Donegal County Councillors have united in their call for a 100% redress scheme for Mica homeowners.
The Mica Redress Scheme commanded almost the entirety of today’s meeting of Donegal County Council, with standing orders suspended to dedicate time to the urgent issue.
Mica was declared a ‘national emergency’ by Cathaoirleach Rena Donaghey, who expressed full support for 100% redress.
Councillors set out the key issues they have with the inefficient scheme, which they say can be fixed ‘with the stroke of a pen’ by government.
Stories of the human tragedies behind the crumbling homes were shared at the virtual meeting. Councillors told of the heartbreak, embarrassment and fear that has broken up families and left homeowners in dire financial stress.
All 37 councillors today agreed to campaign for 100% redress and an adjusted scheme.
The issue was described as the biggest crisis that the council will face, but there is hope that change can happen.
“This is a situation that we have to keep the pressure on. If we do, we will get some outcome, and we have to, because people simply can’t afford to do what has to be done to their homes,” said Cllr Martin McDermott, Chair of the Donegal County Council’s Mica Redress Committee.
The key issues raised today were:
Councillors Rena Donaghey and Martin McDermott stated that redress should be calculated by square footage of each home. This method, Cathaoirleach Donaghey said, would make the scheme fit for all.
Councillors acknowledged the rise in cost of building materials in recent years, some up as much as 40%, which the scheme should take into account.
Planning Permission Exemption
Cllr Liam Blaney stated there was ‘no sense’ in homeowners being required to re-apply for planning permission when rebuilding their homes like-for-like. The issue was branded as ‘ridiculous’ by Cllr Gerry Crawford, and unnecessary waste of council resources.
“The planning situation is not going to cost the government any money, there should be an exemption,” said Cllr Paul Canning.
Engineer’s reports are required from all applicants who wish to get started on the redress scheme. Councillors suggested that these costly reports (between €5,000-€7,000 alone) should be covered in the same way as the 90-10 grant allocation with homeowners paying 10%. Cllr Gary Doherty stated that the fees, at present, are “just plain wrong”.
Cllr Michael McBride asked to hold a workshop for all engineers putting applications into Donegal County Council to avoid delays incurred with incomplete applications.
Cllr Noel Jordan and Cllr Jack Murray asked that the council fund a team of engineers to carry out the tests. The suggestion has been put on the table to be raised with the Department of Housing.
One Grant, One House
“We need to remove the one house one grant rule,” said Cllr Jack Murray.
Cllr Murray said the scheme should be changed to allow families to avail of one remedial option and to come back to the table at another time if problems emerge with another part of the home.
Councillors have put forward a call for a public inquiry into the Mica ‘scandal’ as described by Cllr Frank McBrearty.
“In my opinion, the people during negotiations should have been advised not to accept 90-10 and threaten a judicial review.”
An independent judicial public inquiry, Cllr McBrearty said, would expose the root of the matter.
The call was backed by Cllr Jack Murray.
Inclusion of all Properties
Councillors are calling for all Mica-affected buildings, not just homes, to be incorporated into the scheme. Cllr McBride said commercial buildings, public offices, investment properties, agriculture and any other buildings must be included.
The Defective Concrete Blocks Scheme is administered by Donegal County Council, and one change which falls until the local authority’s remit is staffing. Two extra staff were hired this month to work on the backlog of applications.
The council was asked today to seek government funding for staff to be appointed to directly liaise with homeowners applying to the scheme.
Cllr Martin McDermott asked that liaison offices are established in Letterkenny and in Carndonagh to help homeowners get their paperwork together, as a lot of applicants struggle with the PDF format of the forms. This suggestion is set to be explored by the department.
Banks and Insurance Companies
Cllr Liam Blaney told the council he believed one group that is getting away scot-free is the banks. He said that the majority of houses have mortgages and are ‘worth next to nothing’ and will significantly increase in value under the scheme. Banks, he said, should be required by government to help homeowners.
“These are their assets, so why should the banks get off the hook?” asked Cllr Rena Donaghey.
“The insurance companies too – they just walked away and paid nothing,” the Cathaoirleach added, saying that companies should be ordered to pay up.
In relation to banks and government policy, Cllr McBride suggested that the universal social charge should now be used on Mica redress. “The USC was brought in to bail out the banks, and it’s still there, it was due to be withdrawn in 2016, and that didn’t happen.”
“Use that money to fix our Donegal homes.”
Cllr Nicholas Crossan proposed a scheme for vacant homes to be renovated for Mica families to live in while their homes are remediated or rebuilt.
Cllr Crossan said a new scheme would have dual benefits – providing housing and rejuvenating towns and villages.
Social Housing Tenants
Councillors highlighted the concerns of tenants in social houses affected by Mica.
“Where are we going to put these people while fixing these homes?” Cllr Gerry McMonagle asked, suggesting a more robust housing programme is needed.
Cllr Jack Murray said council tenants are living in fear without clarity on where they will live if houses must be demolished.
Mr. Joe Peoples, Director of Housing, told the meeting that over 30 vacant houses with Mica have been tested and work is underway to develop costings. This exercise will inform a template on costings for works on council housing stock.
Cllr Jack Murray asked that the process could be streamlined for testing through the council.
“From this meeting today, a message needs to go loud and clear to our Oireachtas members,” said Cllr Martin Farren.
“We have five Oireachtas members representing this county, they have the power and the clout to go into the Minister (for Housing) and demand 100% redress,” he said.
The Mica Redress Committee is awaiting a reply from a request for a meeting with the Minister for Housing. The meeting would be attended by a cross-party delegation of council members and Donegal Oireachtas members. The unanswered request is set to be followed up on tomorrow.
“We can speak all we like here but the power is in Dublin at the end of the day,” said Cllr Farren.
Cllr Ian McGarvey added his view that the council meeting was “like a wedding without the clergyman present” as the one place where the issue can be resolved is in Dail Eireann.
Councillors agreed that pressure should be maintained on the government to take heed of their suggested solutions to the scheme.
‘This scheme can work’
“If anomalies are taken out, this scheme can work, but the Government must and the Minister must make that happen,” said Cllr McDermott.
John McLaughlin, Chief Executive Officer of Donegal County Council, said that the local authority will not reject the current Mica redress scheme until another scheme is put in place.
Mr McLaughlin acknowledged that most of today’s key issues fall under the government’s remit, but that the council will work on the strands that come under its authority, and that the cooperation of councillors today will help the success of their call for adjustments.