Priory Hall crisis was building up for years

DESPITE the coverage during the week, the Priory Hall scandal isn’t new.

Last week, the residents of 187 apartments were ordered by the High Court to evacuate the building in north Dublin. The building is a deadly fire hazard. Such was the concern of Justice Nicholas Kearns that he ordered a fire engine to remain in situ last weekend in case any fire broke out.

While the judge had the best interests of the residents at heart, they had been living under the same threat for nearly two years.

A fire at any stage during that period could have resulted in a serious loss of life.

In March, 2010, I visited the complex for a story about the fire hazard. The previous December, Dublin City Council had evacuated 16 tenants from its public-housing units in the complex. Yet, all the owner-occupiers were left to fend for themselves, including some who had bought under a shared ownership scheme with the council. As landlords, the council was obliged to protect its tenants. But as the fire safety authority, it didn’t seek the evacuation of the owner-occupiers.

Instead, the developer was instructed to carry out remedial work. Last week’s evacuation came about when it was finally accepted that little progress was being made in bringing the complex up to a safe standard.

The apartments were nearly all owned by first-time-buyers — young, single people, or recently married — who had pumped all their savings and taken out huge mortgages to get on what was described as the property ladder. Like many in their demographic, they felt themselves to be under fierce pressure to buy, because they were constantly told that if they didn’t get their skates on, prices would soon be out of reach. As a result, they splashed out between €220,000 and €280,000 on their new homes.

The complex was completed in 2007, at the height of the madness. It was part of a new frontier in the expansion of Dublin city. To the south of Priory Hall was the new town of Clongriffin, which included a train station.

To the north, the new town centre of Belmayne was being ‘thrown up.’ That’s the place that advertised itself with skimpy models draped across kitchen counter-tops.

Footballer Jamie Rednapp and his pop star wife were flown in to open Belmayne. They were impressed with the development. Much of it is now vacant.

Next-door, in Priory Hall, they should have been on the pig’s back. Part of the planning permission for the development was the construction of a road linking Clongriffin and Belmayne.

The Priory Hall residents were to have the best of both town centres, and their own road to ease traffic congestion linking onto the busy Malahide Road.

The link road wasn’t built. As a result, the road into Priory Hall ends in a hoarding. A few weeks before I visited, a fire engine had been called for a minor matter and it was unable to turn on the road, such was the congestion of parked vehicles.

The cars were parked on the road because the underground carpark attached to the complex was flooded.

No bond had to be lodged by the developer with the local authority as insurance against non-completion of the thoroughfare. That was the first blow to the new owner-occupiers in Priory Hall.

When I visited the complex, it was in rag order. The fire hazard wasn’t the most visible problem. There were large patches of dampness in the communal areas. Leaking was a constant problem for the residents and shoddy and appalling finishes were visible everywhere.

It’s common knowledge that the developer was Tom McFeely, a former IRA hunger-striker who came down to Dublin with £250 and ended up a multi-millionaire.

Along the way, he made a settlement with the CAB for around €9m. Eighteen months ago, his agent on the Priory Hall job was another former IRA man, Anthony McIntyre, who spent 18 years in prison.

McIntyre was approachable to a reporter, but at least four of the residents to whom I spoke were reluctant to go public. There is no suggestion that McFeely or his agent intimidated anybody, but their records were enough to instil fear in some residents.

Those residents are now effectively refugees in their own country.

How could somebody like McFeely get as far as he did? How could a development be built to such a sub-standard? How is it possible to get away with failing to construct something as integral as a road?

The simple answer is light-touch regulation. Since 1990, regulations allow for the certification of work without a representative of the local authority, or the overseeing architect, being on site.

The Department of the Environment set out a target of 12% to 15% of sites to be visited by an inspector. This, as Mick Wallace pointed out in the Dáil during the week, means that much of the work is never inspected.

For instance, ensuring that reinforcing-steel in concrete is as per design is largely a matter for the builder. If the builder wants to skimp on design criteria, who is going to see him put in substandard material?

The same applies to building according to basic fire safety standards. There was much trust involved in the building business. And in the frantic environment of the property bubble, some inevitably abused that trust.

The notion that there is only one Tom McFeely out there is fanciful.

During the bubble years, there were developers who maintained standards, and even took pride in their work. There were others who were little more than get-rich-quick merchants. Put simply, corners were cut all over the shop.

The other issue that allowed operators like McFeely to build as he did was a blurring of the relationships between client, designer and contractor.

Before the rise of the master-of-the-universe developer, a client hired the design engineer/architect, who in turn ensured that the contractor built according to design. Then, along came the developer, who was both client and contractor. The balance of power immediately shifted away from the designer/architect. To a large extent, the developer called the shots, and, to a large extent, his primary concern was getting the thing built as fast and as cheaply as possible.

Light-touch-regulation has worked in other jurisdictions with some success, and for a good reason. Builders in places like the USA know that if they bend the rules and are found out, they will go to jail, and sentences will be measured out in years, not months. Here, no such fear of sanction exists. Here we have light-touch-regulation and light-touch penalties.

Priory Hall is one more damning legacy of how things were done here over the last decade.

As of now, there is no indication that we can be assured the same carry-on won’t be possible in the future.

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