The price of lax regulation

County View

County View
John Healy

When Micheál Martin told the Dáil that he was totally sympathetic to the plight of the victims of  the pyrite scandal, he added that he had a real issue with people who, he said, walked off the pitch, including block suppliers, architects and builders, banks, mortgage providers and insurance companies.
However, the Taoiseach should not have stopped there. He should have said that it was lax regulation, loose enforcement and poor inspection by successive administrations which had allowed them walk off the pitch in the first place.
Pyrite, and its rogue first cousin, mica, are not a recent phenomenon. As far back as 1949, regulations had been enacted which specifically laid down conditions regulating mica content in building materials. Three years earlier, the State had set up the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards. Equipped with scientific and technical laboratories, a particular function of the body was the testing of building materials to ensure their quality and safety.
If anything, the Institute did its work only too well, as far as the burgeoning building industry was concerned. As the frenzy of house building took off, and profits could not be made fast enough, the structures imposed by the Institute became irksome. It was an obstacle to the buccaneering spirit of house building, where a nation’s entire economy came to be sustained on the shaky premise that we could go on forever building houses for each other.
By 1988, the Institute’s scientific and testing laboratories were closed down and, as befitted the mood of the time, a more light-touch era of regulation of building materials and construction standards was put in place. By the early ‘90s, the task of inspecting the quality of new houses was devolved to local authorities; new powers would allow county councils to test and inspect any building works, and to prosecute if necessary.
It was a task for which the local authorities were singularly ill equipped. In a decade of boom which saw 700,000 new homes and apartments being built, they were playing catch up. A subsequent report said that the councils only acted on foot of a complaint, and relied on the  hope that the threat of spot checks would be enough to keep builders on the straight and narrow.
Worse was to come, and by 2014, although more building controls were put in place, the concept of self-certification was introduced, whereby a new build would be signed off by a certifier who, more often than not, was employed by the builder himself.
The saga of lax accountability goes a long way to explain why blameless and innocent victims now find their homes crumbling around them. It explains why, a decade ago, the residents of Priory Hall in Dublin saw their homes falling apart in front of their eyes. And of how forty newly built primary schools, the work of one Tyrone company, were discovered to be seriously defective a month before they were due to open.
But it still fails to explain why block suppliers, builders, mortgagors, engineers and insurance companies have not been brought to book for the €3 billion redress bill which is now in the lap of the taxpayer. (For good measure, we were treated to the risible lament from one of their number that the regulatory regime, unfortunately, had not been tight enough).
In that old familiar twist of the same story which brought us bank bailouts and the rescue of collapsed insurance companies, the taxpayer winds up footing the bill. We have yet to see a single one of the panoply who grew fat on the misery of others brought to justice for the pyrite scandal. Nor are we likely to do so.