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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019
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Housing estate where 7 people have died in blazes 'must be brought into new fire safety review'

The new Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has ordered a fire safety review of all multi-story apartments in the State.

Oldcourt Estate, Bray.
Oldcourt Estate, Bray.
Image: Google Maps

A BRAY HOUSING estate where seven residents have died in house fires must be included in the new fire safety review, according to Sinn Féin’s John Brady.

Following the tragedy in Grenfell Tower in London, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy ordered a fire safety review of all multi-story apartments in the State.

However, Brady said all local authority homes should be inspected, not just high-rise buildings.

“For many, these scenes [at Grenfell Tower] were a reminder of similar scenes witnessed in the Oldcourt estate of which there are serious fire safety concerns and since a refurbishment scheme in the estate in the mid-1980s, there have been 15 fires and seven fatalities,” said Brady.

“Despite this, the necessary works to ensure that fire safety measures are put in place in Oldcourt remain incomplete,” he added.

Works were to be carried out in the estate over three phased periods. It’s understood the first two phases are complete, however the third phase is yet to be finished.

There are 69 houses still awaiting completion.

A 2007 independent audit – commissioned by Bray Town Council – identified serious problems in certain homes, with the electrics, lack of fire breaks and the presence of highly flammable bitumen felt in cavities and on the original flat roofs which were retained in attic spaces.

Last year, the Housing Department committed €5.3 million in funding for phase three of the essential works in the Oldcourt.

While there was an initial delay, Wicklow County Council told TheJournal.ie that improvement works have since re-commenced.

The Oldcourt Estate in Bray was built by Wicklow County Council in 1972. A refurbishment programme was later carried by Wicklow County in 1988.

Deaths 

The issue of fire safety in the estate has been constantly raised at local council meetings over the years.

Protests have been held outside local council meetings since Teresa Cahill (27) and her baby son Chris (1) were tragically killed in a fire that destroyed their Oldcourt home in 2001.

In 2012, following a rally of about 50 residents, there were outbursts from concerned residents during a Bray Town Council meeting.

Residents raised concerns that nothing had been down to address the issues highlighted in a fire safety audit report which was commissioned in 2007.

During the 2012 meeting, one resident rose from the public chamber and shouted at the councillors:

You won’t listen. This has been going on for 25 years. We are the people and no one is listening.

The crowd then began to chant: “What do we want? Safer houses. When do we want them? Now!”

Following the high volume of fires in the Oldcourt Estate, Wicklow County Council engaged consultants to carry out a condition survey of houses in the estate and to report on structural conditions, including matters relating to fire safety.

Answering a parliamentary question in 2013, the then-Housing Minister Jan O’Sullivan said the homes had been built “in accordance with the building standards … at that time”.

“Wicklow County Council has advised that the cause of the fires was not attributable to the condition of the houses. While a copy of the report was received in my Department, I understand that details were not released publicly as the report refers to specific properties where deficiencies were observed,” said O’Sullivan.

In 2007, Bray Town Council advised the department that, following a house survey, a fire audit report was compiled which recommended that certain improvement works be carried out.

“On 12 December 2007, my department advised the Council that proposals for the works should be advanced as a matter of urgency and included in the Council’s improvement works programme for 2008 and funded out of Internal Capital Receipts,” O’Sullivan told the Dáil.

90427089_90427089 Sinn Fein TDs Carol Nolan, John Brady and Donnchadh O Laoghaire. Source: Leah Farrell

Ten-year wait

However, some 10 years later, Brady said the works are yet to be completed.

“It was a damning audit. Yet, 10 years later, the necessary works have not been fully carried out. This is unacceptable in the extreme,” said Brady.

In July 2012, a range of improvement and retrofitting works, which included a suite of remedial works to include energy enhancements and fire safety improvements, were ordered to be carried out on local authority owned houses in the Oldcourt Estate.

Brady said the remedial works should also be carried out to privately owned houses in the estate, as they were bought from the council “in good faith”.

One of the major concerns from residents is the use of bitumen felt material in the roof.

The 2007 report stated the bitumen would result in an increased fire loading in the event of a blaze which would increase the heat and smoke production allowing it to spread through wall cavities. It recommended all the houses be rewired and the bitumen contained in the walls and in the attics be removed.

At a meeting in 2012, the town engineer was asked why the council was not removing the bitumen felt from the roof.

The town engineer said they had got an opinion from a fire expert who stated that “the presence of oxidised bitumen in fabric has been a feature of domestic and commercial construction as a result of climatic conditions in Ireland”.

Its use both predates the building regulations and continues to be permitted under the technical guidance of the building regulations system.

He said the presence of felt for the external wall construction and for the attic space are quite different situations and it is not appropriate to lump the two situations together in terms of fire safety and fire spread adding that “bitumen felt is considered acceptable even for currently built attics and fire safety technical guidance permits the presence within a pitched roof space”.

The council later did a u-turn, committing to remove the old flat roofs and felt.

Oldcourt roofing 1 Material removed from the roof in 2012. Source: John Brady

Works to be carried out

Five years later, improvement works on the houses are still ongoing.

Wicklow County Council said works under the Oldcourt Energy Efficiency programme have re-commenced and the timeframe for completion of all remaining 69 houses is 18 months.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the council said:

Contractors are on site since the end of May and carrying out works at present to 10 properties. Funding for these works has been obtained from the Department of Housing, Planning and Community and the scope of works is the same as that carried out in phases one and two.

File Photo Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has said the Government is going to miss its deadline of 1 July for moving homeless families Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. Source: Leah Farrell

This week, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy detailed his re-appraisal plans on fire safety in Ireland in the wake of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London.

The task force to carry out the review consists of senior representatives from the National Directorate, Building Standards and Social Housing Divisions of the Minister’s Department, in addition to the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) and the Chief Fire Officer, Dublin who is also Chair of the Chief Fire Officers Association.

Murphy said he has directed all local authorities to review fire safety in the multi-storey social housing sector and to report back to him by 19 July.

In addition, his department is to meet with the local authorities’ chief fire officers in the coming weeks to review current activities and to plan for further fire safety initiatives in prioritised areas of action.

Further calls for action

On Friday, Siptu urged the minister to meet with fire representatives in relation to the necessary changes to fire safety operations needed following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Division organiser John King said he has requested two meetings with the minister since the fire in London.

“I note that in a media interview on Wednesday (28 June), Minister Murphy stated that the Grenfell Tower disaster is going to change how authorities in Ireland deal with fire safety. The Dublin Fire Brigade Chief Fire Officer has also said that the Grenfell incident must be a game changer for the Fire Service operations,” he said.

“It is essential that the views and the experiences of frontline fire fighters are fully taken into account when reviewing the operation of fire safety. Fire fighter representatives have for some time been calling for a programme of risk assessments to be undertaken concerning responses to serious and complex fire emergency incidents,” he added.

While welcoming the government’s commitment to a review of all multi-storey residential buildings in the State, Brady said older buildings which were later refurbished under government or local schemes, such as the Oldcourt case, must be thoroughly examined for adequate fire safety standards.

“I have sent correspondence to Minister Eoghan Murphy requesting that these homes come under his proposed review. There can be no excuses used by government when it comes to the safety of all citizens in their homes especially, on financial grounds.

“Whatever funding is required to ensure that all necessary works at Oldcourt are completed, including works in privately owned homes must be secured,” concluded Brady.

Read: Dublin’s chief fire officer says more resources needed to carry out inspections>
Read:Calls for nationwide fire safety checks after discovery of Grenfell cladding on Cork County Council HQ>

 

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