Homeowners demand govt take responsibility for standards neglect

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Lisa Hone is one of thousands living with the failure of successive Dublin governments to regulate building materials, resulting in the failure of their new-build homes due to blocks containing mica and pyrite, and who are now seeking full redress (for the Journal).

 

Our family once had a life before mica, now we live with mica, constantly. For us, this line was drawn on 31 March of this year.

We were aware of mica but for a while had rationalised cracks that appeared in our house as being down to construction settlement.

That didn’t stop us Googling anxiously and comparing our house to pictures on the net. We soon became insomniacs with worry – the feeling of dread continually gnawed at us. To end the uncertainty, we commissioned tests. The results were unassailable, and the die was cast.

PLAYING BY THE RULES

After 16 years of diligently paying a mortgage, our house was worthless and destined to disintegrate. It felt gut-wrenching like someone had stolen our home and our future. Then an awful lot of anger: “How the hell can this happen?”

However, I am one of the lucky ones. Our house has not yet deteriorated into a crumbling, creaking wreck reminiscent of a warzone, but it is only a matter of time. We can’t get off the mica conveyor belt, some travel faster than others but ultimately our destinations are the same.

People handle it differently, for me the only way forward was to fight as part of the campaign, educating myself fast on the geology, construction regulations, law and the politics of mica/pyrite. I also learnt that for a decade, successive ministers had been wringing their hands about the awful situation, proclaiming that something must be done, yet doing very little.

But most distressing of all was the moment I discovered that this crisis was just one more in a shameful history of governance of the construction industry and was wholly avoidable. A lethal combination of hubris, over-reliance on parties with a vested interest, underfunding and unresponsiveness created a perfect culture to allow the issue to arise and then balloon to crisis proportions.

In 2021 Ireland stands on the cusp of the biggest building boom since the Celtic Tiger to boost housing, but construction still works on a self-regulatory basis, there is no independent body to enforce standards and if something goes wrong Irish law is stacked against the homeowner.

As this article was about to be published, a report emerged of blocks delivered onto a building site in Aug 2020 that have been tested by an independent lab and have levels of 15% mica. The recommended limit is 1%.

The Government’s 2018 report Safe as Houses, which gathered expert opinions on building standards, controls and consumer protection states, “Taken together, self-certification, low levels of independent inspection and limited redress for homeowners once defects are discovered is clearly a recipe for disaster.”

KICKING THE CAN

When the report was released, the then Fianna Fáil Housing spokesperson Darragh O’Brien (now minister) commented that building control governance as it is now, is “not fit for purpose and could be greatly improved”.

The regulatory environment these homes were built under unnecessarily exposed its citizens to malpractice, and deficiencies in Irish law do not give homeowners a route to redress.

The State failed to protect its people and the Government knows it. Having been allowed to roam freely and with no independent checks particularly during the Celtic Tiger years, the Government’s chickens are well and truly coming home to roost.

The protection of homebuyers has not been a sufficient priority despite several strong warnings about the “duty to build properly” from the Law Reform Commissions of 1977 and 1982, six years of debate on the Building Control Act of 1990 and more recently the Safe as Houses Report.

In the last 40 years, there have been pleas to Government to make protecting people a priority, but administrations shied away from an independent building control authority, complaining about difficulties with cost and implementation and that building projects would be slower and more expensive.

More attractive for Government was the less onerous and cheaper preference of the construction lobby who enjoy working to the sweet sounds of self-regulation.

Opposing self-certification in 1989 Eamon Gilmore TD prophetically stated, “The principal being enshrined in this section is very dangerous. It will expose people who are buying homes to buying products which are sub-standard which they will have no comeback”.

Minster Padraig Flynn responded that construction professionals “Would only be able to continue in business as long as they have good quality work as their trademark” and that he did “not believe anything in this Bill will expose homebuyers to the possibility of buying a sub-standard building.”

Given the nature of builds, a small number of operators acting negligently, whether with intent or not, can result in devastating safety and financial implications. The mica/pyrite crisis spiralled because there was no mechanic to halt the production of bad blocks, so for at least 13 years, defective blocks were churned out.

An independent inspection regime testing the blocks would have detected the mica/pyrite, production halted, and the situation seriously mitigated.

YOU HAVE MICA – WHAT NEXT?

And what happens if you discover there is something seriously wrong with your house? In the 2018 Safe of Houses Report, expert construction lawyer Deirdre Ni Fhlionn, stated “Irish law is stacked against homeowners who discover defects.”

“I spoke at a conference in London last year and I said when someone in Ireland has a defect, and they find out how bad their legal position is, they ring a disc jockey called Joe Duffy. This is partly how we solve some of our governance problems in Ireland. That is unacceptable. People’s lives have been destroyed, and we need to consider coming up with proper regulation.”

Given the State’s failure is at the heart of this crisis, with all the human and financial pain it brings, I hope this is one almighty wake-up call for Government. The priority is the redress scheme so people can reclaim their homes and lives, but a public inquiry is also demanded.

Government is not keen unsurprisingly, given it would make uncomfortable reading. The final bill, possibly a billion-euro one should focus the State to urgently overhaul governance, but all the signs are that the same lethargy that afflicted previous Governments still prevails.

So, in response to Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and his newfound zeal for protecting taxpayers’ money, I suggest he invests some of it implementing recommendations from the Safe as Houses Report to protect people on the biggest purchase of their lives.

Otherwise, 20 years from now, there may be another cohort of Irish homeowners protesting in Dublin about their defective homes and all the life shredding consequences that accompany it.

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