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Explainer: Mica, crumbling blocks and the campaign for 100% redress

Government plans to deal with the issue are likely to be tabled in the next fortnight.

mica-homeowners Mica-affected homeowners outside Leinster House today. Source: PA Images

CAMPAIGNERS FOR REDRESS for mica-affected homeowners have been protesting outside Leinster House for weeks. 

They have even brought their campaign to New York while Taoiseach Micheál Martin was there on UN duty last week. 

Now, the government has received a report from the working group which has been examining the mica issue and the options for redress. 

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien is set to examine the report with a view to bringing proposals to Cabinet next week or the following week. 

It remains to be seen whether the proposals will be the beginning of the resolution for the homeowners, with campaigners nonetheless planning a large protest in Dublin on 8 October. 

So where are we on what campaigners want and what is the government saying? 

The Mica controversy explained (again)

In June, we published a separate explainer outlining what the controversy is all about and what was happening with the affected homes. 

What it boils down to is the presence of a natural mineral, muscovite mica, in the concrete blocks used to build homes.

The presence of mica absorbs moisture, weakens the concrete and causes the cracked and crumbling homes you are likely familiar with from news reports

MICA 103 A defective block at today's Leinster House protest. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

We don’t yet have a definitive figure on how many homes are affected but previous estimates have said that there may be 5,000 to 6,000, primarily in Mayo and Donegal. 

Local authorities from Sligo, Clare, Limerick and Tipperary have also been engaging with the existing Defective Concrete Blocks Grant Scheme suggesting the number is larger.

Four years ago, an Expert Panel on concrete blocks in counties Donegal and Mayo examined the issue. 

Among its findings were that there is a statutory limit on the amount of mica in concrete blocks and that no company should place products on the market unless they adhere to regulations. 

The report also found, however, that building control authorities did not have the technical resources in-house to test construction products which may have been non-compliant. 

In addition, the panel did not consider it was reasonable to expect that the building control authorities could have prevented the problem from occurring.

What about the builders?

One of the issues is that any legal recourse for homeowners would be incredibly complicated due to the various parties involved along the line. 

From builders, to brick supplier, to the quarry, fault could be incredibly difficult to find and prove. 

Speaking today on RTÉ’s News at One, president of the Construction Industry Federation Tom Parlon said that builders can only use the product they are supplied with. 

Builders who build homes they buy products, for example blocks are one of the most basic ones. And they expect that those blocks are fit for purpose. In this particular case that wasn’t the case. The mica is a regional issue it was largely in north Donegal but generally a builder depends on getting product that is fit for purpose.Normally to have a CE mark, or other certification, they all have that now and you’re obliged through all your paperwork that every item that you put into a house or any construction project is fully certified. But that wasn’t the case at the time, the builders depended on buying good quality stuff that was fit for purpose and they weren’t to know at that time either.

Regardless of the route legal recourse could take, any case would take far too long for homeowners who are living in a crumbling home. 

100% redress

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Campaigners argue that, regardless of where the fault lies, they are clearly not the ones at fault.

Instead they argue that there was a lack of regulation and enforcement of existing regulations and that the State bears ultimate responsibility for this. 

They therefore argue that the government, and by extension the exchequer, should foot the bill for a complete repair or rebuild of the defective homes. 

Whether the State can subsequently seek to recoup some of this expense either through legal means or another method, such as construction levies, is a question for a later date.

“We’re doing a lot of work in this space in relation to what legal recourse we’d have against those responsible. I don’t have that detail yet,” Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien said yesterday. 

Defective scheme

After a long campaign by impacted homeowners, the Defective Block Scheme was opened for applications in June 2020.

It has five options ranging from external wall replacement (€49,500) to full demolition and rebuild (€247,500). The scheme allows owners to claim up to 90% of the cost up to those limits.

The affected homeowners have argued that in many cases the upper limit would not cover the cost of demolition, planning and rebuilding and that they would be on the hook for 10% regardless. 

Homeowners would also be required to to pay €5,000 for a mica test in order to apply for the grant scheme and that this would be a barrier to some struggling families. 

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Enhanced

mica 995 Activist Paddy Diver in a van outside Leinster House today. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

In addition to the costs associated with actually rebuilding their home, families have said there would be additional costs incurred on them, such a renting a home while their house was being repaired or rebuilt. 

For these reasons, the campaign has continued and government TDs from affected areas have been among those to lobby on behalf of a new scheme.

There has even been acknowledgement from ministers that the previous scheme was insufficient.

Last week, for example, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the previously announced scheme “isn’t adequate” and needs to be “enhanced”. Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe used similar language today, saying that any new government scheme needed to be “more comprehensive”. 

The minister in charge of the issue, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, last night said that there needed to be “enhancements to the scheme” as the current one “is not working as originally intended”

O’Brien is to take delivery of the report this evening that is compiled by the Defective Concrete Block Working Group.

The working group includes department officials, mica action group representatives and local authority representatives. O’Brien has acknowledged that there have been “difficult meetings” between homeowners and department officials.

Speaking yesterday, the minister said there has already been a commitment of €1.5 billion from the public purse and that any enhanced scheme will come “with enhanced cost”. 

“There is a monetary cost here that we have to be aware of that can’t be ignored,” he said.  

O’Brien has however been reluctant to state publicly whether there should be a cap on the scheme. 

Over the past 24 hours there have been suggestions that redress could be capped at €350,000 per homeowner. 

This “kite flying” has been criticised by Mica campaign spokesperson Michael Doherty, who told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today that he would be “very, very concerned” if this was the cap placed on any redress scheme. 

Doherty said that such a proposal would “go down like a lead balloon” because it would not provide 100% redress to some 40% of affected homeowners. 

“We have already worked out through the SCSI calculator what it costs to replace the homes that we’ve got, there’s about €40,000 alone of mica-affected costs,” he said.

“That’s in regards to testing, to planning permissions, to the rental accommodation that’s needed temporarily and so on. There’s €40,000 that’s lost to that alone, non-value added to the homeowner.  We’ve been through these figures, these are not high end finishes, these are the absolute basic finishes that are allowed for in that calculator, and the numbers come out that €350,000 will be 40% of our people behind, which is just not an acceptable position.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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