Wednesday, 11 May 1955
Dáil Éireann Debate
“If he is aware of the grave dissatisfaction that exists among ratepayers in Buncrana because large sums of money allocated for the repair of the houses at Maginn Avenue were not utilised to the best advantage, and, if so, if he will have the matter investigated.”
“I am aware that some dissatisfaction has been expressed by the ratepayers in Buncrana regarding the cost of acquisition and repair of houses at Maginn Avenue, Buncrana. I have received no evidence of unnecessary  or wasteful expenditure from local funds on this project, which would warrant a special investigation.”
First of all, I should like to give a history of these houses. There are 26 houses concerned altogether and they were built 56 years ago. The cost of erecting 11 of those houses was £50 each and the other 15 were erected at a cost of £75 each. The urban district council purchased the houses for a sum of £70 apiece. In that regard I do not agree with the Parliamentary Secretary's suggestion that there was dissatisfaction at the purchase price of the houses. There was no such dissatisfaction. Nobody could be dissatisfied at the expending by the urban district council of £70 apiece on houses.
The trouble did arise, however, when the urban district council carried out a programme of repairs to these houses. I am not quite sure of the total sums expended on the repairs, but I do know that the amount of money was very high. I also know that the same amount of repairs was not done to each house—there was more money spent on some houses than on others. The tenants thought that as the amount of repairs done was small the amount of an increase in their rents would also be small, that it would be in relation to the sum expended per house. It is also suggested that full value was not got for the amount of money that was put into these repairs. I know of one case where a tenant ensured that as little as possible would be done to his house in the line of repairs; he went to the trouble of seeing to it that his own range and fire places were put in because he thought that would keep down the total cost of the repairs to his house.
When the rents were being assessed they were in three categories and in one of these categories there was only a house or two, with the result that we had two classes of house and the total sum expended on repairs to these two classes was averaged over all, irrespective of whether the repairs had cost much or little. The cost was evenly distributed over all the houses in these two classes. One of the  tenants whom I know can vouch for it that the sum expended was much more than what he reckoned it would be.
Mr. Cunningham: No, but he is a tradesman who watched the work going on and who watched every item that went into the repairs of these houses. One does not have to be an engineer to arrive at the figure for the work and the materials when one knows the cost of these items. That is our grievance and I am trying to get the Minister now to settle the responsibility for the wastage of money on these repairs. That is why I put down this question and that is why I went to the trouble of having it raised on the Adjournment. I want to see that the ratepayers of Buncrana are not saddled with a debt for the incurring of which they had no responsibility.
The original rents of these houses were 2/- and 2/6 per week before these repairs were carried out. The rents now, after the repairs, are 11/-, 14/-and 16/- a week despite the fact that a meeting which took place between the urban councillors, the county manager and representatives of the tenants decided to settle for what amounted to a reduction in rent of 4/-per house. The nett result is that not alone have the tenants to pay rents which are out of all proportion to either the purchase price of the houses or the amount of money which properly should have been expended in repairing them, but the ratepayers are saddled with a burden which amounts to 8d. or 10d. in the £ because a job was badly done and money was spent which should not have been spent.
Everybody in Buncrana, ratepayers, tenants and the general public, will tell you that this was a useless and wasteful spending of public money. I am asking the Minister now to investigate this matter with a view to placing the blame wherever it should lie. In the Local Government Act of 1953 a clause was inserted to deal with any cases of this kind that might arise. I do not know whether that clause was inserted before this particular job was done.
Mr. Cunningham: This clause in the 1953 Local Government Act prevents the tenants going into court and having a fair rent fixed in court. Up to this they had been legally advised that they had a very good case and that they could have a fair rent decided. Now they cannot. They are prohibited from doing so. I want the Minister to hold an investigation, to have the sums of money which were expended on each house looked into and to have assessed from the present appearance and structure of each house the sum that was likely to have covered that. He certainly will find a very big gap between the amount which is said to have been expended and the return given for that. I think it is unfair that the same sum should be levied on houses the repair of which did not cost  the same amount of money as the repair of other houses.
This may not seem an important matter but there are 26 houses involved, 26 families. If those thrifty people buy out these houses, which they are anxious to do, the sum they will have to pay is excessive. It will be in accordance with the rents. There would be no inducement to them to buy houses which cost the urban council originally £70 but which will now cost the tenants £700.
Mr. O'Donnell: It is but right that I should give the history of this housing scheme. There were 26 houses at Maginn Avenue, Buncrana, and they were owned by a private individual. As Deputy Cunningham rightly stated, they were built a good many years ago. The rents were practically nominal, again as Deputy Cunningham says, amounting to 2/- to 2/6 per week. Unfortunately, the landlord effected very little repairs to the houses down through the years and they had fallen into a very bad state of disrepair.
Some time in 1948 a notice was served on the landlord, in accordance with Section 19 of the Act of 1931, requiring the landlord to carry out certain repairs to the houses. The landlord refused to carry out the repairs. She said the rent was not an economic rent, that she could not carry out the repairs. Here the council were faced with a dilemma. They had no authority to carry out the repairs themselves. The only thing they could do was to serve a demolition order and, if the houses were not pulled down, they could pull them down and charge the cost to the landlord, who did not reside in the locality—I say that subject to correction.
If the council had served a demolition order and had pulled down the houses they would be faced with finding accommodation for the 26 tenants. In other words, they would have to build 26 houses at an approximate cost of £1,000 to £1,250 per house.
I am a believer in democracy. I am a believer in leaving it to the local authority to decide. In December, 1948, the local authority decided that the best thing to do was to buy the houses at a nominal value from the  landlord and to effect the repairs themselves. They sought permission from the then Minister to buy the houses at a nominal value of £70, I think it was, and they sought permission to put the houses into a fair state of repair. This sanction which the local authority, the elected representatives of the people of Buncrana, sought, was gladly given and freely given to them by the then Minister for Local Government. They proceeded to execute what they considered were the repairs necessary to put the houses into a proper state of repair.
The local authority proceeded to put the houses into what they considered was a reasonable state of repair. Some person had to pay for the repair of the houses. As the law stood at that time, the tenants' rental could not be increased. No matter what repairs were carried out, the rent had to remain at 2/- to 2/6 per house and some person had to bear the cost of the repairs.
My predecessor, Deputy Smith, introduced a Bill which became an Act which permitted the increase of the rents, thereby saving the ratepayers. As I said, that Bill went through this House. The House did not divide on the particular section and it became law and the rents were then increased or proposals to increase them were made, bringing the rental up to a differential of 10/10 to 17/3 plus poor rates.
In or about that time, Deputy Cunningham, who had the ear of Deputy Smith, then Minister for Local Government, supported the ratepayers in demanding then what he now demands from me. Despite the fact that he was a yes-man for the Minister—he admitted himself a few moments ago that he voted for the section and the Bill without knowing what was in it, as he was a yes-man for the Minister— the Minister in his wisdom refused to listen to his pleas and refused him a public inquiry and refused an investigation,  because we are believers, or rather I am, in democracy.
I believe that if the local authority want to do a thing and if they are the freely elected representatives of the people, then they should be permitted to do it. That is the reason why I introduced into the House the County Management (Amendment) Bill to enable local authorities to get away from the restrictive control of both managers and Ministers and to do what they want to do.
I must say, in fairness to my predecessor, that he introduced a Bill in or about the same time giving to the local authorities some of the powers which I am now giving to them in the Bill before the House. Despite that, Deputy Cunningham wants to have it hot and cold. Whenever an action of the local authority hurts he holds up his hands and says: “Minister, intervene and hold an investigation.” But as soon as the Minister intervenes in some cases he holds up his hands again and says: “Keep out. Why not leave it to the local authority?”
Mr. O'Donnell: Yes, or frustration as it is usually called. I am sorry for the unfortunate tenants. I am sorry for the ratepayers but I would be more sorry were the ratepayers saddled with the cost of building 26 new houses at a cost of £1,000 or £1,200 apiece. I would be very sorry indeed to see not only the local authority, but the State saddled with the building of new houses to house these unfortunate tenants. Remember Buncrana is not a precedent. The buying of old houses has been carried out in other towns, in Portlaw, in Waterford and in Gorey and carried out satisfactorily.
Mr. O'Donnell: Does he not know they were built by direct labour? Does he blame the decent workmen? He does. He blames the decent workmen of Buncrana. I am surprised because we have as fine workmen in Buncrana as there are in any other place in Ireland. I am ashamed that Deputy Cunningham would come in here and blame the decent workmen of that place for doing an inefficient job.
Mr. O'Donnell: Is the Deputy a contributor to the People's Press? I congratulate him. It is the best read paper in Donegal. Whom does the Deputy blame? Remember your predecessor, the man whose ear you had, refused to inquire into this matter. Do you blame these decent workmen? The job was done by direct labour, there was no contract. Do you blame the decent engineer who was in charge? I pose these questions to the Deputy, but he will not answer. I am afraid I cannot go further.
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