Defects: Living with the Legacy of the Celtic Tiger|Eoin Ó Broin|Merrion Press| ISBN:9781785373961|€16.95/£14.99
John Kirkaldy on the new book by Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on housing.
A biting polemic on the housing crisis and the legacy of the Celtic Tiger.
On the morning of Monday, 15th July 2013, Stephanie Meehan found the dead body of her partner, Fiachra Daly.
He had hung himself during the night, beset by tensions created by the purchase of their first home: a victim of the housing market, sustained by the Celtic Tiger. They were among the 256 residents evacuated from the newly built Dublin Priory Hall development, due to significant fire safety defects. They spent months in emergency accommodation with bank debts mounting and it took over two years of intense campaigning to get some form of resolution.
No economic sector was more affected by the Celtic Tiger than housing. In 1990, only 19,539 new homes were built in Ireland by a workforce of under 100,000, with a mortgage lending of €6.5 million. In 2006, there were 85,419 houses and apartments built; this represented 242 completions every single day. There were now 270,000 employed in construction with another 100,000 indirectly involved. 13.4% of Irish workers at this time were in construction.
In 1994, an average house in Dublin cost €81,000; by 2004, the same house was valued at €311,000. In 2007, the Irish mortgage lending debt level reached €1.23 billion.
In a biting polemic, but backed up by plenty of evidence and research, Eoin Ó Broin, the Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Mid-West, underlines the serious and continuing impact of the Celtic Tiger on the Irish housing market.
Numerous houses and apartments were shoddily and dangerously built – with an eye only on a quick profit in an overheating market.
Developers were often slow or, too often, downright evasive, when it came to rectifying these faults. Inspection, control and enforcement – national and local – were often alarmingly light touch or non-existent. Often these issues were made even more complex by management committees in blocks of apartments.
The result is that across Ireland, thousands of people are still living in accommodation with serious fire and structural defects.
Ó Broin investigates these issues mainly through the cases of Priory Hall, Galloping Green, Belmayne, Carrickmines Green and Brú na Sionna in Clare. He also looks at pyrite and mica defects in Donegal and Mayo.
It does not make for pretty reading. The report on the Belmayne apartments was echoed too often elsewhere. It talked of ‘poor design, construction and workmanship…poor detailing and finishing of metal and aluminium joinery…the most serious issues relate to balconies… and insufficient rainwater drainage.’ Every move of even the quietest neighbour could be overheard. In 2012, fire inspectors revealed widespread defects affecting up to 300 homes.
Mark, one of the residents, commented, ‘I was sick, it was pretty sickening because I had spent a lot of money on this place, I put myself into a lot of debt.’
Discovering major faults was just the start; getting remedies proved, in far too many cases, to be very difficult/impossible. The Building Companies Act of 1990 made developers responsible for ensuring that the homes they build and sell must comply with building and fire safety standards.
Ó Broin illustrates some of the dodges used to ignore the regulations.
Tudor Homes, the developer of Galloping Green, simply refused to talk to the purchasers of their defective houses. Paddy Burke Builders went into receivership with defective properties in Brú na Sionna. ‘When Laragan Development went into liquidation, up to 157 creditors were out of pocket. A further ninety-five apartment purchasers lost their deposits…’
Victims of the Housing Crisis
Too often, victims of the housing crisis found little help from government. Requests for support were too often ignored or replied to after a long wait. Responsibility was sometimes shuffled between local and national bodies.
Ó Broin is critical of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), set up by the Fianna Fáil government in 2009.
‘Its function was to buy the toxic bankers’ liabilities from the Celtic Tiger period at a discount and, through sale or lease, recoup the billions of taxpayers’ monies to ‘purchase’ these assets from the banks.’ He is critical in particular of Section 10 of the Act, which sets a very high bar for all NAMA’s commercial activities, as it is obliged to obtain ‘the best achievable financial return for the state’. Stephanie Meehan in her campaign for Priory Hall, spoke for many, ‘We were let down.’
A convincing case
The second part of the book is a historical evaluation of the Irish planning policy over the last century. Readers need to be reminded that Ó Broin is the Sinn Féin spokesperson on housing. But he is also the author of the well-received Home: Why Public Housing is the Answer. This reviewer must put his hand up; he found that the author generally presents a convincing case. The book is also mercifully short of jargon and cliché, which too often bedevil political writing.
The author argues that there are consistent themes. Attention was too often only apparent after a disaster, such as the Stardust Night Club blaze of February 1981. Reform could take ages to be introduced; the Building Control Act of 1990, for example, took seven years, six ministers and three governments to become law.
Too often politicians echoed Tánaiste Dick Spring in 1982, ‘there was no public pressure’ for reform. The major political parties, especially Fianna Fáil, were far too close to the construction industry.
It was claimed that more regulation would put up the price of housing and slow down building. Acting on the theory that poachers should make good gamekeepers, self-regulation by developers, it was argued, could prevent disasters. The pitfalls of this in a time of financial bonanza hardly need explaining.
Checklist of reforms
Ó Broin produces his own check list of reforms: a Latent Defects Redress Scheme; a beefed up and better staffed Building Standards Agency; the ending of self-certification and a truly independent inspection organisation.
In September 2021, the Government introduced a housing scheme, Housing for All: A New Housing Plan for Ireland, which envisages 33,000 houses being built annually until 2030. This book is a very necessary reminder of what can go wrong in unchecked housing expansion.
John Kirkaldy has a PhD in Irish History, worked for many years with the Open University and has been reviewing for Books Ireland since 1980. He has contributed to three Irish history anthologies, a school textbook, and has been involved in a number of Open University History documentary series. Aged 70, two years ago, he went round the world on a much delayed gap year described in his book, I’ve Got a Metal Knee: a 70-Year Old’s Gap Year.