Strengthen consumer protections - Building standards ignored

WHEN Volkswagen confirmed its tremendous deceit and recklessness last week an iconic brand, and probably a country too, suffered huge credibility damage. 

It would be amazing if the brand, and other brands in the VW stable, maintained their dominant market positions. Consumers have rightly expressed a huge sense of betrayal that a once respected business should cheat on essential environmental policing.

That sense of having been utterly betrayed must be very alive among the residents and owners at the Longboat Quay apartment complex in Dublin’s Docklands too, where it is believed that fire safety standards were not matched by the developer Bernard McNamara. It is estimated that residents face a bill of €18,000 each to make their homes safe.

That this scandal comes as Dublin City Council’s €30m refit of Priory Hall continues, and as a former chairman of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland has warned that there could be “hundreds” of developments around the country that do not meet safety standards, suggests that the failure to properly build and monitor developments during the boom years — how very hollow that phrase rings now — was a betrayal on a criminal scale.

Up until last year’s Building Control Amendment Regulations came into effect all a developer had to do before he could sell a property was to get a “certificate of compliance”. This endorsement could be signed by an architect, engineer or surveyor after no more than a visual inspection of the property. It was not necessary to inspect buildings as they were being built so this certification was hardly worth the paper it was written on. However, since regulations were tightened last year an assigned certifier — a registered architect, a chartered engineer or a registered building surveyor — must “sign off” on the building during development.

That welcome change comes too late for the tens of thousands of people who live in buildings built while our light-touch regulation was exploited by developers. That so many of the developers who built these substandard and dangerous complexes have been declared bankrupt and cannot be pursued to right the terrible wrong rubs salt into the wound.

Once again reckless businessmen, regulators and the politicians who presided over this well-contrived charade escape any meaningful sanction for their complete absence of civic morality. Not only did we fail to protect homebuyers by properly regulating developers, we have failed to hold them to account once their appalling behaviour is uncovered.

Against that background it is not surprising, though it is disappointing, that Environment Minister Alan Kelly recently wrote to local authorities in the Dublin area asking them not to impose standards that might slow home building around the capital. This issue, and the VW scandal, all point to feeble consumer protection laws. It is time they were brought centre stage and a bond scheme financed by builders was put in place to protect homebuyers and investors from the worst excess of our cowboy builders posing as responsible developers. This should be an election campaign priority.

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