The evidence points to the fact that stringent building controls are needed to protect the interests of citizens, but the current controls appear to be more about optics than anything else more substantial, and a review of these is unlikely to change anything, writes Michael Clifford
Back in November 2011, Phil Hogan told the Dáil there was no problem with regulation in the building industry.
“A robust system of building control exists, and this is demonstrated by the Priory Hall situation, where the local authority is successfully using its powers to make the appropriate party responsible,” he said. Hogan was effectively saying that the control of the quality of building in Priory Hall was evidenced in the pursuit of the developer who built it badly.
Big Phil mustn’t have believed that waffle himself because he brought in new regulations on building control, which were ostensibly enacted to protect the consumer, or house-buyer.
The new system, under regulation SI9, was supposed to clean up Dodge. In reality, it was little more than a ruse to allow Dodge carry on as before, with a new veneer of respectability.
SI9 introduced the “assigned certifier”, whose job it was to sign off on all new buildings. This chap, drawn from the ranks of engineers, architects, and surveyors, would then be responsible for what had gone on. A paper trail would exist. If bad stuff came to light a few years after construction, fingers could point at the assigned certifier.
This was supposed to replace self-regulation in the industry, but many are highly sceptical that anything has changed. The system came up for review in March, one year on from its inception. Friday last was the closing date for submissions, but a few pointers have been offered as to where things go from here.
One suggestion emanating from the Department of the Environment is that one-off houses be exempt from the regulations. This would ensure savings on the employment of a certifier, the cost of which has become a political issue. It would also alleviate any requirement for safe or standardised controls in one off-houses, and cast major doubt on the possibilities of re-sale.
Another option being considered is a widening of the pool of assigned certifiers to include various technicians. This move would in theory allow for greater competition and drive down fees for certifiers. It would, in all likelihood, ensure less inspection of buildings under construction for economic reasons, and possible lead back to the days of Celtic Tiger yore.
A third possible change is to have a ‘template’ inspection for one-off houses, which might work if robots were doing the building, but makes little allowance for human error, mistakes, or shoddy materials.
The focus of the proposed changes says much about the department under its new minister, Alan ‘Wyatt Earp’ Kelly, and his deputy, Paudie Coffey. Their concern would appear to be entirely political. There have been ructions over the cost of the certifier in the construction of one-off homes, which account for around half of all new builds. In a year of election, the impetus is on placating that lobby group rather than addressing whether the new regulations are doing what they were allegedly designed to do.
SI9 is fast taking on the sheen of an Irish solution for an Irish problem. Instead of ensuring proper standards apply on behalf of citizens, it looks like a development designed to improve the optics.
The problems that have existed around building control are often forgotten or ignored. Last month, in an appearance before the banking inquiry, Nama chairman Frank Daly provided a view from outside the industry.
Referencing the housing stock taken over by Nama, he said: “I would like to mention the quality of construction and, in some cases, the absence of much quality at all. Nama has incurred multi-million euro costs in remediating building defects, such as non-compliance with regulatory standards, including fire safety standards.
“Many of these defects stemmed from a lack of oversight and attention to detail from both the builder/developer and the building control divisions of the local authorities.”
In order words, the shoddy and dangerous work was widespread. Daly, however, may have been unfair to those in local authorities. Building control divisions in the local authorities were stripped to the bone, as regulation was largely handed back to the industry. The real fault lay with the system.
In any event, it is only when a major agent such as Nama investigates multiple properties, or serious fire concerns come to light, such as in Priory Hall, or Dublin’s Longboat Quay, or Milford Manor in Newbridge, that the substandard and often dangerous work is uncovered.
How much more of it is out there? All of which would be of historical concerns if SI9 was making a real difference. There is no indication that that is the case. First and foremost, the independence of the ‘applied certifier’ is far from clear. He or she can be an employee of the builder, which can become a major conflict of interest if the certifier’s notion of proper standards doesn’t chime with that of his employer. Equally, if a certifier gets a reputation for being a stickler on standards, her volume of work is likely to decrease.
How much can one certifier do? Having responsibility for the control of quality from design to completion can be onerous. Can one individual have all that expertise to a point where he or she can certify that the work is in ‘full compliance’? Not even ‘substantial compliance’, as it used to be, but fully so? Is it all about a system of paper trails to reassure — or distract— consumers? Insurance for certifiers is another issue. Will it be possible in the long run for professional construction personnel to get indemnity insurance when so much is at stake, and when in reality, there is only so much control a certifier can exercise, unless he is on site most of the time. The position of the courts on the current regime is yet to be tested.
These are important issues, but because they don’t attract the same political heat as the cost of certifying one-off houses, they don’t get due attention.
There is a simple, tried and trusted way of regulation that works efficiently in the UK.
There, the state, through local authorities, controls the quality of building on behalf of the citizens. Building control inspectors are employed through the local authorities, and the citizens can at least be reassured that their interests are paramount.
Such a system would involve the state taking a central role, at a time when the political ideology prefers that the state divest itself of matters like regulation.
It might also discommode vested interests who would regard such control as too stringent, particularly when compared to the current or former systems. All the evidence that has emerged in recent years suggests that such stringency is precisely what is required in the best interests of the citizens who make the biggest financial decision of their lives in buying a home.
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