Opening Speech by Senator Averil Power

As the Minister is aware, more than four months have passed since the Priory Hall residents were forced to evacuate their homes as a result of a dangerous fire risk. Four months have passed since I raised their plight with the Minister in the House but there is still no sign of a long-term solution to their housing problems. In the short term the residents face the prospect of having to pay rent on temporary accommodation as well as paying their mortgages because the council is appealing the High Court decision to the Supreme Court. I was genuinely shocked to read the response of the Minister to a question on this issue tabled in the Dáil last month. The Minister put it to the House that Dublin City Council had made commendable efforts to provide for the needs of the residents. Frankly, there is nothing commendable about forcing people out of their homes with no advance plan for emergency accommodation for families with infant children who were unsure where they would be sleeping in a few days time.  And there is nothing commendable about trying to make the residents pay rent on temporary accommodation on top of mortgage repayments on uninhabitable accommodation in Priory Hall.

Overall, Dublin City Council’s approach has been typified from the start of this debacle by a distinct lack of humanity. My concern is that by listening only to the council’s version of events, the Minister is getting a warped view of the reality faced by the residents. And by passing the buck between each other, Dublin City Council and the Department are effectively ensuring that no State body is taking responsibility for resolving the problems in Priory Hall.

The Department is insisting that the matter is the responsibility of Dublin City Council. However, Dublin City Council officials made it clear at meetings which I attended that it is taking instruction from the Minister’s Department and that it has been warned not to set a precedent by accepting responsibility for Priory Hall. This buck-passing must stop. I urge the Minister today, as I did four months ago, to meet the residents and to hear at first-hand how all of this is affecting them and their families. I genuinely believe that if the Minister sat down and listened to them he would feel compelled to help them, to put aside all the bureaucracy, to stop passing the buck and to do the right thing.

I urge the Minister to ensure a proper system is put in place at the national level for dealing with housing evacuation situations. Unfortunately, the problems in Priory Hall are likely to recur to varying extents in other developments throughout the country. It is neither fair nor sensible to allow different county councils to take different responses. No doubt the Minister is aware of the announcement yesterday that 250 householders in Belmayne, also in Dublin North East, must move out of their homes temporarily due to fire safety problems. Thankfully, they will be accommodated within the same development because there are many empty units in Belmayne and the works should take only a matter of days. Unfortunately, residents in others developments in the coming years may find themselves in a worse position. I call on the Minister, who has national responsibility for this issue, to put in place a proper national system for dealing with future problems of this nature.

I fully accept that the responsibility rests with the developers. The State should ensure that the costs rest with developers when these issues arise in future. But, unfortunately, we may end up with other situations where developers go bust and are not in a position financially to rectify the situation or where the likes of Tom McFeely, the individual responsible for building Priory Hall, try to do everything they can to avoid their responsibilities. It is sensible to get ahead of this before we end up with future problems. I call on the Minister to sit down, to bring all the agencies together and to put in place a framework for how these issues will be dealt with rather than leaving the residents to run from one Department to another and from the council to their national representatives in an attempt to get someone to take responsibility. Let us put a system in place now to ensure that future problems can be deal with effectively.

Reply By Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan

The legal proceedings relating to Priory Hall are continuing and it would be inappropriate to anticipate their conclusion. I imagine Senator Power has no wish for me, as a public representative, to intervene in court proceedings. Dublin City Council’s appeal against the High Court order that it pay the costs of providing alternative accommodation for the Priory Hall residents will be heard on 24 April 2012. I realise this has caused a good deal of inconvenience to the residents through no fault of theirs. The lack of trust between the professional bodies, professional people and the developer has allowed this to happen from the beginning.

At my request, the Department is being kept informed of developments by Dublin City Council. The Department has assisted the council, in consultation with NAMA, in securing alternative temporary accommodation for many of the residents. My Department has made a contribution towards the costs necessarily incurred by Dublin City Council, in the context of the High Court cases, in providing temporary accommodation for households evacuated from Priory Hall.

Dublin City Council is the designated authority with powers to enforce the statutory requirements arising under current legislation, including the Fire Safety Act, the Building Control Acts and the Planning and Development Acts, all of which are at issue in the case of Priory Hall. The council is also the designated housing authority under the Housing Acts.

My responsibility is to ensure that appropriate statutory requirements, technical standards and administrative provisions are put in place under the relevant legislation. This responsibility has been fulfilled and is not in dispute. I have no role in enforcement activity or in the direct provision of housing services. Residents at Priory Hall and their representatives have previously been advised of this standing division of responsibilities.

In the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to meet the residents at this point. As I have stated on many occasions I must act appropriately and within my powers, especially since the case is already the subject of legal proceedings. The overriding priority is to facilitate the return by residents to their homes as early as possible. In this respect it will be necessary to ensure that these homes are made fit for purpose and that the costs of so doing fall where they should. I have asked Dublin City Council to do all within its powers to achieve this objective and I have asked the Department to continue to liaise closely with Dublin City Council in this regard.

The council has made commendable efforts to provide for the needs of residents to date and it continues to work proactively on their behalf towards achieving the necessary and longed-for resolution of the issues at Priory Hall. Difficult legal issues arise including issues of enforcement. The fire officers of Dublin City Council were the people who identified the problem. In the circumstances, I urge all concerned to allow the council to continue to deal with this situation even though it is protracted and things are not happening as fast as I would like. My Department will continue to liaise with the council with regard to its ongoing response to the needs of the residents and its efforts to facilitate their return to their homes as early as possible. Substantial works remain to be undertaken before this can take place. The council is making every effort to achieve the remediation works as quickly as possible.

Since taking up office I have clearly signalled that consumer protection in the area of quality construction of new dwellings is a priority matter. I am dealing with legacy issues of poor building standards implemented by previous Governments and I intend to change the regulations and the system of regulations as soon as I can. In July 2011, before any of these matters came to light, I announced several 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. Mandatory certification and improved inspection arrangements are key reforms which will be put in place in 2012. These will have the capacity to improve the quality of buildings while ensuring that problems like those that have arisen at Priory Hall do not visit homeowners again.

I have also publicly articulated my views on the role played by construction professionals and industry interests in certifying the building works at Priory Hall. I am most disappointed at the lack of attention being paid to this aspect of the problem by commentators in general. I hope that they come to realise where the problem and a considerable part of the blame lies. From the point of view of the residents, the blame game is no good to them. We must get on with trying to help them. Given the law and the current situation regarding the potential case at the Supreme Court I can do no more than I am doing at the moment.

Reply By Senator Averil Power

In regard to the Minister’s suggestion that some kind of legal impediment may prevent him from meeting the residents, the residents themselves are not party to the court case. They are unfortunate bystanders to this debacle. Nobody is asking him to intervene in the court proceedings. I have sought legal advice on the issue from experts in constitutional law and have been informed there is no legal impediment because the Minister is not being asked to exercise a judicial function, hold a parallel hearing, direct the judge or otherwise get involved in the legal determination of these issues. Nothing in the Constitution stands in the way of a political solution to a problem that is before the courts. I accept this is a serious issue and I would not ask the Minister to intervene if I believed he faced legal impediments in doing so.

In regard to a national framework for future problem developments, I welcome the fact that he is being proactive in addressing the building regulations for future developments. I appreciate that he can do nothing about developments that were built wrongly in the past or the fact that the system was not good enough but in addition to changing the regulations and ensuring we do not encounter problems with future developments, we also need to put in place a system for dealing with problems in current developments. This is why I ask him to address the question I asked about the establishment of a national framework for dealing with Priory Hall and other developments that were not built properly and will not be affected by the new regulations.

Further Reply By Minister Phil Hogan

I agree with Senator Power. This is a legacy issue and, unfortunately, we cannot deal with existing buildings. I inherited this problem but I was trying to do something about the mandatory certification system before the issues arose at Priory Hall and Belmayne. I assure the Senator that according to the legal advice I have received, I am precluded from getting involved in this case. I am going to comply with my legal advice and I will not act other than legally because I do not want the outcome of this process to be other than the pursuit of the people who are directly responsible for the trouble caused to the residents of Priory Hall and Belmayne.




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