MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Fire safety response is just a smokescreen

Alan Kelly’s department announced a review into problems over homes which effectively are fire-traps, but this will do little to alleviate home owners fears, writes Michael Clifford    

ALAN KELLY likes to give the impression of being a man who gets things done, but in some respects he is the man who just gives the impression of getting things done. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his response to the emerging problems over homes which are effectively fire traps.

The Department of the Environment and Local Government last week announced a “review” to “develop a framework for general application” in homes where concerns have been raised about fire safety.

Alan Kelly
Alan Kelly

This move is in response to a number of instances where it has been discovered that buildings thrown up during the boom years were done so without due concern for fire safety. The problems centre on a failure to build according to design. These failings are primarily attributable to the developers in question, but also reflect the appalling system of self-regulation that pertained in those days, and still does to a large extent.

The names of the places where fire concerns have arisen are now well known in the public realm: Priory Hall, Belmayne, Longboat Quay, Shangan Hall, all in Dublin; Kentswood Court in Navan; Glenn Riada in Longford; Riverwalk Court in Co Meath; Millford Manor in Newbridge.

These are the developments which have come to public notice. The extent of the dangers that lurk behind walls and under floors is unknown, and unfortunately in some instances will only become obvious if an incident occurs.

Longboat Quay
Longboat Quay

One feature in particular in a number of the cases is construction using a timber-frame model. Timber frames require a high degree of precision in installing prefabricated units. Precision in construction and in following design criteria was sadly missing in some quarters throughout the years of frantic building.

Kelly’s review is primarily in response to a fire that destroyed a terrace of six house in the Millford Manor estate in Newbridge in half an hour last March. If built according to design, there should have been at least a three-hour window before a fire could flatten such a terrace. A report commissioned by Kildare County Council confirmed that other houses in the estate were built, more or less, with the same flaws as those exposed in the fire. Thankfully, the incident occurred in the afternoon. Had a fire started in the dead of night, the loss of life would have been a very real possibility.

The ultimate outcome is that home owners in the estate are now liable for bringing their homes up to the proper safety standards. This alone exposes the problems with consumer protection in relation to fundamental flaws being discovered years after construction. In Millford Manor, as in many other cases, the development company responsible has since gone into liquidation.

Fire safety response is just a smokescreen

Another outcome is that an increasing number of homeowners who bought at the height of the property madness are living with the knowledge that their homes are unsafe, due to the absence of regulations and dodgy construction, which was hidden at the time of purchase. Responsibility for rectifying that situation now rests, in nearly every case, entirely with the homeowners themselves.

The response from Government has been “a review” — a review replete with statements like the following: “The review will have regards to the typical risk profile faced by residents, their visitors and fire service personnel in and about apartment developments and housing estates”.

It will “take account of normal hazards and relevant safety management arrangements as well as typical passive and active safety features”. In addition, the review will outline advice and guidance which can be used to ensure “an adequate level of safety for persons in and about their development”. This will include, among other things, “checking that appropriate escape routes from premises are available, designed in accordance with current standards”. All of these aims could be undertaken by simply ringing up the local fire brigade and organising for a cursory survey and a chat with residents. None of it addresses the fears of residents who are living in homes which do not offer full protection against fire. None of it addresses the financial imposition on homeowners who have discovered that their trust in the State to regulate building has been completely misplaced.

The review will consist of some senior local authority personnel and a “fire expert”. Crucially, it is scheduled to report on January 31 next. That date is significant, as it provides that no response will be forthcoming from Mr Kelly until after the next general election is safely out of the way.

Marcin, Alicia, and Jolanta Podmokli lost their home in the blaze. Homeowners are now liable for bringing their homes up to the proper safety standards
Marcin, Alicia, and Jolanta Podmokli lost their home in the blaze. Homeowners are now liable for bringing their homes up to the proper safety standards

And that’s the real purpose of this so-called review — ensure that any controversy about this issue can be parked until the main event is done and dusted. In terms of addressing any of the outstanding issues, it amounts to a hill of beans.

Independent Kildare councillor Willy Crowley, who has been advocating on behalf of the Millfield Manor residents summed it up in his response to news of the review. “It’s a joke,” he said.

“It amounts to putting in a few fire alarms and organising a fire drill. If you don’t get a commitment before the next election you can forget about it.”

There is little to argue with in that. The reality is that the fall-out from dangerous and shoddy building practices during the boom is going to continue. Millfield Manor involved a fire. Other discoveries were made when investigations into general shoddy work uncovered serious safety concerns. More were discovered only when a receiver for a number of units employed a consultant to effectively look behind the walls.

The chances that these are isolated incidents are next to zero. Any conversation with people who worked in the industry in those days will confirm that the worst is yet to come. But so far, the response from Government has been to bury heads in the sand. Such an approach is confirmed with this so-called “review”.

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