MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Someone finally admits they got it wrong

Something strange happened this week. An individual stood up and said he’d got things wrong; that he and his company were culpable for a big mistake; and that moves would be made immediately to rectify it.

To make matters even stranger, this outrageous departure from the norm took place in front of a group of angry people who had felt disempowered, short-changed and blackguarded.

The matter at hand was one that is no longer alien in this country. A development of apartment blocks built during the boom were found to be dangerously deficient. A number of major fire safety issues were uncovered.

Residents and owners at the Ath Leathan development outside Dundalk were told last month by the Louth fire officer that if remedial work isn’t done, their homes will have to be evacuated. The cost of the remedial work is estimated at €1.4m.

Sound familiar? A similar scenario arose last year in the Longboat Quay development in Dublin’s docklands. Dublin Fire Brigade obtained a fire safety order requiring remedial works to be completed or the 600 residents would have to evacuate their homes. The work is estimated to cost about €2.5m.

There have been others. In March 2015 a fire in a housing complex in Newbridge Co Kildare saw a terrace of six homes burnt to the ground in less than half an hour. That prompted an investigation into how the homes on the estate, Millfield Manor, were built. Major fire safety defects were uncovered.

Work to make the homes safe will cost each homeowner around €30,000.

In Ratoath, Co Meath residents in the Riverwalk Court complex have been told their homes are not safe. Riverwalk Court was built by Michael Ryan, a developer who hit the headlines in 2013 when he was charged with bribing a county councillor. He was acquitted of the charge; although in a separate trial the councillor, Fred Forsey, was convicted of receiving a bribe.

The owners in Riverwalk Court have been engaged in a seven-year battle to have repair work done on their homes. Initially, water ingress was the problem, but looking behind the walls to tackle that issue led to the discovery that there were also major fire safety defects.

Most of the above developments feature in a programme I made with producer/director Lydia Murphy airing on TV3 on Monday. Firetrap Homes examines these cases, which were first highlighted in this newspaper, and asks how did it happen; how much more of it is out there; and, most crucially, could it happen again.

[timgcap=In March 2015 a fire in a housing complex in Newbridge Co Kildare saw a terrace of six homes burnt to the ground]KildareFireb31March2015_large.jpg[/timg]

Ath Leathan doesn’t feature on the programme, but the manner in which that story is progressing certainly differs from all others, as evidenced by the strange goings-on at that meeting last Tuesday.

The owners and residents were gathered in the Ballymascanlon Hotel to see where they can go from here. Unusually for matters such as this a representative for the developer, McGreevy’s, which built the estate, actually attended.

Not only that, Bill Davidson from McGreevy’s told the gathering that mistakes were made in the construction and would be rectified. Speaking on LM/FM, Alan Grehan of the management company for the development said Mr Davidson ‘held his hands up’.

“He ran through what he had done,” Grehan said.

“He had spoken to the fire officer, he had engaged with the original design team and he had engaged with other professionals. They did agree that mistakes had been made by a number of people in the development. They categorically stated that they would put it right.”

In my experience of covering these stories over the last three years the first instinct of any developer is to deny culpability. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility the deficiencies are attributable to something other than construction, but adopting a position of “nothing to do with me, guv” is more rule than exception.

In the case of Longboat Quay, developer Bernard McNamara put many of the problems down to “wear and tear”. Mr McNamara is currently in negotiations with Dublin City Council on how to address the repair work but he does not accept culpability for the deficiencies.

In Millfield Manor, a spokesman for Paddy Byrne told the programme that “the homes that were completed and sold have been the subject of extensive inspections and reports by Kildare County Council…which has given no rise to issues in relation to compliance with building regulations”. One might well read into that that any problems should be laid at the door of the county council.

Up in Ratoath, the developer is now — after a long battle by residents — assisting in having the remedial work done, but he does not accept culpability.

How much more of it is out there? That is the great imponderable. The cases that have come to light have done so for specific reasons. In a few instances it involved a receiver for a number of apartments employing a consultant to ensure that everything was ok. In Newbridge it was the fire that prompted investigation.

It is next to impossible to know how much more of it is out there. We do know Nama has spent more than €100m in addressing deficiencies in properties it has taken over.

There is also a lack of willingness on the part of owners to find out whether their properties have major deficiencies because it could turn out to be expensive. Most of the problems arise in apartments, which are used by most owners as a transient station before moving onto a house. Who wants to find deficiencies in a home that might devalue it? A similar approach is taken by many in the buy-to-let sector.

So we simply don’t know, and can only hope it won’t be a tragedy that will bring the matter to greater awareness.

The other outstanding feature in most of the cases we examined was the lack of regulation. During the Celtic Tiger, our old friend from the world of banking — light-touch regulation — was the order of the day.

In the wake of the Priory Hall debacle, new regulations were brought in that leave a paper trail but, some argue, does little else to protect homebuyers.

Priory Hall

Some might consider the problem of shoddy and dangerous building work as a historical matter from a time when the whole country was living in something of a bubble insulated from reality.

Not so. The current crisis in housing means there is going to have to be an accelerated programme of home building in the coming years. Time is of the essence now in order to get people out of hotel rooms and into proper homes.

The potential for a repeat of the kind of fallout now being experienced from the last building boom is obvious. We need a system of regulation in which the public can have full confidence.

Firetrap Homes: TV3 Investigates airs on TV3 at 9pm on Monday


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