Michael Clifford: People suffer because of slipshod regulation of construction

Slipshod regulation of the construction industry for decades has resulted in a series of problems that surfaced long after homes were built, including pyrite, mica and fire safety defects
Michael Clifford: People suffer because of slipshod regulation of construction

Protesters for the Pyrite and Mica affected homeowners gather at Dublin’s Convention Centre.

Sorting out the past has occupied a lot of Government time recently. 

One such area where resources are being invested to resolve issues hidden for years concerns the construction of homes. 

For decades, regulation of the construction industry was, at best, slipshod. 

As a result, a whole series of problems arose which only came to light long after homes were built. 

Three issues that have surfaced in this regard are pyrite, mica and fire safety defects. 

In each case, the homeowner bought or built their abode on the understanding that the State was applying appropriate industry standards to ensure safety in terms of materials and processes. 

In each case, the State was not doing so.

Today, those who have been walloped with the problem of mica in concrete blocks are marching on Leinster House. 

In the main, they are making the journey from Donegal, where the problem is particularly acute, but in recent months the issue has also arisen in counties Mayo and Clare.

Particular grievance

The protestors have a particular grievance about the scheme that was set up to compensate them for the mica, an agent that can attack the concrete blocks, resulting in them effectively crumbling. 

The scheme, which was set up in 2020 and is being administered by local authorities, covers up to 90% of the cost of remedial work. 

In many cases remedial means complete rebuilding and the scheme doesn’t cover the cost of moving, renting or other ancillary costs.

Affected homeowners say they have been shortchanged and simply unable to meet the costs with which they have been lumbered. 

Roadside protesters during a demonstration in Dublin to demand a 100% redress scheme for homes and properties affected by bricks contaminated with mica. 
Roadside protesters during a demonstration in Dublin to demand a 100% redress scheme for homes and properties affected by bricks contaminated with mica. 

They also point to the different approach to the scheme covering pyrite, which takes account of the full cost of remedial work and predominantly affects homes in the east of the country.

However, the difference in the schemes has far more to do with attempts to get industry to pay its fair share rather than favouring one part of the country.

Pyrite issue

Pyrite is a mineral that causes structural damage and was found to be present in some hardcore rock that was used for foundations from the 2000s. 

Initially, the home insurance group Homebond paid out on claims from homeowners, but discontinued as the extent of the problem became apparent. 

In 2011, following pressure from affected groups, then environment minister Phil Hogan set up an independent panel to examine the pyrite issue. 

The panel reported the following year with a recommendation that the construction, quarrying and non-life insurance sectors fund a levy to pay for remedial work.

In March 2013, Mr Hogan told the Dáil he was setting up a fund of €50m to be supported by the levy. 

As reported in the Irish Examiner today, this was scuppered when the insurance industry threatened legal action. 

The chief executive of the Insurance Industry Federation Kevin Thompson wrote to the minister saying the sector “did not create the pyrite problem and will oppose any attempt to apply a levy to non-life insurance policies,” he wrote.

“One can understand, to some extent, the imposition of insurance levies on insurance policies following a collapse of an insurance company but it is disproportionate, unreasonable and unnecessary to impose a levy/tax in one economic sector (ie insurance) to address issues in an unrelated sector (ie quarrying/construction),” he wrote.

Within months, Mr Hogan changed horses midstream and announced that the funding would now come exclusively from the State. 

Mica problem arose in 2014

In 2014, when the mica problem arose, his first reaction was to tell homeowners that they could seek resolution through the courts. 

This was in total contrast to how the State had dealt with pyrite, but any possibility of getting the industry to stump up looked to be dead in the water by then.

Following further campaigning, the Government eventually agreed to a State-funded compensation scheme for mica, but this one only committed to 90% of the cost of rebuilding, with no account taken for the ancillary costs of relocating while a home was being rebuilt or paying rent.

That is the principal grievance of those marching on the Dáil today. Since the failure of the attempt to impose a levy, Government has been tighter with the purse strings.

Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin says  it is clear from the documents that Phil Hogan backed down from the original plan of an industry-funded levy under threat of legal action from the insurance industry.

“As a result, almost €160m of public money has been spent remediating pyrite-affected homes,” he said. 

“While there is no doubt that the State must accept its share of the blame for Celtic tiger era defects, the industry must not be left off scot-free.”

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