An unamended Defective Blocks Scheme will be ‘last straw’ says campaigners

The PRO of Mica Action Group that if the government doesn’t take recommendations on board and ‘sticks to the scheme’ published earlier this week, it will be the ‘last straw’ and their TDs and councillors will be told to choose ‘people or party.’
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Michael Doherty spoke to the Journal after the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien TD, received Government approval for the General Scheme of the Remediation of Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill, 2022 on Tuesday.

Minister O’Brien said the general scheme represents significant progress. It includes provision for 100% grants subject to an overall maximum grant of €420,000 per dwelling; grant rates in keeping with the construction cost report prepared by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland; A Government guarantee in regard to remediation works other than full demolition and rebuild (Options 2-5) through eligibility for a second grant if required for a period of 40 years; a revised application process which removes the financial barrier to scheme entry which will only require the homeowner to submit an initial ‘Building Condition Assessment’ at minimal cost recoupable on entry to the Scheme; the introduction of an independent appeals process for applicants with all key decisions under the scheme appealable by homeowners; alternative accommodation and storage costs and immediate repair works to a maximum value of €25,000 within the overall grant cap; The Housing Agency playing a key role and the inclusion of rental properties registered with the RTB on or before the 1 November, 2021, along with exempt development status for remediation works carried out on a like for like basis and the inclusion of Clare and Limerick on the scheme.

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However, Mr Doherty described the published scheme as a ‘disappointment and a ‘missed opportunity.’

Homeowners at a demonstration calling for redress.Homeowners at a demonstration calling for redress.
Homeowners at a demonstration calling for redress.

“They knew exactly what they needed to do. It was tabled for them in black and white. They’ve had it for several weeks and the bottom line is, they came up short again and it is not acceptable as it stands. The only way forward is that we’ve managed to secure an accelerated pre-legislative scrutiny, which takes place on Thursday week, June 23. We expect the recommendations coming out of that to be ready within three or four days after. These will be presented to the Minister, who has to acknowledge it. He can then accept or reject it, but at least in that point in time there will be input and cross examination with the Housing Agency with six different groups.’

The PLS will take the form of three, two-hour sessions, with the first being a presentation from the Housing Department and Housing Agency, where they will be cross-examined by the Joint Oireachtas Committee.

“The second session will be SCSI and we’re expecting them to say they were not told to price for a modern-day house, but for a minimum 15-year-house and that they couldn’t include things like garages, boundary walls, detached garages or finishes - not even a carpet - and that’s the difference on what the government is trying to sell as 100% redress and the true cost of a house. At that same meeting, there will be Engineers Ireland.”

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Michael said some engineers who are very reluctant to sign off on anything but demolish and rebuild “because of the refusal of the department to consider anything other than what is in IS465, which filters out everything bar mica and pyrite. They’re also speaking to homeowners, accompanied by homeowner-invited experts. That gives us a chance to bring in maybe a quantity surveyor, an engineer of our own, maybe a geologist etc.”

The recommendations from these sessions will be documented - and these will be discoverable - which, said Michael ‘leaves the government on the hook.’

“And they will be seen to be rejecting very sound advice, if that turns out to be the case.”

Michael said there are a number of key issues they have been asking for which the scheme does not seem to cover. “There’s nothing allowing for inflation at all. So, we know the cap at 460,000 now protects the same amount of people at the end of November, when it was 420k. There were 18% of our homeowners affected by the cap of 420k. If they stick to the 420k cap, that will now rise to a third of homeowners, who will then have to pay for every square foot after that. If they raise it to 460k, that brings it back to 18% again, so we won’t have gained anything - all we’ve done is hold the position we had back in November.”

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He also added that variable inflation rates through the year need to be factored in. “If you have a rate set by the SCSI, there needs to be an inflation rate factor that will cover you in the year ahead. We know that a month later, prices are out of date, They know this and homeowners are expected to suck it up.”

Another ‘critically important’ issue, Michael highlighted, is that of penalty-free downsizing.

“If the government is going to give you a certain amount of money for your house, based on its size and you’re in a situation where you can’t afford the shortfall -which could be in 10s of 1000s- then you may consider downsizing. We’re saying you should be allowed to keep the grant you were going to get anyway to cover all the true costs of that smaller house. But, they won’t let you. They’ll re-evaluate the grant and you’re still out 10s of 1000s. How do you go to someone and tell them that instead of having to find 70,000 they’re now having to find 50,000. It’s not a solution. The government was going to give you that money anyway, but now see an opportunity to hold it back - just because the homeowner can’t afford to go ahead with the original size of the house. We negotiated what we thought was a position on that and we thought it was coming through. It wasn’t promised, but it was looking strong and was pulled. That was a pathway to 100% redress and if you weren’t prepared to downsize that’s fine,but at least you would have been given a choice. That’s what we wanted to offer everyone - a choice and it’s cruel in my eyes to not give the money in grant form that the homeowner was entitled to, just because they want to downsize their home.”

Michael also outlined how, after PLS on June 23, the process is then presented to the Dail and discussed there. It will be taken through both the floors of the Oireachtas and Seanad and will also be met with amendments, tabled by the Opposition. These will be voted upon. Michael said that if the government does not adopt the recommendations and sticks to the scheme published ‘that is the last straw.’

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“That is when we call out every TD and every councillor that has been associated with these parties and say ... - pick party or people. That is what our campaign will focus on.”

Michael said campaigners are aware that the government is sitting in a ‘vulnerable’ place and how 13 affected counties - the last of which, Leitrim, applied this week to be considered under defective blocks - will be watching. He added how campaigners will be upping the ante in the next few weeks to keep the issue in the public eye and ‘will be looking at imaginative ways of keeping attention on this to ensure we shame every person that turned their back on their people.’

“And, if they’re the strong, silent type, by default it means that you’ve gone with your party. If you say nothing, you’ve already declared your side as far as we’re concerned. You stand with your people or your party.’ Michael added that the “only way they can avoid walking the plank is if they convince party leaders to do the right thing before it comes up to summer recess - before the government rubber stamps another defective scheme that isn’t fit for purpose.”

Michael outlined how the scheme, as it currently sits, ‘isn’t far away’ from what is needed. “That’s what is frustrating, This was very doable and not at any additional expense.”

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