SPEECH BY SENATOR AVERIL POWER ON DRAFT BUILDING REGULATIONS (26/06/12)

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   Senator Averil Power: Priory Hall residents never had any desire to become experts in building regulation but, having been to hell and back with their apartments over the last few years, and having studied and traced back how these fire traps were allowed to be built in the first place, they have gained a huge amount of expertise.  Apart from wanting to see their current problems resolved, they are determined to do what they can and to highlight the need for the regulations to be changed to prevent other families ending up in a similar position in future.  They have read the draft building control amendment regulations published by the Department and the chairman of the residents’ group, Graham Usher, contacted me and also wrote to the Minister about them.  In putting this matter on the Adjournment, I sent the Minister a copy of the email I received from Mr. Usher.  He raises serious concerns about the draft regulations.  In his view, the Department has not learned the lessons of Priory Hall so I wish to state those concerns this evening and hear the Minister’s response to them.

  Mr. Usher argues that the proposed amendments still focus on local authorities accepting and filing certificates of compliance.  He points out the relevant certificates for Priory Hall were filed and this failed to prevent the problems that occurred.  Under the 1990 Act, local authorities have the power to inspect works in progress and clearly they have not availed of it.  It is the view of the residents that legislation should be used to turn that power into a statutory duty.  In the past local authorities have claimed they did not have the resources to carry out inspections on new developments, despite receiving huge amounts in development levies from residents.  The levies on Priory Hall were huge amounts for a building where the local authority failed to carry out its functions properly.

  It is never acceptable that a building be built without being properly inspected, or that a fire safety certificate could be issued before a brick has been laid, as happened with Priory Hall, but that excuse should not stand up today given the far lower level of development that is taking place and the availability of personnel to carry out inspections.  I call on the Minister to ensure that under the new regulations, all buildings are inspected and if financial arrangements must be put in place to cover the cost of that, it should be done.  The least families deserve after paying so much for their homes, particularly to the State in the form of stamp duty and levies, is that the building would be properly inspected to ensure it is safe.

  Mr. Usher argues that if the decision is taken not to inspect all developments, at the very least a targeted approach should taken, rather than the current system that appears to be random in nature.  The decision to inspect should take into account the past history of the developer and any other available information that would indicate there are potential problems with a development.  This would necessitate the sharing of information between 37 local authorities and any other State bodies involved in the construction process, possibly through a centralised database, so the information in one local authority would be available to all others.  If such a system had been in place for Priory Hall, it would have flagged the fact that the developer in question had problems with other developments.  We have seen how Ms. Theresa McGuinness, a victim of one of McFeely’s developments in Louth, had to chase him over to London.  It would also have flagged the fact the Health and Safety Authority in 2006 had sought a High Court order to close the Priory Hall development due to safety concerns.  All of those things should have been flagged up in making sure the local authority did its job and inspected the site.

  It seems, however, to the Priory Hall residents that the regulations still do not include a requirement on local authorities as the relevant fire safety authority to ensure compliance with the fire safety standards.  Given that the Chief Fire Officer for Dublin City Council has stated a fire could spread throughout the entire Priory Hall development within minutes due to an absence of fire protection, it is a huge concern a more proactive approach to fire safety does not seem to be central the draft regulations.

There is a chance now for a root and branch review of the current system.

End of Take

That is certainly the purpose behind the Minister’s exercise.  It is important, however, to ensure all the relevant safeguards are in place and that we do not opt for a stop-gap half measure.  It is time to get it right in this area and ensure families can, at least, be assured their properties will be safe.

 

   Deputy Phil Hogan: I have read with interest the correspondence received from the former resident of Priory Hall.  I acknowledge and commend his constructive contribution to the ongoing process of amending the building control regulations.  Coming from someone who is, like many others and through no fault of his own, living with the agony and distress caused by the failure of others to abide by their statutory responsibilities, the contribution is welcome, valid and, given the individual’s own particular circumstances, remarkably well balanced.  I have set in train my intention to change the building regulations before any matters came to light regarding Priory Hall.  Therefore, my bona fides are quite solid.

  I respectfully counter the assertion that the proposed changes to the building control regulations fail to address the building failures we have seen in housing and apartment developments in recent years.  Notwithstanding this, the correspondence in question clearly identifies many of the shortcomings in the current arrangements for building control which the package of measures I announced in July 2011 are intended to and will address.  Broadly speaking, these measures include mandatory certification by competent professionals, lodgement of drawings and more meaningful oversight and inspection of building activity by local authorities and private sector construction professionals.

  The key step will be the early introduction of mandatory certificates of compliance confirming, with appropriate documentary evidence, that the statutory requirements of the building regulations have been met for the building in question.  These certificates will not resemble the opinions of compliance referred to in the correspondence, which are currently provided for conveyance purposes and which are not a part of the statutory building control process but are often misrepresented as being such.  Mandatory certificates will mean what they say and will be signed by professionals who understand and accept their responsibilities and the liability that goes with the consequences of failing to meet them.

  Mandatory certification, of itself, depends on the integrity of those concerned and must, therefore, be coupled with more rigorous oversight of construction activity.  I have, therefore, approved proposals devised by my Department and County and City Managers’ Association representatives that will involve more efficient pooling of building control staff and resources across the local authority sector; 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.  This will ensure more effective and meaningful oversight and inspection of building activity, and will facilitate the move to a more risk-based approach by local authorities, which the correspondent correctly identifies as being necessary.

  From a regulatory respective, there is much that can be done to improve the system, and this is receiving priority attention within the Department.  It is only right and proper that any moves to strengthen the system ensure the burden of compliance with statutory requirements rests with the responsible parties and is not invidiously pushed on to the consumer or State.  There is an urgent need for the professions in the industry, and builders and contractors and their representative groups, to step up to the plate when delivering on their obligations to provide a reliable level of professionalism and quality for consumers.

  I thank the correspondent for his constructive and thought-provoking contribution.  As the Senator knows, the proposed building control (amendment) regulations were released for public consultation.  This consultation period closed just a few weeks ago on 24 May 2012.  Some 500 submissions have been received and are currently being reviewed by my Department with a view to having a final set of regulations providing for mandatory certification and lodgement of drawings ready to be signed into law in the coming months.  I assure the Senator I am making changes to the building control regulations that will be very different from those agreed by my predecessors, the latter having contributed to problems like those in Priory Hall.  Nobody should doubt my determination in this matter.

 

   Senator Averil Power: I will reserve judgment until we see the final draft.  I appreciate the Minister’s statement that he has taken on board the issues raised by the former resident of Priory Hall and the fact that he, the Minister, appreciates how well informed and well balanced the resident’s contribution is.

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