Tuesday 25 October 2011

Priory Hall debacle shows need for decisive action

Ireland needs to abandon ‘light touch’ regulation of the building industry and follow best practice

THE EVACUATION of residents of Priory Hall in Donaghmede, Dublin, following the discovery of serious building deficiencies causing a fire hazard, has brought into sharp focus major inadequacies in Ireland’s building regulatory environment.

While the evacuation is traumatic and will cause significant financial problems for residents, shortcomings in the building control enforcement system are so serious that they could have been exposed to an even greater tragedy involving loss of life.

Recently at the Society of Chartered Surveyors annual conference, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan said: “The fact that Dublin City Council did their job properly and brought this particular individual to court is a clear indication that the Building Control Act is robust”. The irony of this Orwellian double-speak will not be lost on the Priory Hall residents. If we had a robust building control system, the defects uncovered would have been detected during the construction phase and it would not now be necessary for them to leave their homes.

Following the 1981 Stardust disaster, the 1991 Building Control Act which introduced the Building Regulations was hailed as a significant piece of reforming legislation. But while the new regulations reflected international best practice, there was a flaw: they did not provide adequately for enforcement.

The 1991 Act gave the Minister power to introduce regulations for a series of measures relating to enforcement, but these have still not been introduced 20 years later. Two factors have contributed: (1) the determination of the Department of the Environment not to permit State officials to take responsibility, and potential future liability, for building enforcement inspections, and: (2) the unwillingness of the building industry to have statutory inspections imposed, on “efficiency” grounds.

In the absence of statutory legislation, the Law Society needed to provide some safeguards for clients purchasing new homes and so the joint Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI)/Law Society “opinions on compliance” with the Building Regulations were devised.

As the majority of house-builders did not see a need for regular site inspections, it became the norm that a single “visual inspection” – with all the limitations this implies in terms of work covered up – was adequate to permit conveyancing of houses or apartments.

Representations to the Department of the Environment by professional institutes pointed out these shortcomings and proposed reforms. But while officials responded positively, there has been little evidence of reform being given political priority.

Although the majority of house-builders are well-intentioned, serial offenders have brought the building industry into disrepute. Their resistance to regular statutory building inspections is also at variance with historic and international best practice.

Building regulation and enforcement systems have been a feature of civilised societies for hundreds of years, going back to the Romans. In medieval Italy, city republics took pride in the unique urban identities of their cities resulting from their building regulations.

In London, building regulation and enforcement were introduced after the Great Fire of 1666. In Ireland, we introduced building by-laws, backed up by enforcement, as long ago as 1898. We have regressed in adopting a system of “light regulation” since the 1991 Building Control Act.

It is particularly relevant that in the US, heartland of free enterprise, building regulation enforcement involves not just statutory inspections but also registration of building contractors, sub-contractors, architects and engineers.

The problems at Priory Hall have endangered and caused severe hardship for residents who had every right to expect that the building industry, built environment professionals, solicitors, banks, local authorities and State would have measures to prevent this debacle.

The protection of consumers through an effective statutory inspection system is not one on which there is an ideological divide. Labour, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have all had an input to the Building Control Act in its present form. But successive ministers have succumbed to the prevailing conventional wisdom as articulated by the Construction Industry Federation and department mandarins, that Ireland was somehow “different”.

There is a direct parallel between this philosophy and that which held sway in the Department of Finance, banking and commerce, and ultimately caused our economic collapse. This conventional wisdom is flawed and will ultimately cause future Priory Halls and even fatalities.

Phil Hogan came to the department with a reputation for cutting through bureaucracy and getting things done. He now has an opportunity to establish himself as a reforming Minister by addressing this issue effectively. He should direct his officials to look again at international best practice and introduce a building control and enforcement system that recognises the complexities involved in the building process and includes registration of main contractors, services and fire safety equipment sub-contractors.

This would involve: Registration of key building construction personnel including foremen, electricians, mechanical systems and fire safety engineers; lodgement of design documentation, prepared by qualified professionals, on local authority registers prior to commencement of construction of all building and refurbishment work; mandatory statutory inspections and tests at defined stages in the building process by qualified professionals; mandatory lodgement on completion of compliance documents by all key parties involved in the construction process prior to issuing a certificate of occupation by the relevant local authority, and reallocation of suitably qualified public servants to form a national inspectorate tasked with carrying out audits of a minimum of 25 per cent of all design documentation and building sites to ensure a culture of compliance.

If Phil Hogan has the courage to ignore the flawed conventional wisdom and vested interests which have characterised the past three decades of building control and enforcement policy, he will win his place in history as a champion of the Irish consumer.

Irish Times


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