It's not about building, it's about business

The truth about 'red tape' is that it saves lives and protects rights. To dismiss it as an unnecessary irritation is simply foolish. By Nyder O'Leary.

The events at Priory Hall are about far more than building, if that weren’t important enough. This is a horribly unjust situation for hundreds of people, and looking for villains is the obvious thing to do. It’s obvious that the builders did a perfectly horrible job, and ‘negligent’ seems a mild word based on what we know. But equally clearly, they were allowed to be negligent by the way the Irish building system is regulated.

It’s necessary at this point to do a quick thumbnail of how Ireland polices what gets built in the country, if only because there’s been little enough attempt to explain the situation and a fairly surprising number of references have been made to - say - planning laws, or health and safety, neither of which have anything to do with the situation at Priory Hall.

There are two main strands of legislation pertaining to buildings: there’s the planning process, and there’s building control. The broad thumbnail: planning is there to police what gets built –-how a development fits into the local area (zoning, use, connections to sewers and so on) and what it looks like; building control is concerned with how something is built - it’s the legislation that makes people build things properly.


There are twelve main building regulations - parts A through to M - and the best known is part B (fire). It’s necessary to get a fire safety certificate before starting to build at all (except for houses, which are exempt from this process, although they still have to comply with the regulations).

So. Did Priory Hall comply with its planning permission? Probably, but this isn’t relevant to the current situation.

Does its design comply with building regulations as regards fire safety? Almost certainly. The building wouldn’t have got its certificate otherwise.

And the big one; was it built in accordance with building regulations pertaining to fire, or indeed anything else? No, it definitely wasn’t.

How could that happen? Because no-one checked. This was reported by the Indo as if it were a great revelation, but they missed the point: it isn’t anybody’s job to check. Sure, fire officers ‘may’ check under the legislation, but there’s no requirement for them to do so. And by and large, they don’t.

Ireland has an official self-certification system. There’s no Building Control Guy who shows up every now and then to see everything is in order (as there is in the UK). There are so few spot-checks carried out in this country that there might as well be none. There’s… well, nothing at all. It’s essentially like having a legal system but no policemen; in fact, the most difficult thing to explain about the whole Priory Hall affair is how Building Control found out there was anything wrong in the first place.

There’s been a bit of talk about the certification, so this should also be clarified. All that happens in this process is that a suitably qualified person (and the list of acceptable qualifications is a broad one) walks around a building at the end of a job, then produces a certificate to state that - to the best of their knowledge – the building is compliant. At that stage most defects are hidden, so regardless of who does them, these certificates are almost worthless – and even these aren’t lodged with the State. If banks, solicitors and insurers didn’t demand them, most developers probably wouldn’t bother producing them at all.

In summary, the building industry in Ireland has, for decades, been almost completely unpoliced. Priory Hall has been a disaster waiting to happen for some time, and most people in the building industry will tell you that it’s probably far from the only one. It’s just the one that happened to get caught. The issue of non-compliance in Ireland is endemic.

So why do we have a system that’s so obviously open to abuse? I mean, seriously – a lot of knowledgeable, well-paid advisors of all stripes must have looked at this legislation, and they decided the best thing was to let the building profession police itself? How did that happen?

The Building Control Act dates from 1990. Before this, there were a few local building by-laws, but nothing else. The notion of regulating buildings was comparatively new; the industry didn’t trust book-learning. And in 1990, Ireland wasn’t in good shape. Unemployment was at 17%; the national debt was one of the favourite themes of public discourse. There’s a lazy-minded tendency amongst some commentators to talk as though the country spontaneously turned around after Italia ‘90, but it wasn’t actually like that, and only professional talking heads could believe otherwise.

At the time, government was doing it all it could to generate recovery. So how exactly would it – against this background - have gone about introducing a regime where builders had to submit drawings demonstrating that they complied with all twelve building regulations? How would it have played out if Building Control officers regularly appeared on sites and stopped work that didn’t comply? If councils had to inspect and police every building in the country?

Badly, let’s say. And let’s also imagine what those counter-arguments would be. Huge government inefficiency; extra time and cost; red tape; that old favourite of those who hate regulation: ‘bureaucracy’. And yes, establishing a procedure where the state examines buildings to ensure its laws are complied with would be enormously expensive. They did it in the UK, but no doubt there was a certain amount of pride in Ireland’s leaner, more dynamic solution.

Does any of this sound familiar yet?

The grand lesson of the Priory Hall situation (if indeed you need a lesson, in a story that has already left hundreds of people homeless and comes the with near-certainty that many other buildings are in as bad a condition) is that, whenever the great monolith that is ‘business’ complains about being over-regulated, or wrapped up in red tape, then… well, at least cast a sceptical glance in their direction.

The narrative of ‘bureaucracy’ is beginning to surface here - it always surfaces during recessions, when margins are squeezed and the focus shifts increasingly to Getting The Economy Moving. Business needs to be freed up from red tape; bureaucracy needs to be cut. Enough with this obsessive regulation!

After the Conservatives came to power in the UK, they instituted a programme whereby owners of ordinary businesses - they love that chat - could tell them about the red tape that needed to be done away with. The overwhelming winner was health and safety, so glibly demonised by the same party (and right-wing press) that they happily talk about faceless bureaucrats without having the slightest idea what they actually do. Health and safety, those laws that have brought nothing but trouble - with their break entitlements for employees; requirements for decent places of work; standards for sanitation; their demands for clean drinking water and comfortable desks, chairs and equipment…

And that’s even before you look at the huge falls in construction related deaths and serious accidents since its introduction. There are hundreds of thousands of people walking about in Britain and Ireland who, were it not for Health and safety, would be confined to a wheelchair. Or dead. The occasional pointless seminar is a small price to pay.

That’s the reality of red tape.

People who run businesses have a difficult job, and it’s not surprising they see such things as a pain. However, it’s these ‘pains’ that protect those with the least power. Many people tell us that we should trust the business community, with its respectability, to do the right thing anyway. They tell us the market will punish those who don’t.

They’re foolish, and they’re wrong. The proof is 250-strong, in a hotel in Drumcondra; evicted from their homes, cheated and forsaken. Not by a discrete, walled off phenomenon like ‘cowboy builders’ or ‘developers’. By businesspeople.


 Image top: Julia Manzerova.