ONCE upon a time, long ago, I spent a summer employed as a yardman in a concrete mixing depot in north London. It was a serious operation in which sand and gravel were transported to the depot by train, unloaded, and fed into the mixer by a JCB. I had a handy number, but so did the man driving the JCB, a native of Killarney who went by the name of Fran.
He was quiet in the mornings but steady behind the wheel of the JCB. After disappearing for a few hours at lunchtime he returned with a smile that saw him through the afternoon, but his driving was no longer steady.
At the back of the yard, there was a large pit into which was thrown the waste that was surplus to requirements or for one reason or another, had gone wrong in the mix. Every so often a flatbed truck arrived in the yard, and Fran duly bucketed the muck into the truck.
He explained to me that the lads in the truck were Irish cowboys, who would pass off the muck as concrete for small foundations or paving, and would be long gone when the cracks appeared, and settlement occurred.
The crowd I was working for were also Irish and happy somebody was taking the waste off their hands. Nothing to do with us, guv. That summer came back to me recently as I worked on stories concerning people who had bought homes, only to find a few years down the line they had not been built properly.
Buying a home is the biggest financial decision most of us will ever make. In many societies the enormity of the transaction is recognised by the state. Building regulations are policed to ensure that homeowners are not prey to cowboys. In the UK, for instance, regulation is overseen by local authorities. The British recognise the integral role that homes play in society, and the need to ensure that homebuyers are protected.
Not so in this country. Here, the indifference felt by my erstwhile employer in north London is mirrored by the State. Nothing to do with us, guv.
Building regulation has for over 25 years now been largely left to the industry. The State takes a back seat, stands back, lets them at it. That was the ethic that was employed right through the years of a frantic building boom. Some in the industry maintained proper standards, but many did not. Prairies of exploitation were opened up for cowboys. Builders who felt under pressure, through competition or greed, began to cut corners.
Taking a decision to cut corners, do shoddy work, make a few on-the-spot changes to design, is a lot easier when you know the results of your decision won’t be visible to the naked eye, or even to a surveyor making a cursory inspection on behalf of a prospective buyer. It is now becoming obvious that a lot of corners were cut when new houses were going up at a rate of knots. Some in the industry believe places like Priory Hall, Longboat Quay, Belmayne, all in Dublin, Millfield Manor in Newbridge, Riverwalk Court in Ratoath are just the tip of the iceburg.
Of course, the State pays lip service to regulation. Each local authority has inspectors whose function it is to keep an eye on things. But that’s really a sham. Resources in the area of building control regulation were systemically reduced over the years.
In theory, most local authorities commit to a target of 15% inspections of all new buildings. In reality, it’s a fraction of that. I’ve spoken to architects who’ve been in business for over two decades and never encountered a local authority inspector on site.
That’s what suits the industry. Interfering state agents might hold things up. And the industry has usually got its way. The connections between developers, builders and Fianna Fáil during the bubble years is well documented, but relationships run much deeper than that.
Construction is an integral part of the economy, and a sector with excellent lobbying skills. Whispers of slowdowns, roadblocks, and squeezed profit margins are enough to put the jitters on most politicians who want to get things moving.
Last year, on foot of the fallout from Priory Hall and other shoddily built developments, the Government introduced new “robust” regulations. Now an “assigned certifier”, a building professional, must sign off on everything.
This process, known as SI9, is largely a cosmetic exercise. It means that an individual can be fingered when things go wrong, but the idea that this system leads to greater protection for homebuyers is preposterous. For instance, the certifier can be employed by the developer, killing any notion of independent evaluation.
Earlier this year, the Minster for the Environment, Alan Kelly, instigated a review of SI9 because of controversy about costs, rather than the shortcomings of a regime that leaves the homebuyer as exposed as ever.
Two recent situations illustrate the indifference the State continues to harbour towards homebuyers. A fortnight ago, Kildare County Council unanimously passed a motion from independent councillor Willie Crowley instructing the executive to conduct 100% inspections on all new developments. This follows outrage locally at what has emerged in the Millfield Manor estate in Newbridge, where a devastating fire exposed major shortcomings in fire safety in all 90 houses.
The motion is laudable, but it won’t change anything. A proper inspection regime would require some serious resources, which would have to be sanctioned by the Department of the Environment and Local Government. That won’t happen, because if it did, the Government would be forced to roll out a proper inspection regime. That wouldn’t suit the industry and it would cost the exchequer money — initially — which could be better spent on tax cuts.
Another attempt to improve building standards was made by Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown council which voted that all new homes should comply with “passive house” standards, an international standard for energy efficiency.
A few weeks later, the chiefs executive of the four Dublin local authorities received a letter signed by both Environment Minister Alan Kelly and Housing Minister Paudie Coffey, warning not to impose standards that could delay the quick delivery of houses.
The ministers wrote that “viability of new development and therefore supply will be placed at risk by the insertion of unreasonable or excessive requirements in relation to the standard of housing”. As Fingal councillor David Healy pointed out, the ministers charged with protecting homebuyers were asking councils “to keep standards low”.
Here, as elsewhere, it’s back to the future. An election is in the offing. There is a housing shortage.
Builders must not be discommoded or they might throw a strop. Once again, Joe and Josephine Public are being left to the whim of what individual builders and developers consider acceptable standards rather than anything decreed by the State.
The cowboys I encountered in London would feel right at home in the old country.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved