HIGH SPIRITS Members of North Mayo Pyrite Group including Martina Hegarty (second from left) with Sinn Féin representatives at the protest in Dublin on Friday, October 8. Pic: Paul Reardon
The saga of the homes built of ‘Weetabix blocks’
The plight of homeowners whose houses have been affected by pyrite has been high on the news agenda for months now. But the saga has been running for years.
For the best part of a decade some homeowners in Mayo have been complaining that walls in their houses have been cracking. Initially a small number of homeowners in the Erris area began to see the impact in 2013, and gradually, the problem became apparent throughout Erris and across Mayo. Now, many hope the scandalous situation might finally moving towards a conclusion.
Today, two key players tell their stories to The Mayo News: Cllr Gerry Coyle, who has been highlighting the scandal since the first cracks began to appear, and Martina Hegarty, a member of the North Mayo Pyrite Group.
Cllr Gerry Coyle
It’s a long time since we set up the Mayo Pyrite Group in the hotel in Geesala six or seven years ago. The only politicians there that night were myself and Rose Conway Walsh, but in fairness we had apologies from Ring, Kenny, Dara [Calleary] and Michelle Mulherin.
To be honest, I didn’t believe it myself when a man came to me the first day ever telling me about this thing he had in his walls. I went back to see his house, behind Belmullet, and I couldn’t believe it. His walls were cracking and crumbling … I had never seen anything like it.
I contacted Minister Phil Hogan and others in various departments, and they couldn’t believe it. In fairness, without the people of Belmullet raising this issue, it would never have come to the fore.
I’m often asked why is it only the houses in Mayo and Donegal that’s impacted so badly, and I tell them pyrite or mica doesn’t know anything about geography. It doesn’t know there’s a border between Mayo and Roscommon or one between Donegal and Leitrim. The only reason we’re hearing about it is because the people of Mayo and Donegal spoke up.
The homeowners in Mayo and Donegal are prominent because they opened their mouths and the first ones to speak up were the people in Belmullet who came to me when their homes started falling apart.
This took a long time to get noticed, and I don’t mind saying I had very little support from anyone at any level when I brought it up first. I’d bring it up at council meetings and they probably thought I was mad, talking about houses cracking and falling down, but now they know.
There are a lot of people at protests now and a lot of talk around the whole thing, but I remember the first protest when there were two people at it. Two people protested outside the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Castlebar in 2015 – two people!
Only for the people of Belmullet and Donegal speaking up there would be no scheme at all. Everyone welcomed the 90 percent redress when it came because before that we had nothing. I always say 90 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.
The comparison between what happened in the east of the country and what’s happening here is completely [wrong]. In the east, the problem was with stone in the subfloor – actual stone, but here the problem is with a product that was manufactured and put on the market. It’s a different thing entirely. The actual price of those repairs [in the east] ranged from €44,000 to €66,000, which wouldn’t do a lot for homeowners here. A lot of people talk about things without actually having facts to back them up.
We must remember that we’re not knocking houses, we’re knocking homes. The memories in our homes are priceless, and if people got 200 percent redress it wouldn’t get those memories back. A family home is special, and it annoys me when people talk about them as if they’re just walls and floors and a roof.
This is a fraud, this is a scandal. I’ve worked with people for years to try and solve it. It’s moving towards a conclusion now, hopefully, but there will be ups and downs along the way before it’s finished.
Martina Hegarty, North Mayo Pyrite Group
In the last few weeks, since the working group concluded we’ve been waiting for a response from the Government as to what the next step will be. We knew there would be very little progress in the budget, because they had indicated that.
We don’t know when we’ll get a response. In all of the communications coming from Government bodies, they keep saying ‘a couple of weeks’, but that’s wearing a bit thin now. They have been dropping a lot of hints around legislation, but nobody knows what area this legislation is for.
We don’t know whether they’re trying to move this to the Housing Agency in full, which would be great. There is a recommendation from the homeowners to move the project in its entirety to the Housing Agency for an end-to-end process, but the civil servants recommended to the working group that the Housing Agency just take over the testing phase.
That would then mean a reduction in the cost of getting onto the scheme, because they would get an engineer to take over and do all the testing and paperwork, but they would then hand it back to the county councils and the homeowners again.
This is a concern for us because when they’re only looking at one section of it there’s a suspicion that they’ll be looking for the least-cost option, which would be addressing the outer-leaf or the inner-leaf of the property rather than the entire rebuild, which the vast amount of homes impacted actually need.
It’s a waiting game. A very small number of homeowners are progressing their situation to Stage One, which is the very initial phase, but anyone looking to move to Stage Two – which is having their home demolished or anything like that – have been pretty much stalled.
Five or six homes in Mayo have been knocked at the moment, and there is another set to come down at the end of the year, but apart from that, nobody else is moving because they’re waiting to see what will happen from the Government side of things.
This will cause even more problems because the longer people wait the more expensive things will get with materials and the likes.
I’ve heard some people in the media nationally questioning the large number of homeowners getting on this project and they’re talking through their hat. Nobody wants to be on this unless they really have to be. When I applied at the end of May my application number was 93. My neighbour applied last week and her number is 116. That’s a very small number of families in the great scheme of things.
What are pyrite and mica?
Pyrite and mica are naturally occurring minerals found in building blocks. Too much Pyrite causes the blocks to absorb water, which ultimately causes them to crumble. Blocks highly exposed to the prevailing weather start to deteriorate faster than those that are sheltered.
Mica/Pyrite Action Group spokesperson Michael O’Doherty said they are known locally as ‘Weetabix blocks’.
“Without exaggeration, once the plaster’s removed you can disintegrate the blocks with your bare hands, and that’s what homeowners are living in right now,” he said.
What parts of Ireland are affected?
Mayo is at the centre of the pyrite problem, while Donegal is the epicentre of the mica saga.
The Department of Housing now estimates that 6,600 homes may require remediation works as a result of defective concrete blocks.
This figure includes the potentially eligible private homes in Mayo and Donegal, as well as 1,000 social homes and an estimate for homes in other local authorities that may come into the scheme.
When were these houses built?
According to the action groups, homes built as from 1980 up until 2011 may be affected.
What is being done for impacted homeowners?
The current Defective Concrete Blocks Grant Scheme, which was introduced last year, covers 90 percent of remedial costs. However, in order to apply for redress, homeowners have to pay between 25,000 and 28,000 for specialist tests to prove their houses were built with defective blocks.
The current scheme provides grants of 90 percent of the maximum approved cost or 90 percent of actual cost of the qualifying works, whichever is the lesser. The maximum approved cost of a partial rebuild (demolishing and rebuilding the outer leaf of affected walls only and re-rendering) is 255,000, while the maximum cost of demolition and rebuild is 2275,000. The maximum payout is therefore 249,500 and 2247,000, respectively. (There are also three tiers between these two extremes for which homeowners may apply.)
Campaigners have criticised the scheme for not factoring in other costs, such as rent, planning permission, structural drawings and engineer’s fees.
What are impacted homeowners now campaigning for?
Homeowners are lobbying for a ‘fair and workable’ redress scheme from the Government for all homeowners whose houses are affected by defective blocks to ensure that their homes are safe, insurable, saleable and have long-lasting good maintenance.
They are also asking for an independent public inquiry to determine how defective blocks were allowed to occur and enter the market place.
Is 100 percent redress likely?
A decision on redress is expected in the coming weeks, when a memo will be brought to Cabinet. Senior Government figures have said more will be done to solve this issue.
Last week, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said he will not delay introducing a significantly enhanced redress scheme to deal with what he termed an ‘absolute tragedy’.
Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue, said he is committed to 100 percent redress, adding that he is ‘really confident’ of a good outcome.
Last month, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that ‘good progress’ is being made on the compensation scheme, but said that it is complex because there are different house sizes involved.
How much is it likely to cost the State?
A recent draft report carried out by a working group on the defective concrete blocks grant scheme found that the scheme could cost up to 2400 million for the pyrite scheme and 23.2 billion for the mica homeowners. The draft report was delivered to Government on September 30.
The working group, set up by Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, put the current cost of the scheme at 21.4 billion. The higher figure reflects the estimated costs when final submissions are in and changes to the scheme are included.