Power Raises Plight of Priory Hall Residents With Minister Hogan in the Seanad

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Today I raised the plight of the Priory Hall residents with Minister Hogan in the Seanad.

Averil Power: The matter I wish to raise is very important. Last night, I attended a meeting of about 130 residents of the Priory Hall development in the Regency Hotel, where they are currently staying. People are very upset. There are families with babies and small children and elderly persons residing in hotel accommodation. There are three or four people to one room. In fairness, the hotel is doing its best to accommodate them but it is not suitable for families.

Many different people are affected by the situation in Priory Hall. There are owner-occupiers, tenants who were renting accommodation and had to move out at short notice and those who bought properties in Priory Hall and have been renting them out. Many ordinary families are struggling to pay mortgages on their primary residence and on their apartment in Priory Hall. All these groups find themselves in dire circumstances through no fault of their own and in an emergency situation in regard to accommodation.

I wish to avail of the opportunity to raise a number of issues. The immediate difficulty for residents is housing and moving them into more appropriate accommodation. Apartment accommodation is essential, especially for those with families but also for all concerned because they now have just basic amenities which we all take for granted, such as the ability to cook a meal. It is all very well to stay in a hotel for a few days but to do so on a medium-term basis and face the prospect of having to do so for many weeks and months is not suitable, especially without access to belongings and the things we all take for granted.

Dublin City Council is paying for the hotel accommodation and is working with NAMA. I am aware the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has been involved as a conduit in setting up that arrangement. While NAMA has supplied a list of properties to Dublin City Council, it will take the council some time to work out their suitability and match people with them. That is a priority. There may be a need, beyond the NAMA properties, to find other solutions for some of the families, so I would ask for flexibility in that regard.

A number of other issues were raised last night, including the fact that the residents have mortgages on their properties. The view in some cases was that lenders are compassionate and have told people that they cannot get into their homes as they are uninhabitable. Owner-occupiers cannot live there and those who were renting cannot get rental income on them during the next few months. Some lenders and some individuals, because the practice is mixed within the same bank, are getting different treatment. Some lenders have been compassionate and have told people they will pause their mortgage payments at least until the end of January when the court expects that the homes will be habitable again while other have not done anything. I ask the Government to intervene in that respect.

Given that we own practically all of AIB and have major stakes in the other banks, the Government should use its influence to ensure the banks treat people appropriately. Some of the residents told me that when they contacted the banks and said they were residents of Priory Hall and could not pay their mortgages for the next three months, they were asked if they had lost their job. They were invited to complete a “losing your job form” and to go through the same process as everybody else who is in difficulty. Clearly that is not the point in this situation.

A special arrangement should be put in place for residents in the Priory Hall development. I ask the Minister to discuss the matter with the Minister for Finance in that regard.

Another issue that arose last night was the question of getting emergency financial support from the Department of Social Protection. One lady, holding a small baby, was in tears. She said she understood that because she was working she would not get help as she is not in receipt of a social welfare payment. While that is ordinarily the case for the community welfare scheme, there is provision of urgent needs payments for people outside of the normal set-up. I ask that this issue be brought to the attention of all the residents in a formal way. Sometimes the urgent needs payments can be means-tested but there is a precedent for putting that aside, such as the flooding incident in Galway and other counties in 2009. The Government set up a special scheme to help residents affected and recognised the fact that it did not have time to process forms and compile documents. It stated that those affected would not be means-tested for the first phase of the scheme for urgent hardship payments. For the second stage, when considering medium-term needs, a means test applied. I suggest the Minister speak with the Minister for Social Protection in that regard.

The next issue is to ensure the fire work is completed to the proper standard. Residents have no faith in the builder who clearly cut every corner in the most despicable manner. To knowingly put people at risk of fire is the most despicable thing anybody could do to families. It is understandable that they have no faith that the builder or anybody contracted by him would do the job properly. That is an issue in which the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government should intervene to ensure the work is carried out in accordance with fire safety regulations and that the building is brought up to the proper standard under the building control regulations.

The development was built off spec in many ways and not in accordance with what had been approved by the planning authority. Some of the issues I have raised come under the remit of the Minister and some under the remit of other Ministers and State agencies. It is important that one person pulls all the issues together. The position in which the residents find themselves and the confusion arising from having to pull together different pieces of information from different Departments and agencies and getting contradictory stories is adding to their problems.

I hope the Minister can reassure me that he will take a watching brief on the matter and demand reports from all involved in seeking a resolution – Dublin City Council, the Department of Social Protection and other agencies – in the coming weeks to ensure people are looked after properly and are not running from one agency to another. There should be one person who ensures that during their time of need they are looked after by the State. That is very least we owe them.

 

Minister Hogan:The events of last week have been extremely distressing and, of course, stressful for the residents of Priory Hall. Through no fault of their own, they have had to struggle with the consequences of building defects in their apartment complex.As the Senator is aware, Dublin City Council was granted a High Court Order on 14 October 2011 for the evacuation of the development at Priory Hall on the basis that it was unsafe. The Department understands that, following a further hearing on 17 October 2011, a stay was put on the evacuation order until today and that the developer has committed to carrying out a schedule of necessary remedial works in the coming weeks. The court has directed that the first phase of remedial works be completed by 28 November and that all works on the development be completed by 31 January 2012.Dublin City Council has made arrangements for the temporary accommodation of the affected residents. In addition, I am glad to report that the National Asset Management Agency has identified properties which could be used for this purpose and the city council is now examining the list of properties given to it by NAMA. Such accommodation would no doubt be more appropriate to the needs of families.The Building Control Acts clearly place responsibility for compliance with the building regulations on the owner of the building concerned and on the builder-developer who carries out the works. Last week’s High Court action was the culmination of two years of enforcement activity with the developer. Dublin City Council initiated legal proceedings on 17 August 2010 in respect of compliance with fire safety regulations. As the Senator knows, the enforcement proceedings in this regard are still before the courts.

I will take on board what the Senator said by asking Department officials to contact financial institutions and the Department of Social Protection to deal with matters in regard to mortgages and exceptional payments.

I attach high priority to consumer protection in the area of quality construction of new dwellings. That is why I announced in July a number of measures to be advanced by the Department and local authorities with a view to improving compliance with, and oversight of, the requirements of the building regulations. Implementation arrangements are already under way and I have asked that this be further prioritised.

The regulations required to give effect to the introduction of mandatory certification are currently being prepared and will be the subject of some consultation in the near future. The implementation of the other measures will be progressed by local authorities in consultation with the Department in the context of the wider programme of achieving greater efficiencies in the local government system.

In broad terms, the measures will involve the introduction of mandatory certificates of compliance by builders and designers of buildings confirming that the statutory requirements of the building regulations have been met; more efficient pooling of building control staff and resources across the local authority sector to ensure more effective and meaningful oversight of

building activity; standardised approaches and common protocols to ensure nationwide consistency in the administration of building control functions; and better support and further development of the building control function nationwide. Implementation of these measures is being advanced as quickly as possible in consultation with the relevant stakeholders.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and assure the residents that I am doing everything possible, with the help of officials in the Department and in Dublin City Council, to advance as quickly as possible progress on these safeguards and on the remediation work requested by the court in respect of this developer.

Developers who act in the manner in which this developer acted must be brought to book as quickly as possible. I am sorry the proceedings have taken so long but it shows that trying to get enforcement proceedings through the court is too slow and too cumbersome and certainly not acceptable to the residents who live in those developments.

Averil Power: I thank the Minister for his commitment to intervene in respect of mortgages and to talk to the Department of Social Protection. It will be a comfort to residents to know that the Government will talk to the banks and ask the Department of Social Protection to look after them. I know the Minister is looking at changing the building inspection procedures in the future. We would all agree on the need to do that as soon as possible. Again, I thank him for the commitments he gave and for coming to the House to address this issue.

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