeowner representative organisations, owners' management companies, relevant managing agents, public representatives, local authorities, product manufacturers, building professionals, industry stakeholders, insurance providers, mortgage providers and other relevant parties. Including such matters as: - Identification and description of defect,
- Nature of defect — design, product, workmanship,
- Non-compliance with building regulations or actual damage,
- Severity/risk to life or serviceability of dwelling,
- Period of construction affected,
- Type of dwelling affected,
- Location of dwellings affected. 3. Establish the scale of the issue - estimate number of dwellings affected by the defects identified including those already remediated.
4. Consider a methodology for the categorisation of defects and the prioritisation of remedial action.
- In the case of defects with fire safety implications, consider how the framework for enhancing fire safety in dwellings can be applied to mitigate the risks arising from fire safety defects pending the remediation of defects and the Code of Practice for Fire Safety Assessment of Premises and Buildings, which is currently being developed by National Directorate of Fire and Emergency Management.
5. Suggest mechanisms for resolving defects, in the context of the legal rights, duties and obligations of developers, builders, building professionals, insurers, mortgage providers, building control authorities, fire authorities, owners' management companies, owner occupiers, renters and landlords, including: - Technical options for the remediation of dwellings,
- Efficient means of carrying out work,
- individual dwellings or whole building approach,
- routine maintenance/refurbishment or remediation,
- Structures or delivery channels needed to facilitate resolution - advice and support. 6. Evaluate the potential cost of technical remediation options.
7. Pursue options on possible financial solutions to effect a resolution, in line with the Programme for Government commitment to identify options for those impacted by defects to access low-cost, long-term finance.
8. To report to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the Examination of Defects in Housing.
As the Ceann Comhairle will hear very often during the Topical Issue Debate, this is wholly inadequate. Again, I do not in any way blame the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, but for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, or the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Noonan, not to be here to answer questions on this issue is not only disrespectful to members of the Opposition but also to the thousands of homeowners who will sleep tonight in defective homes. This is the last opportunity Deputies will have to ask these questions. The time allowed for producing the report, according to the programme for Government, was 12 months. The deadline has come and gone. There is genuine concern that the programme for Government commitment to have in place some form of redress for the homeowners may not now be honoured.
I urge the Minister of State to relay the four questions I have put today to the Minister. I appreciate that she will not be in a position to answer them. She should urge the Minister to respond to me formally in writing outlining the answers. First, why has the programme for Government commitment to examine this issue within 12 months not been met? Second, when will the report of the working group on defective homes be completed? Third, will the Minister intervene to prevent interference from his officials that is undermining the independence of the working group? Fourth, will he give us a cast-iron commitment that there will be in budget 2022, announced in October, a scheme that will provide genuine redress for the homeowners affected by Celtic tiger defects?
Thousands of people, from Donegal, Mayo, Sligo and elsewhere, rightly marched on the streets in Dublin recently, demanding 100% redress for those affected by defective blocks. They have my full support. The same principle must apply to all homeowners who bought homes during the Celtic tiger era in good faith but who now have defects in building standards and materials. They must get redress. The Minister must answer the questions before we break for the recess.
The programme for Government sets out several 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 in the joint committee's Safe as Houses? report. The plenary working group has been meeting monthly since March 2021. In addition, there have been subgroup meetings.
With regard to the working group's deliberations, the group will seek to engage with a range of interested parties, including homeowners, public representatives, local authorities, product manufacturers, building professionals and industry stakeholders, among others, to examine the issues concerning defects in housing and report to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the matter.
Arrangements on the initial round of consultations are being put in place by the working group. The Minister is satisfied that the group is working effectively and efficiently on this complex matter and he looks forward to a report in due course following completion of the group's deliberation. Once the report is received, the Minister will give full consideration to its contents. Any further speculation or discussion on the output of the working of the group is premature at this stage.