A three hour debate in the Dail yesterday once again highlighted the awful legacy left to thousands of homeowners in this State from a blatant failure to implement proper building regulations in the construction of homes during the property bubble era. Yesterday it was the creeping destruction caused by pyrite that was in focus but much reference was made also to those homeowners, such as the residents of Priory Hall on Dublin’s north side, who are living with the agony of being forced out of their homes which are serious fire hazards because the fire safety regulations were not implemented during construction.
Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan laid out the Government’s response to the recent report from the Pyrite Panel, a committee set up by the Minister in July of last year to examine all aspects of the pyrite problem. In the course of the debate many contributors spoke of the great suffering of people who see their homes disintegrating around them as the pyrite in the infill under the ground floors chemically reacts with oxygen, moisture and other minerals and expands slowly but with devastating force destabilising walls and ceilings. However, while empathy was in great evidence, a definitive solution and a firm timescale for its implementation was much more tenuous.
Essentially the Government do not want to accept that the State had any role in the disaster that unfolded. Of course there was acute culpability on the part of the quarry companies who supplied the material containing the pyrite, the big builders and their architects and the banks and insurance companies who all profited massively from the home building boom. However a number of state agencies were in place which were supposed to insist on strict standards of building. The Pyrite Panel Report exonerates these agencies from any blame saying that there could not have been awareness of the problems caused by pyrite before 2007. The Minister enthusiastically seized on this to put all the blame elsewhere. This is not tenable.
It is simply not believable that there couldn’t have been any recognition of the pyrite problem during the building boom here. In Britain there were warnings about it in the civil engineering literature more than thirty years ago. In Bristol in 1992 there was a major International Conference on the Implications of Ground Chemistry for Construction where detailed papers were presented on the problems of ‘pyrite heave.’
It beggars belief that major quarrying companies here, one of which is a multi billion operation, would not have this knowledge and could not have tested the material they were supplying for problem materials like pyrite. Nor is it credible that the responsible State agencies – the Building Regulations Advisory Body and the National Standards Authority of Ireland – should not have been aware of this issue and supervised accordingly.
The reality is that there was a serious lack of supervision of building standards during the bubble. The developers and bankers who financed them had the ear of the political establishment and wielded enormous power. As in the financial markets deregulation, and so called self regulation, was the order of the day. The result is a litany of housing developments all over the country with massive problems and a generation of homeowners suffering enormous stress as a result.
What this means for the ordinary people who made enormous sacrifices to buy homes and are now left with building that are either heaving with pyrite or potential fire traps was brought home forcefully in a letter sent to each Government Minister and Dail deputy two days ago by a young mother from Priory Hall. She describes the heartbreak of being forced to move from one emergency accommodation to another with her partner and two young children when the fire hazard was uncovered. ‘Little did we know, a year later we’d still be wondering when, if ever, will we get to go home and where our homes will be. . . Priory Hall was our home but due to the incompetent builder and an incompetent Dublin City Council, it looks like Priory Hall will never be our home again.’
Tellingly this young mother rounds on the political establishment. ‘Phil Hogan still refuses to meet with the residents, Enda Kenny has made empty promises. Will anyone help us?’
Clearly neither the victims of pyrite nor of fire hazardous homes can afford to wait until torturous proceedings are fully played out in courtrooms as those culpable try to evade paying. They need action now. This means the State setting up an emergency fund and putting together taskforces of engineers and construction workers to carry out the necessary remediation on an organised basis. In the meantime bring in urgent legislation forcing all those in the construction industry responsible for the situation to pay into that fund until all costs are covered.