Thursday, 25 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Defective Building Materials
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Perhaps this is third time lucky. It is good to have the Minister of State back in the House. I know that at this stage he has a good and deep understanding of this issue, as do his colleagues in government. We hear that Tuesday next week might be the date, although it is not yet confirmed, but if it is, let us get the scheme right this time. We have to be ready from the get-go for implementation. There will be a very heavy workload and resources will have to be in place. I am working on the assumption that much of the preparatory work is already in place. Proper implementation is key, as well as dedicated staff in the Department. I have spent time in five Departments over the course of the past six years, and one thing departmental officials are used to is fire fighting and dealing with daily issues that might arise. I know what is needed. We will need dedicated officials who will work on this scheme, because it will be a big and important scheme.
Local mechanisms to meet delivery needs sound like jargon. It is jargon, but I will explain what I mean. For example, if the Housing Agency is going to have a role in the delivery, which I believe it should have, it cannot be done in Dublin or by setting up a small, decentralised hub in Donegal, Mayo or any other affected county. There has to be a fully resourced office, right down to having somebody at the end of the telephone line to listen to people when they make contact. Another element of what must happen in the roll-out of this important scheme is that trust must be earned. There has been a fracturing of trust over recent months. We must have the homeowner at the centre at all times. The Mica Action Group has earned that trust through simple communicative mechanisms, such as doing a daily video and keeping people informed. Trust is earned through communication. I believe we can learn from that group and the work it has done. There is no need to create new wheels in terms of what has to be done, but we must look at what the Mica Action Group has achieved over recent months.
There must be implementation by the delivery team focusing on all aspects or the holistic aspect of the problem and challenge we have here. Yes, it is about construction and ensuring we get the right scheme in place for accessibility and affordability. Those issues are very important, but there are other issues in terms of the holistic, psychological supports that will be needed as well. Collaboration is key and critical, whether it is with the engineers, the contractors or the local authorities. Ultimately, a scheme will only be as good as the scheme that works.
Finally, let us get it right when the memorandum on the scheme goes to the Cabinet. Make sure there are no last-minute inserts in the scheme that will make it unworkable. Let there be no more obstacles, le do thoil. For example, the 25% retention of payment is not working and will not work. We must be careful about the square footage cost as well. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, calculator refers to €138 per square metre, but is that accounting for inflation and the real cost of building houses today, which would be approximately €150 per square metre? There also must pathways for houses such as second homes that potentially could be excluded. They must have pathways. Ultimately, the key to all this is ensuring we keep the homeowner at the centre of the delivery process. That is very important.
I thank Deputy McHugh for keeping this matter consistently on the agenda and doing so in a constructive manner, which is important.
In response to concerns expressed by homeowners and a unanimous motion in the Dáil on defective concrete blocks in Donegal and Mayo, culminating in the June protest march, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, established a time-bound working group to consider the issues raised. In total, eight meetings have taken place over the lifetime of the group and numerous breakout sessions were also facilitated. The last meeting of the working group took place on Wednesday, 29 September, which the Minister attended. He commended the effort of volunteer homeowners and the leadership role they have taken up for the communities they represent. A final output report arising from the engagement of the working group has been published on the Department's website. This includes a submission to the working group from Engineers Ireland, the homeowners' final position paper and the Department's observations.
Following the conclusion of the working group report and building on the cross-party Dáil motion of June 2021, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, wrote to Opposition spokespersons on housing to seek their views and input into potential changes to the scheme. The Minister has sought their views on major documents such as Housing for All, and has accepted Opposition amendments to legislation such as the Land Development Agency Act and the Affordable Housing Act. This initiative by the Minister and the approach he takes have to be commended in terms of trying to garner amendments and changes from Opposition spokespersons to help with the work he is doing. Deliberations and consultations are ongoing in respect of the range of issues identified in the report of the working group, and the Department has engaged with all stakeholders on the matter with a view to ensuring any proposed changes can be implemented as quickly as possible. It should be recognised, however, that the scheme is complex and there will be a lead-in time for implementation, with some potential changes requiring either amending regulations or perhaps new primary legislation.
The Minister intends to bring a memorandum to Government in the immediate term, setting out proposals for improvements to the scheme, its future administration and various other matters raised in the report of the working group. Once the decision on improvements to the scheme is made, further information relating to the sequencing and timelines will be available. Overall, there are three key principles which inform consideration of improvements to the scheme, namely, that they are timely, reasonable and consistent. I believe that is what the Deputy is requesting as well. I am confident the improvements to the scheme can meet these key objectives.
I appreciate the Minister of State's reply. Perhaps we could add "realistic" to "timely, reasonable and consistent". It has to be realistic. The previous scheme was not the scheme I signed up to, but it became inaccessible to many people. It has to be realistic.
I acknowledge the role of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in this. He is a busy Minister. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is in the hot seat here and he knows how busy ministerial work is. The Minister has a lot in hand and many challenges, but he got involved in the scheme. He rolled up his sleeves and stayed in touch with the group - I acknowledge that - as did my county colleague, Deputy McConalogue, who is also around the table and working closely with the Minister. Sometimes departmental officials can get bad press; we do that in here quite often. However, I believe a considerable amount of work has been going on behind the scenes. I have no evidence to support that, but from what people are telling me, that has been ongoing for the past number of months. That is important.
As regards the Mica Action Group, people have been watching and monitoring its progress over recent months. It is more public than what the group has been doing in the last ten years. It is on the road a long time. It has brought this issue to a deeper level of understanding by creating that awareness. It has been a well-managed, thoroughly disciplined, well-oiled and non-political campaign, and I know people will be looking at researching its work in the time ahead.
Last but by no means least, the homeowners who are hearing those cracks grow louder on stormy nights in the middle of the winter must be allowed something that I certainly used to take for granted, which is peace - peace of mind, peace to live their lives without fear and peace to face into their first Christmas in a decade without fear but with hope.
The Deputy has summed it up eloquently and I thank him for his acknowledgement of the work the Minister and his officials. I assure him that they have worked tirelessly to try to find an equitable solution through the defective blocks grant scheme, which was benchmarked against the previous scheme regarding allowable costs in qualifying works and homeowner contributions. It takes on board the homeowner demands and needs relating to the cost of removal and refitting, retrospective payments, etc.
Considerable work has been done since the working group was established. I pay tribute to the mica campaigners for their work. They have been patient but they have campaigned well to try to ensure an equitable solution is found to this. It is expected that significant changes will be made to the scheme. Progress has been made to date through the working group.
It is also expected that improvements to the scheme will involve a commitment in excess of the current estimated cost of €1.4 billion. By comparison with international models, we have one of the most comprehensive packages in the world for homeowners in similar situations. The Government is committed to working with homeowners to find resolutions to the issues under review. It is the intention of the Minister to bring the matter to Cabinet imminently in order to provide clarity and certainty for homeowners on what has been agreed and the timelines for implementation to allow them to move on with their lives.
I take on board the points the Deputy made about dedicated staff within the Department, the local mechanisms for delivery and earning the trust of the homeowners at the centre of this scheme. That is what we are trying to achieve. I know other issues have been raised in the Dáil about modular builds and affordability; those are for another day. I reassure the Deputy that the Department and the Minister have done phenomenal work on this issue. I again thank the Deputy for consistently raising this matter in the Dáil.