Monday, 15 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for his attendance to discuss this matter. It is the second time I have brought it up in the Seanad. It concerns the need for the expansion of the supports for homeowners whose dwellings are affected by pyrite. The Minister of State is well aware that the pyrite remediation scheme eligibility conditions, specifically the construction date, limits the remediations to dwellings built after 1997 and before 2014. I have been corresponding recently with the Pyrite Resolution Board over a particular couple and it told me that the reason for these dates was because the earliest identified cases related to 1997, hence a reference to the dwellings constructed thereafter when the eligibility for the pyrite scheme was first established. While that might have been the case during the development of the pyrite panel in 2012, homeowners of dwellings built prior to 1997 are now noticing serious pyritic heave, and the associated damages that go along with it, to their homes. While they fit nearly all the other eligibility criteria the construction date restriction is making sure that they cannot get access to this scheme.
I recently moved to the constituency of Dublin Fingal. I have had a number of families from Lusk and Rush contact me, including one particular family. There should not be a hierarchy but the situation for this family is heartbreaking because they are an elderly retired couple. They are deeply frustrated and upset. I would go so far as to tell the Minister of State that their mental health is being seriously damaged because they see no resolution or way out and that the entire process is affecting them in a serious way. They became so concerned that their house, which was constructed in 1990, was beginning to crumble around them that they commissioned their own chartered engineer's report to do a full investigation. It included all block testing and analysis. The findings noted that the blockwork used in the construction of the house contained the deleterious material pyrite and it caused an eventual gradual breakdown and a total loss to their structural integrity.
I note the Department last year launched the new defective concrete blocks grant scheme for Mayo and Donegal. That scheme might be relevant now in north County Dublin and the houses in Fingal because if a home is so badly affected by either pyrite or defective blocks the construction date should not be the limiting factor. I understand and respect why that was the case in 2012 when we were in the onslaught of what was brand new to us at that stage and for this particular generation but as the Minister of State is well aware, as politicians we have all seen the deep distress people living with pyrite are under. In the area where I live I have been lucky enough to see the relief when a house is finally remediated. It is life-changing. It is a moment when one finally gets one's keys back and can return to being a happy homeowner as opposed to the shadow of the people who are living under mental stress every day. As far as they are concerned the only hope for them is if the State steps in because at this stage of their lives they certainly could not afford to remediate or even take out a loan to remediate their own homes.
I do not know whether the solution is to amend the pyrite remediation scheme or to include these in the other scheme. This issue is not unique to north County Dublin. There are probably houses in every county that have the same issue. Hundreds of people are excluded from both these schemes that have made such an impact and a difference to the lives of those who have benefited from them. I ask the Minister of State to request the extension of either the pyrite remediation scheme or the defective concrete blocks grant scheme.This will allow those people with houses built prior to 1997 to access the supports they need to fix their homes and continue to live in them without the fear of them collapsing around them.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter on behalf of her constituents and I fully understand how stressful this can be for families caught up in it.
Budget 2021 provides funding of €40 million for the operation of the pyrite remediation scheme and the defective concrete blocks grant scheme. As set out in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, the remediation of dwellings affected by reactive pyrite in hardcore and defective concrete blocks is a priority to ensure people can remain living in their homes. The Pyrite Resolution Act 2013 provides the statutory framework for the establishment of the pyrite resolution board and for the making of a pyrite remediation scheme to be implemented by the board with support from the Housing Agency. The provisions of the Act apply only to dwellings affected by significant damage attributable to pyritic heave consequent on the presence of reactive pyrite in the subfloor hardcore material and not to damage arising in any other circumstance, such as pyrite in concrete blocks.
The pyrite remediation scheme is a scheme of "last resort" for affected homeowners who have no other practical option to obtain redress and is limited in its application and scope. The full conditions for eligibility under the scheme are set out in the scheme, which is available on the board's website,www.pyriteboard.ie. The scheme is applicable to dwellings that are subject to significant damage attributable to pyritic heave, established in accordance with SI 398-1:2017 reactive pyrite in subfloor hardcore material, part 1: testing and categorisation protocol. In this regard, it is a condition of eligibility under the scheme that an application to the board must be accompanied by a building condition assessment with a damage condition rating of 2. Dwellings which do not have a damage condition rating of 2 are not eligible to apply under the scheme. This ensures that, having regard to the available resources, the focus of the scheme is on dwellings most severely damaged by pyritic heave.
As matters currently stand, the owners of dwellings located within the counties of Kildare, Meath or Offaly or the administrative areas of Fingal County Council, Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, South Dublin County Council or Limerick City and County Council are eligible to apply for remediation works under the scheme. The scheme is primarily based on the information that was available to the board at the time of its adoption in February 2014 and having regard to the detail set out in the report of the pyrite panel from July 2012. The panel undertook a desktop study in conjunction with a stakeholder consultation to establish certain facts relating to the potential exposure of pyrite in dwellings. The information was gathered from a number of sources, including local authorities, structural guarantee providers, representatives of homeowners, private builders, construction professionals and public representatives and was cross-referenced to verify, as far as practicable, its validity.
There is no time limit on when cases must present but the scheme stipulates that the dwelling must have been constructed and completed between 1 January 1997 and 12 December 2013. This is consistent with the pyrite panel's findings in regard to the years of dwelling registration for which pyrite-related claims were made. It is important to note that any proposal to amend the scheme is, in the first instance, a matter for the pyrite resolution board and any such proposal would require detailed consideration of the evidence.
In addition, the board may also make such further inquiries as it considers necessary in order to assist it in considering the matter. The board may be contacted directly by telephone or email about this, including through the Oireachtas information line. The Minister will consider any amendments or extensions which the pyrite resolution board considers are required to the scheme once submitted in accordance with the requirements of the Act. The Minister fully intends to engage with all eligible homeowners of dwellings affected by significant damage attributable to pyritic heave who can have their homes remediated under the scheme. The Senator has articulated the points very well and it is a matter the Minister is prepared to look at.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply and I have much hope from the fact that the necessary amendments will be considered.The defective concrete blocks grant scheme must be extended, beyond the two counties for which it was established, to Dublin Fingal and indeed probably other areas. The reason I am so invested in this issue is because the couple in question are retired. They are pensioners. They have absolutely no other way, without the intervention of State aid, to fix the home that they have raised their family in and in which they want to spend the autumn of their lives. They do not even have the ability to borrow money because of their age. We must step in as a State to recognise that there are families who are living in extreme distress because of this issue. I understand that when the criteria were established, a major catastrophe had occurred in Westmeath, Meath and Dublin, and in areas where there had been an onslaught of development in the early 2000s and where that development was being affected by pyrite heave in the product from certain quarries at that time. These are the people who are being left behind. Huge distress is being caused by this issue, in particular to the couple to whom I have referred.
I will send the report to the Minister of State. I have already communicated directly with the Pyrite Resolution Board. It has told me that the Act defines the date, so unless, by instruction of the Minister, the dates in the Act are relaxed, we will be in a difficult position. An easy way to spread that valuable funding allocated in this year's budget to help these people, to which the Minister of State referred, is to extend the defective concrete blocks grant scheme to Dublin.
Senator Doherty has made a strong case on this issue. I will raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, as the Pyrite Resolution Board is within his portfolio. I know that he has done a lot of work on the issue to date. It is an important issue. The Senator has raised a valid point that it was a different time economically when the proposals were drafted and approved. I empathise with all families affected, especially those in the autumn of their lives when they should be taking some time for themselves and enjoying a better quality of life. They should not have to grapple and deal with issues such as this. It is not acceptable. I will raise the matter with the Minister and will revert back to the Senator in due course.