Thursday, 13 July 2023
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, for his presence to take this Topical Issue, which I can probably divide into two parts. The first part seeks to open a proper debate regarding the need for a regulatory body for the construction industry. The second point is to highlight, as I am sure most colleagues would be able to do, a specific circumstance relating to a home or homes constructed in my constituency where there has been a wholly inadequate response from the construction sector, via HomeBond, which is the agency charged with remedying and making right issues that people have with recently purchased homes.
People may know that there is no regulatory body, as such, for the construction industry. It is mostly self-governed and self-regulated through self-certification, which we know has led to the many issues we face at present such as the mica and pyrite scandals and the defective apartments. The latter affected my constituency in particular, although not as widely as in other constituencies. I have not been a public representative for as long as you, a Chathaoirligh, but for a total of 24 years, and until the defective apartments issue came along, I can say, reasonably fairly, that there were very few defects in the homes constructed in my constituency throughout that time.
It was exceptional but clearly with apartment defects it was the rule, rather than the exception. The CIF is the de facto regulator of the construction sector. It does this through operating and maintaining the construction industry register of builders. To get onto that register, it is necessary to tick a number of boxes. To stay on it requires compliance with a certain number of rules and regulations. The CIF also operates and manages the insurance scheme in place to reimburse home buyers through its HomeBond facility. This is problematic in the sense that the CIF is the body charged with remedying the defects, faults or snags that the builder overlooks or fails to do, as is the case in these particular circumstances I am going to raise. However, it is also the register of builders. It is the representative body, and a powerful one, for the construction industry. Given the events and experiences relating to defective apartments, in particular, and the scandalously high proportion of them built at a particular time in our history that have defects, we cannot have the body that represents builders in charge of remedying building defects. That is the first point.
The second point is the one I raised. It relates to a specific issue in my constituency. I will not identify the estate or the builder. Why would I stigmatise a builder who actually built 300 or 400 units on this estate and they all seem to be built reasonably well and to a high enough standard? However, a few houses suffered particular issues. Those issues relate to significant heat loss, water ingress, dampness, mould and leaks. The residents in question initially sought redress and assistance from the builder. This proved fruitless. Then they turned to HomeBond. It is months since HomeBond has engaged. It did initial inspections. There is a strong suspicion on my part that it is going to run the clock out of time and the homeowners in question will be left then to foot a substantial bill themselves. That is essentially the thrust of where I am coming from. I will have a few more points, depending on the Minister of State's response. I thank him for attending.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and for providing me with the opportunity to update the House on the matter. I reassure the Deputy and the House that the Government fully acknowledges the stress caused to homeowners due to defects that have arisen in their homes. I will deal with the last question first. In regard to the number of houses in an individual estate in his constituency, if he would like us in the Department to follow up on his behalf with HomeBond, we will do that. That might be something practical we can do. It is important that people get coverage under schemes that are established to ensure they can deal with defects.
Over the past decade, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has committed to implementing a range of building control reforms focused on ensuring strong and effective regulation in the building control system and of the construction industry and on improving compliance with building regulations. Such measures have included implementation of the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014; creation of the national building control management project and the establishment of the National Building Control and Market Surveillance Office of which I have no doubt the Deputy is aware; and the enactment in July of last year of the Regulation of Providers of Building Works and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2022. I welcome the opportunity to provide more detail on each of these important initiatives.
The Building Control (Amendment) Regulations empower competence and professionalism in construction projects and establish a chain of responsibility that begins with the owner. The associated code of practice for inspecting and certifying buildings and works sets out the roles and responsibilities of owners, designers, builders, assigned certifiers, etc., during building works, in addition to providing guidance on use of proper materials and the need to check supporting documentation under the construction products regulation. The national building control management project and the National Building Control and Market Surveillance Office provide oversight, support and direction for the development, standardisation and implementation of building control as an effective shared service in the 31 building control authorities. As the Deputy will be aware, that is located within Dublin City Council.
More recently, the Regulation of Providers of Building Works and Miscellaneous Provisions Act develops and promotes a culture of competence, good practice and compliance with the building regulations in the construction sector. It introduces a statutory register for providers of building works. In January, the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, appointed the CIF to operate this statutory register and is currently in the process of appointing an independent board. While the enforcement of building control and market surveillance has been significantly strengthened over the past ten years locally and nationally, the Government recognises that further strengthening is required. In that context, Members may be aware that the programme for Government and Housing for All commit to establishing a building standards regulator. The purpose of the regulator will be to strengthen the oversight role of the State with the aim of further reducing the risk of building failures and enhancing public confidence in construction-related activity. The objective is to ensure that this regulator has sufficient breadth of scope, effective powers of inspection and enforcement and an appropriate suite of sanctions. The Department has commenced dialogue with the County and City Management Association, CCMA, with a view to determining the scope, functions, role and structure of the regulator and it intends to bring proposals to the Government later this year.
While the Department is taking appropriate actions to ensure strong and effective regulation in the building control system and of the construction industry, prospective buyers should continue to engage competent professionals and seek legal advice and undertake the necessary due diligence when considering the purchase of a property.
Most people engage competent professionals to carry out due diligence in advance of purchasing a home, particularly a new home. The problem is that sometimes, as the Minister of State knows, the issues only come to light after purchase. Somebody can do all the due diligence in the world and the problem only comes to light some time after purchase. I want to acknowledge that while the CIF will essentially compile and operate the register, individual contractors have to apply through the federation to be on it. I am heartened by the fact that the Minister of State is appointing an independent board and that in the programme for Government we are committed to a building standards regulator. To re-emphasise, the problem is, with the builder in question here, there was just non-engagement. The builder did not engage with the residents in question. There are well over 300 units on this estate. I have not had a complaint other than from three or four residents. It is actually in the builder's interests to come back. This does not seem to be a wholesale problem or maybe I am beginning to open a can of worms. However, that is not my sense of it. The builder built many hundreds of houses in this particular area over the past 20 or 30 years and would have a good reputation and, therefore, actually it is in its own interest to remedy this.
The homeowners subsequently contacted HomeBond because it acts on behalf of the CIF, to try to remedy these issues. It, in turn, has not engaged with them in more than six months. The impression is that it is just running down the clock and then the houses will no longer be covered by the HomeBond scheme and nobody will be liable for anything except the homeowners who have to foot the bill. I thank the Minister of State for saying that we might touch base with him in the Department and see what he can do. He might outline what that might involve for the particular owners. I will correspond with him in the next 24 to 48 hours on it. I thank him for that offer.
I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important matter. With regard to the individual builder, the likelihood is that a builder of that size is a member of the CIF. I would have thought making contact with the Deputy might ensure our lines of communication with the builders themselves. It is all about the homeowners.
I reassure him and the House that the Government is committed to drive compliance and standards through regulating in accordance with the commitments of Housing for All. Work is at an advanced stage regarding the establishment of a building regulator on a statutory footing that will strengthen the oversight role of the State and aim to reduce the risk of building failures and enhancing public confidence in construction activity. It is the intention of the Minister to bring a proposal to the Government later this year. Along with this the Regulation of Providers of Building Works and Miscellaneous Provisions Act is an essential consumer protection measure giving those who engage a registered builder the assurance that they are dealing with a competent and compliant operator. It is incumbent on prospective buyers to continue to engage competent professionals and seek legal advice in undertaking the necessary due diligence when considering the purchase of a property.
On the specific issue the Deputy raised regarding the individual and HomeBond, if the Deputy corresponds with us, as I have undertaken, we will follow the general procedures for dealing with issues that arise. Ultimately, we want to assist him in his role as a competent public representative for his area.