MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Longboat Quay: Developer crawls back out of his hole

Poor old Bernard McNamara got a going-over during the week. McNamara is a developer and former Fianna Fáil councillor. A hardened cynic might say that’s enough to merit a perpetual going-over. But in fairness to the man, he was well got in places high and low before his own fall from grace into the clutches of bankruptcy.

After his purgatorial sojourn under Britain’s bankruptcy laws, he rose like one of his own developments, back in business, showing that there are second acts in a developer’s life under a new corporate guise. His company signs now grace a site in Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green, and he is understood to be active elsewhere in the country.

Bernard McNamara
Bernard McNamara

Until last week, McNamara appeared to typify the rehabilitation of The Developer. Back in the days of deep recession, The Developer was a creature nearly as reviled as The Banker. Now, with the emergence of a housing crisis, The Developer is back in demand. These days, he sees himself as a nation-building victim, with a succession of Nama-fied developers emerging from that process recounting their experience as if they had been raped. Between being in demand and affecting the pose of victim, The Developer was nearly rehabilitated. And then, the past of one of their finest blew out from behind the walls of Longboat Quay.

The confirmation that the 299-unit development on Dublin’s Sir John Rogerson Quay was a fire trap threw McNamara’s activity into a different light. The six-storey blocks were built in an appalling manner in 2006, at the height of the property madness. Corners were cut. Walls were not built with proper fire stops. Vital smoke vents were not installed. There was a total disregard for fire safety in a multi-occupancy building where a fire could have meant multiple fatalities.

At an information meeting for owners and residents last Tuesday, a number in attendance questioned how McNamara could skip off scot-free from the dangerous debacle he left in his wake.

“He’s back in business,” one man shouted from the floor. “Has anybody contacted him?” A director of the management company, Richard Eardley, pointed out that the company used by McNamara to build Longboat was now in receivership, putting the man himself beyond the law.

Longboat Quay: Developer crawls back out of his hole

“It gets to me any time I go past his bright, shining sign on Stephen’s Green,” Eardley said. “It sickens me.”

As well it might. McNamara, it would seem, is beyond the law. In jurisdictions where they take matters such as building and regulation seriously, he would now be facing a criminal investigation. In jurisdictions where the rights of citizens are given due recognition, he would at least be facing the prospect of stumping up the money required for the remedial works. He may not have it now, but if his latest reincarnation continues apace, it won’t be long before he does.

We do things differently in this country. Here, the dominance of vested interests is such that laws and regulations are fashioned to ensure that their immediate concerns — principally making as much money as possible — are given far more weight than the rights of Joe and Josephine Citizen. It is not until the stink becomes overpowering that any real change is affected.

Look at a few other examples. Publicans had the final say over drink-driving limits in this country for decades. It wasn’t until due prominence was given to the bereavement suffered as a result of the carnage that the Government finally acted to make the roads safer.

Longboat Quay: Developer crawls back out of his hole

Farmers ensured that the boundaries of pollution remained as elastic as possible until Europe began cracking down. A flight from the land in recent decades has drained much political capital from their power, but they still remain a force.

Lawyers feed from an overflowing trough at the gateway to justice. The Government only found the courage to attempt to rebalance the system when the troika put the hammer on. (Arguably, that giant leap forward has been followed by a few large steps back).

Nobody, though, appears to enjoy the power of The Developer. What he has built is a regime in which the citizen in general, and the homebuyer in particular, is a mere irritant as he goes about a business that is key to a society’s future.

Over the years, there have been attempts — usually feeble — to rebalance the citizens’ interests with those of The Developer. The Kenny Report on rezoning land in 1973 could have reshaped the whole business of housing. That was knocked on the head before it even left the cabinet table.

Longboat Quay: Developer crawls back out of his hole

However, developers’ biggest achievement was taking over regulation from the State. Prior to the 1990s, building regulation in this State mirrored how things are done in grown-up countries. Local authority inspectors were employed to inspect buildings to ensure the work complied with standards.

Since then, there has been a de facto process of self-regulation. This pertained throughout the years of property madness. How can anybody now be surprised at what is emerging? Longboat Quay is just the latest Priory Hall. There will be other Longboat Quays. The Public Accounts Committee heard on Thursday that around half of the 300 properties it took over have required remedial work for fire safety. The agency has set aside €100m for all this work.

There was no regulation. It’s as simple as that. Some developers who retained a sense of integrity kept their own standards. But it was inevitable that pressure and greed would exercise a pull on many at a time when the country was awash with money. Have you ever put a child in a room full of sweets and asked them to self-regulate?

Priory Hall was a blow to The Developer, but was put down to a maverick. Phil Hogan threw shapes by introducing new regulations, which he said would ensure no more Priory Halls. A close analysis of those new regulations, however, exposes them as little more than window-dressing.

Longboat Quay: Developer crawls back out of his hole

And so, The Developer was on the way back. In recent months, as a housing crisis emerged, the role of The Developer was bigged-up into a nation builder once again. Alan Kelly rowed in with a letter to the four Dublin local authorities in June to refrain from over-regulating the nation- builders. Earlier this week, it emerged that developers may not have to pay levies to local authorities in an effort to get more starter homes built. Instead, the citizen will pick up the tab in order to allow the nation-builders get on with the job.

The exposure of McNamara’s shoddy and dangerous work, along with Nama’s latest revelations, has landed in The Developer back in the foul stuff. The subservience of the State to this vested interest is once more causing a smell. Will anything finally change? Don’t hold your breath.

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