Estimates, 1986. - Vote 30: Environment (Revised Estimate).

Friday, 9 May 1986

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 366 No. 3

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Minister for the Environment (Mr. Boland): Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  I move:

That a sum not exceeding £762,409,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December 1986 for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for the Environment, including grants in lieu of rates on agricultural land and other grants to Local Authorities, grants and other expenses in connection with housing and miscellaneous schemes, subsidies and grants including certain grants-in-aid.

Having taken office as Minister for the Environment just three months ago I am glad to be presenting to the Dáil for the first time the Environment Estimate. By any standards this is an Estimate of major importance, whether in terms of its sheer size or of the nature and range of services it sustains and which affect every citizen in one way or another. The money to be voted by the Dáil in this Estimate will provide, mainly through the local government system, many of the services essential to modern living and economic and social development.

I have come to the Department of the Environment with a keen awareness of the problems but also with a conviction that local government has tremendous [425] potential for improving the way we govern ourselves in the broadest sense. I am now looking forward greatly to the challenge of helping to realise that potential.

In the environment area the period of office of this Government has been one of considerable achievement, notably in areas such as local government reform, housing, road development and fire services.

As Minister, I want to see progress in these and other areas maintained and accelerated where possible. I also want to see appropriate management systems operated in the Department and in the local authorities to ensure that we are getting full value for the vast expenditures being undertaken.

Of the total gross Estimate of £792 million some £591 million is classified as current expenditure and the remaining £201 million will go for capital purposes. Hand in hand with this voted capital expenditure my Department are responsible for non-voted capital expenditure of £440 million. This brings our total capital allocation in 1986 to £641 million which accounts for 38 per cent of the total public capital programme. Therefore, the total expenditure of my Department, capital and current, in 1986 will be approximately £1,232 million.

Of the total Estimate, 57 per cent goes in grants and recoupments to local authorities, another 29 per cent goes to local authorities in loan charge subsidies, 11 per cent is spent on services provided directly by the Department, 1 per cent goes in grants to State, voluntary and international bodies and departmental administration takes the remaining 2 per cent. Therefore, 86 per cent of this money goes to local authorities in one form or another. In addition to this, local authorities will also receive certain funds from other Votes bringing the total of Exchequer funding of local authorities in 1986 up to £762 million which amounts to 65 per cent of total estimated local spending on current account. When one adds to this the capital expenditure financed from the non-voted provisions of the PCP one finds that total local authority [426] expenditure is £1,527 million or almost 10 per cent of GNP. Local authorities are also major employers sustaining about 35,000 jobs in direct employment and a further 8,000 on works carried out for them by private contractors.

This broad overview underlines the economic and social significance of the local government system in terms of resources consumed, employment provided or services made available.

My Department's programmes are major attractors of aid from the European Regional Development Fund and of favourable loans from the European Investment Bank. This year we are determined to continue making full use of the aid available from these sources. Out of a total £80 million allocated to Ireland from the ERDF £60 million will be in respect of the roads and sanitary services programmes.

I will now go on to speak individually about each of the more important programmes funded by this Estimate. In doing so I will endeavour to set out broad policies, to refer to recent or current developments and to outline my objectives for this year in the light of the funding sought.

I turn first to the organisation and operation of the local government system itself, a fundamental reform of which was initiated by the Government last year.

The reform programme for local government published last May outlined the Government's proposals. The aims of this programme were to strengthen and modernise the system, to make it more complete and to improve structures and procedures. Considerable progress has already been made. The Local Government (Reorganisation) Act, 1985, made provision for the introduction of a new system of local electoral areas in counties and county boroughs, for adjustments in the Dublin city boundary and for the definition of three new county areas in Dublin. It made provision also for the upgrading of Galway to the status of county borough and for adjustment in the Galway city county boundary. These matters have now been finalised.

The next stage is to bring the new [427] system of local government in Dublin into play as soon as possible. The new system will comprise the corporation with its adjusted boundaries and three new county councils, as the main local authorities in Dublin having all the traditional functions. There will also be a metropolitan council nominated by the four main authorities.

At the local level, provision will be made for district councils to take care of local matters on behalf of the main authorities to promote suitable community activities and, generally, to bring the system nearer to the people.

The foregoing is the broad outline. I have only recently had an opportunity of looking into the details of the proposals for the new Dublin structures. Work is now going on in reviewing some important aspects of this. I expect that the Bill to give full effect to the new system will be coming forward in the near future. Winding up the affairs of two major local authorities and settling all their business on three completely new county councils is a complex task. Even so, it is my aim that the new system in Dublin will be in place by 1 January next and every effort is being made to achieve that. I hope for the wholehearted co-operation of all involved, elected members and officials in order to achieve what is, I believe, a widely welcomed improvement and overhaul of the local government system for the Dublin area.

We have to look on local government as just that — government at local level. I do not believe that we have ever succeeded in delivering local government effectively or completely in that sense. I believe, for example, that much of the decision-making that is done centrally in relation to various community services could and should be done locally. This would bring benefit not only in terms of greater local democracy but in releasing scarce manpower centrally for more appropriate central tasks. The reforms, therefore, include an ambitious programme of devolution covering various functions in the local government sector. Furthermore, it is envisaged that [428] local authorities should become progressively involved in certain services which are traditionally outside that sector.

The Government have recently reviewed these devolution proposals in the light of developments in the interim and remain committed to the programme outlined in the May 1985 policy statement. Consultations are proceeding with staff interests in relation to the implementation of the decision to devolve the administration of the grants schemes for new houses, house improvements and group water supplies.

Significant changes are also in prospect in the organisation and structures and in the functions and procedures of local authorities generally. Town boundaries are out-of-date in many cases and need to be reviewed. Such a review has various territorial, functional and financial implications and I am examining those at present in order to decide on the most suitable approach to dealing with this problem.

I believe that local authorities can and should play a more creative part in promoting local economic and social development. Democratic local government should have the function and the capacity to act in the public interest in a wide range of matters of concern in a local community. I will be looking closely at the functions of local authorities which have a bearing on these important matters in the course of the reform programme.

Another matter which I am concerned about is the very limited role nowadays of town commissioners and the fact that there is no local government body in many of our smaller towns. The kind of local authority body which I have in mind for these towns is one that would be closely related to the community, that would promote local economic and social improvement, that would undertake the delivery of local services and represent the town interests in dealings with major local authorities and other statutory and private organisations.

It will be clear from what I have said that the approach to local government reform is comprehensive and that there [429] are many facets. It will, therefore, take time to complete this programme but progress has been made and is continuing and this item will remain high in my priorities.

As I said earlier, some two-thirds of all local authority expenditure on current account is funded in one form or other by the Exchequer. A sum of £497 million of this funding comes in the form of subsidies, grants and recoupments for specific services—£419 million through this Vote and £78 million through various other Votes. The remaining £264 million comes as rates support grants in the form of general grants to be applied at the discretion of the authorities themselves. The first thing to be said is that the combined effect of this level of cash support and the complementary set of financial measures will be to effect a worthwhile overall strengthening of the financial position of local authorities this year. I should explain briefly to the House why this is so.

This Estimate includes a sum of £264 million in respect of the combined rates support grants. Although this is nominally less than the corresponding provision in 1985, it does, in fact, represent an increase of 6¼ per cent in the overall financial resources of local authorities when the other three elements of the 1986 package are taken into account.

The first of these elements is the abolition of the levy for the supplementary welfare allowances administered by the health boards. Levies on their finances in respect of national services, over which they have little or no control, has been a constant cause of complaint by local councils for several years past. The levy in respect of supplementary welfare allowances amounted to £19 million in 1985 and had they been in operation this year on the same basis they would have cost local authorities over £21 million. Instead, there has been a corresponding increase in the Social Welfare Estimate from which the grants will be paid direct to the health boards and local authorities have been relieved in full of all costs in respect of this scheme as from January this year. This levy represented the most [430] onerous of the statutory demands. It affected all countries and county boroughs directly and affected urban district councils through the county demand on the urban councils. Its termination represents a major step forward in remedying one of the most widely criticised features of local finance.

The second important aspect of this year's package is the freedom given to local authorities to use a greater proportion of the receipts from the sale of houses for revenue purposes. That measure is intended to make more efficient use of surplus funds held by urban authorities which are not required for specified purposes such as SDA loans. It will place about £16 million more at the disposal of local authorities for general revenue expenditure. I recognise that some urban authorities may experience a temporary cash flow problem because of this and, as they have already been told, the arrangements made in individual cases may be open to review when more detailed information regarding individual local authorities has been obtained and assessed.

The third new element in local authority finance this year will be the commencement of revenue from the farm tax. In deciding on the level of the grant in lieu of rates on agricultural land the Government assumed farm tax receipts of £6 million in 1986. In the longer term, this tax represents an important new source of local revenue which will progressively reduce the dependence of local authorities on the Exchequer and bring more equity into our national taxation system.

The positive impact of this package on the financial resources of local authorities will be significantly enhanced by the favourable trends in the national economy which are becoming more pronounced as the year goes on. In view of their large borrowings, local authorities stand to gain significantly from falling interest rates. For instance, the 3 per cent reduction in the local loans fund rate at the end of last year will save them about £5 million overall this year. Last week's further drop of 1½ per cent in the same rate will have a consequent saving of £1 [431] million this year for local authorities. The falls in the rate of inflation and in energy costs are also bringing substantial benefits to local authorities. Again to give an example—the price of bitumen has fallen by 20 per cent in the last few months and that should have a saving effect of £2 million for local authorities.

Their enhanced financial position in 1986 will enable local authorities to continue and develop the many important services they provide for the community and on which employment and the development of local areas are so dependent.

For the future, I intend to examine the various financial options to ensure a reasonable and efficient flow of funds to local authorities without excessive dependence on the Exchequer. Some of these options have already been examined by the National Economic and Social Council and the Commission on Income Taxation whose conclusions I will bear in mind when reporting to the Government on this matter in due course.

As Minister for the Environment I have a responsibility for monitoring the overall performance of the building industry. There is no point in denying that the industry has been suffering a severe decline virtually since the start of this decade. Output — especially in the industrial and commercial sectors — has dropped steeply and there has been a big shake out in employment in that industry over that period. This has been brought about by the over-supply of building space as a result of the building boom of the late seventies and by the steep downturn in private sector construction investment which resulted from the over-supply and from the severe economic recession. In many sectors the underlying demand for construction is determined by a range of economic, financial and demographic factors which are not amenable to direct Government control.

Last year was the best year for the industry since the present recession began. While there was a further marginal fall in the volume of output it is encouraging to note that by the end of last year, unemployment had stabilised [432] and, indeed, began to show an improving trend in the early part of this year.

This Government have maintained direct public investment in construction via the public capital programme at the highest possible level. Public capital expenditure affecting the industry in 1985 was up by 4 per cent on 1984 and the provision for this year shows a further 3 per cent increase. However, the single most important thing any Government can do for the industry is to implement sound economic policies that restore stability and growth to the economy and promote a climate conducive to investment. With a projected growth of 3-4 per cent in GNP this year and with considerably lower interest and inflation rates, the Government can claim considerable success in restoring a general economic climate favourable to the building industry.

In addition to providing this foundation for improved performance in the industry the Government have over recent times taken a series of important measures which should stimulate activity and allow full advantage to be taken of the more favourable economic conditions. These measures comprise substantial incentives for private investment in house improvements and urban redevelopment, a special investment programme in amenity projects and the curtailment of black economy operations.

I will be coming back to the new scheme of house improvement grants in the context of housing policy but I would mention here that if work proceeds on the applications received to date the value of such work would represent about £250 million and result in 10,000 jobs. I will also be dealing later on with the urban redevelopment incentives and the amenity programme for which provision is made in this Estimate.

The difficulties of the legitimate building industry have been greatly exacerbated over recent years by the extent of “black economy” operations. Being fully aware that these practices adversely affect employment, prevent fair competition and threaten legitimate firms, the [433] Government have taken strong measures to counteract the “black economy”.

Grants under the improvement grants scheme are being paid only in respect of work carried out by registered contractors and this will shortly be extended to the new house grants scheme. The tax clearance certification scheme introduced in 1983 for all public sector supply contracts over a £20,000 threshold is being expanded to include construction contracts, including sub-contracts, and the threshold is being reduced to £10,000. In future, clearance from the Revenue Commissioners will be required before any contractor or sub-contractor may be employed on a public construction project. Arrangements designed to ensure closer co-operation at local level between the Office of the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Welfare are being put in place and the special inquiry units of both these offices are being expanded. Also my Department have circularised local authorities reminding them of their obligations and powers in this regard and requesting them to take action in the matter.

A new provision of £30,000 is included in this Estimate to provide secretarial and research facilities for the proposed Construction Industry Development Council which I am confident will play a useful role in guiding the future development of the industry. The council will be representative of all the principal interests connected with the industry and will have wide-ranging functions related to the performance of the industry. It will, for example, carry out or sponsor, research into such matters as the scope for increasing the industry's efficiency and effectiveness, examine ways and means of minimising undue fluctuations in construction output and provide a forum for regular discussion for the various interest groups concerned with the industry's welfare.

All in all then, there are very good grounds for believing that considerable progress will be made this year towards [434] ending the decline in the building industry.

This Estimate provides a record level of grant and subsidy assistance to private house building. Between the £2,000 grant and the mortgage subsidy a total of £46.5 million is being provided, compared with expenditure of £33.1 million last year which was in itself a record. Last year nearly 11,000 grants were paid, costing over £12 million and the provision of £22 million for this year reflects the increase in the new house grant from £1,000 to £2,000.

The conditions of eligibility for the £2,000 grant were widened during 1985 to admit former tenant purchasers of local authority houses surrendering their house to the local authority under the £5,000 grant scheme. Under the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1985, now before the House the new house grant and the mortgage subsidy will, in certain circumstances, be payable to a previous owner occupier or the spouse of an owner occupier who is in need of housing following marriage breakdown. The £5,000 tenants' grant is also boosting new housing output as over 40 per cent of the beneficiaries are purchasing new houses.

When the previous Coalition Government of which I was a member took office in 1981 we were faced with a situation that, for the first time since 1924, grants were not available for the improvement or conservation of the housing stock. The Government regarded this situation as completely unacceptable and we managed in very difficult budgetary circumstances to introduce a limited scheme of house improvement grants in October 1981. The main emphasis of this scheme was on the provision of basic amenities. We always recognised that the scope and size of the grants should be improved as soon as circumstances permitted and thankfully this has now been possible. The house improvement grants scheme which was announced by the Taoiseach on 23 October 1985 has been an enormous success with demand at an unprecedented level. To date over 70,000 applications have been received.

[435] It is evident from this extraordinary level of interest in the grants that we have a scheme that meets two important objectives at once. It is proving a major boost to the building industry, as I have already said, and it is contributing to the conservation and improvement of the housing stock — a major national asset. I am pleased to note that many of the financial institutions are responding to the demand for additional loan finance to supplement the grants. For my part I have notified local authorities of a doubling in the amount of unsecured loans which they may advance for home improvement — from £1,000 to £2,000. For many householders on lower incomes this will bridge the gap between the cost of necessary home improvement and what they get by way of grant. Of course householders borrowing for house improvements also benefit from tax relief on interest paid.

In order to cope with the volume of applications — which has continued to be away ahead of expectations — we have taken a number of steps to ensure that delays in the processing of applications do not negative the impact of the scheme. When the scheme was announced we immediately took action to increase the capacity of the administrative staff and of the inspectorate. We introduced a bonus scheme for existing inspectors and recalled, in a temporary capacity, a number of experienced inspectors who had retired. We then started the process of recruiting a further 37 temporary inspectors from suitably qualified people who were unemployed. It became clear at that stage that even this would not be enough to prevent a serious backlog of cases awaiting inspection so I decided, as an exceptional measure, to dispense with the prior inspection requirement for all valid applications received in the Department by close of business on 25 February 1985. We wrote to all such applicants telling them they could commence work immediately subject of course to their complying with all the other conditions and inspection of the work on completion. Of [436] course any applicants who still desire an inspection to clarify their entitlements may request one but I wanted to ensure above all——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Is the Minister aware that there is a limit. The Minister is not near the limit yet, but there is a limit of 45 minutes.

Mr. Boland: Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. How much longer have I got?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  The Minister has 23 minutes. I understand you have quite a bit to go yet.

Mr. Boland: Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  I am aware of that.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  Not much further. They are coming to the end of the road.

Mr. Boland: Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  The Deputy is obviously in his usual “constructive” mood. To return to the subject of the volume of applications for house improvement grants, we wrote to applicants telling them they could commence work immediately but also, the situation obtains that any applicants covered by that amnesty who want to have an inspection will have, and are entitled to have an inspection carried out. But I wanted to ensure that applicants who had their contractor on standby and their financial arrangements in hands were not delayed while awaiting inspections. The prior inspection requirement will still be a condition of eligibility for all applications received on or after 26 February. Following a second round of recruitment a further 27 temporary inspectors are being taken on so that I have now more than doubled the complement of inspectors. The indoor administrative staffing has been considerably strengthened at supervisory and clerical levels and 30 temporary clerical trainees have also been assigned to grants work. I am confident that all these measures will ensure the efficient operation of the scheme: nevertheless, I can assure Deputies that I will continue to keep the situation under close review. Finally, I should say that contracts have just recently been placed for [437] the computerisation of the whole system of grant administration.

The £5,000 grant which is available to local authority tenants and tenant purchasers of at least three years' standing who surrender a local authority dwelling and acquire houses in the private sector has proved enormously successful to date. Almost 6,300 applications for the grant were received by local authorities up to the end of March last and over 4,400 have already been approved. It is estimated that some 2,200 dwellings became available for reletting in 1985 as a result of the operation of the scheme and I expect this figure to be exceeded in 1986.

The assured availability of an adequate flow of mortgage finance is of crucial importance to the housing programme and to the ability of our people to meet their aspirations toward home ownership. I am, therefore, pleased to say that in 1985 a record £606 million was lent by all lending agencies for the purchase of over 28,000 houses. Building societies, of course, remain by far the greatest source of funds, accounting for over 64 per cent of all moneys advanced, but I am pleased to note an increase from £30 million to £50 million in lending for house purchase by the Associated Banks, whose share of overall advances, however, remains low at 8.3 per cent. I am satisfied that the supply of mortgage finance from all sources will again be adequate in the current year.

Both the SDA and HFA housing loan schemes continue to play vital roles in bringing home ownership within the reach of households of moderate means who would otherwise be unable to obtain mortgage finance from commercial sources. The Government's commitment to ensuring the availability of such funds is evidenced by the substantial allocations for these purposes in 1986 which together amount to some £167 million. This will finance in the region of 9,700 loans.

A discussion document on legislative and regulatory arrangements in relation to building societies has been published recently. This document suggests significant changes in the scope of building society operations and the regulatory [438] framework within which they operate. The societies play a very important role in the financing of house purchase in the country, and I am anxious that they should be enabled to continue to do so, while expanding their operations at a measured pace into areas which complement their central role. I look forward to receiving the views of the societies and others on the document by the end of this month with a view to making early progress in this important area.

In line with interest rates generally, there were a number of fluctuations in building society interest rates during 1985. By the end of the year the mortgage rate — at 9.75 per cent — had reached its lowest level since 1978. While the mortgage rate increased to 11.7 per cent in February of this year it is still slightly lower than the rate obtaining at the beginning of 1985. Favourable economic trends have allowed the Government to reduce a number of key interest rates including the local loans fund rate. As a consequence, the cost of SDA mortgages taken out on or after 1 May has been reduced to 9.5 per cent, which means a saving of £18 of month on a £16,000 loan. This is an indication of the downward trends in interest rates generally, which have yet to be reflected in the cost of borrowing from financial institutions. Given the favourable trends in the economy, particularly in relation to inflation, it is my hope and expectation that interest rates will soon be brought down to more realistic levels. I would expect the building societies to lose no time in following a reduction in bank rates, thus easing the burden on house purchasers and assisting the building industry.

In the area of local authority housing the Government are entitled to claim credit for their very considerable achievements since taking office. In fact, the perennial local authority housing “crisis” about which so much concern had been voiced over the years, no longer exists.

For years the only solution to the problem of expanding waiting lists of local authorities seemed to be to throw more money into their house building programme. Annual expenditure rose [439] from £70 million in 1977 to £208 million in 1983, in spite of which the numbers on the waiting lists continued to grow. The Government tackled this problem in two ways. First, we introduced improved cost control and cost management which contributed to a significant improvement in the productivity of the programme without adverse effects on standards. Then in the national plan, we introduced the £5,000 grant to encourage local authority tenants to surrender their dwellings and purchase or build their own private accommodation.

The radical effects of these two measures is well illustrated by the fact that the total number housed increased from 7,900 in 1982 to 11,750 in 1985. These 11,750 lettings resulted from 6,523 new houses and 5,227 vacancies including those generated by the £5,000 grant. This year I expect that up to 10,000 more households will be housed.

This transformation in the situation calls for a review of policy on the public housing programme, particularly its direction and extent with special emphasis on avoiding the social problems associated with excessively large estates. I am now engaged on this review.

The largest single subhead provision in this Estimate is £179 million in respect of the 100 per cent subsidy payable to local authorities for capital expenditure on their housing programmes. The 3 per cent reduction in the local loans fund interest rate at the end of last year reduced the 1986 requirement by some £25 million and last week's further cut of 1½ per cent in the rate will save another £4 million. Nevertheless, the 1986 requirement is nearly three times greater than it was in 1980.

The programme of remedial works to defective local authority housing, first announced in the national plan, is now well underway. This year, £5 million has been earmarked for expenditure on remedial works to so called “low cost” houses built in the late sixties and early seventies and to pre-1940 houses suffering from serious structural deterioration. Approved capital expenditure under the [440] scheme is subsidisable at a rate of up to 80 per cent. Because of the large number of proposals received under the scheme it will be necessary to carry out the required work on a phased basis over a number of years, with priority being given to those estates where deterioration is more serious. In the majority of cases, it will be necessary to carry out pilot schemes to ensure that the remedial works proposed are effective in dealing with the problems.

A number of proposals have been approved in principle. A number of other proposals are being evaluated by my technical staff and will be approved as soon as possible. In order to maximise the effectiveness of this scheme provision is also included for remedial works to houses which have been purchased from the local authority in estates qualifying for assistance under the scheme. In those cases a 50 per cent contribution to the cost of improvement works will be sought from the owners of these houses either by way of lump sum, increased annuity or extended annuity period and 50 per cent will be met by my Department and the local authority.

In addition to remedying actual defects in the dwelling I feel that there is scope for the improvement of the general environment in so called “low cost” housing schemes. In order to qualify for subsidised capital, authorities are, therefore, required to carry out some necessary works of an environmental nature. I consider it essential that the co-operation of the residents should be sought in this matter and their involvement actively encouraged. I trust that these remedial and environmental works will have a permanent beneficial effect on the areas involved and that they will solve, once and for all, the long standing problems caused by the provison unfortunately of so-called “low-cost” housing.

The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1985 now before the House provides for additional powers and responsibilities for local authorities in regard to homeless persons. If in the discharge of these responsibilities a local authority provides accommodation from [441] their housing stock to a homeless person the normal 100 per cent subsidy will apply. Also, under the Bill local authorities will be enabled to arrange accommodation for homeless persons with voluntary bodies, provide financial assistance to a homeless person to acquire accommodation or as a last resort, arrange lodgings for a homeless person. Eighty per cent of expenditure by a local authority on any of these options will be recouped by my Department and in anticipation of the enactment of the Bill a provision of £500,000 has been included in subhead D4.

By international standards Ireland has a very extensive road network carrying a very high proportion of national passenger and freight transport. So the transport demands of our economy require a properly planned and adequately funded road development programme. It was in recognition of this that the Government announced a major increase in resources for roads development in Building on Reality. This enabled my predecessor to draw up and publish in January 1985, a new road plan —“Policy and Planning Framework for Roads”. This plan set out a realistic programme of works for the three year period 1985-1987 and a tentative programme for the period 1988 into the mid nineties. It will be reviewed at the end of this year and I would hope to be in a position to publish a further detailed road plan during the first half of 1987.

It follows from the policy objectives of the plan that resources are concentrated on the network of national roads and on major urban roads because these roads carry over one-third of all traffic in the country while accounting for only one-eighteenth of the total road network. In other words, they carry six times the traffic that their proportion of the total network alone would warrant. These routes also provide the strategic core of the network, linking as they do, the main cities, ports and airports and providing access to the regions.

State investment in the roads programme in 1985 totalled £153.5 million [442]— 15 per cent greater in real terms than in 1984. This expenditure enabled the most ambitious road programme ever undertaken by any Government to get under way. Progress on the programme during the past 15 months has been fairly satisfactory. So far, 31 of the 54 projects listed for the period 1985-87 are in progress; a further seven compulsory purchase orders or bridge orders have been confirmed; 11 other public inquiries have been held and, two further inquiries will be held this month.

All but one of the nine projects scheduled to commence in 1985 started during the year and the remaining one, the Blackrock by-pass, will start next September following a recent sanction by me.

The total Estimate provision for road improvement and maintenance works in 1986 is £160 million — 26 per cent up in real terms on 1982 spending. The provision for improvement works is £130.9 million and for maintenance works almost £30 million. Included in the provision of £160.6 million is £910,000 made available by the Government as part of the West Cork package for improvement works on roads in the west Cork area. During the four year period up to 1989 the Government propose to make £6 million available for road works in the area as part of this package.

Major works are in progress right around the country. In the Dublin area work is in progress on by-passes of Chapelizod, Lucan and Tallaght. Elsewhere work is in progress on several major scheme including by-passes of Athlone, Oranmore, Wexford, Askeaton and Midleton; new bridges in Galway, Limerick and Waterford and improvements to the routes linking Cork / Mallow, Limerick/Ballycasey, Browneswood / Edermine, in County Wexford — and the Northern and Southern Ring Roads in Cork. The 1986 provision will facilitate the contintuation of work on all these schemes as well as the start of several new schemes including by-passes of Newbridge, Glanmire, Bunratty, Killarney and Glenmore and the Blackrock by-pass in Dublin.

[443] I consider the proposed Dublin Ring Road to be of special and significant importance not alone to Dublin city itself but also to the country at large since it will provide a far more efficient route around the city for much of the traffic now trundling through the congested city centre. It will be the largest road project ever undertaken in this country and will cost of the order of £120 million. I have recently been reviewing progress and prospects for this scheme and the present state of progress indicates that all sections will be started by 1988. However, because of the importance I attach to this project I am taking steps to see if this target can be accelerated.

As well as increasing State funding of roads, the Government are anxious also to promote private investment in the programme. Early last year private investors were invited to participate and five projects were identified as suitable for tolling. I have to say that the response to date has been somewhat disappointing. One of the projects — the Lucan Road/Navan Road section of the Dublin Ring Road — has been the subject of an investment proposal which has already been approved in principle by the Government. The possibility of attracting private funds for one other project — the Newbridge by-pass — is at present being discussed. Apart from these two projects, however, there have been no other firm approaches in relation to private funding. Ireland's low traffic volumes in international terms tend to limit the scope for private sector investment involving the use of tolls. Because of this the Government have approved the concept of joint venture financing involving the State and private enterprise where projected traffic volumes would not be high enough to justify a fully privately financed scheme. Earlier this week, I outlined a couple of possible new approaches by which more private sector investment might be attracted. I would ask potential private investors therefore to have another look at possible projects in the light of these new elements.

[444] The 1986 road grants include a sum of £20.4 million which has been allocated to local authorities by way of `block grant'. This is 21 per cent higher than the corresponding grants in 1985 which in turn was 10 per cent higher than the 1984 provision. This grant is designed to supplement expenditure by local authorities from their own resources on the improvement, maintenance and management of regional roads, for improvement works on county roads and for the implementation of traffic management measures. My Department will also be paying grants of 75 per cent of the cost of approved improvement works on bridges on the more important county roads.

I would like to refer briefly at this stage to the question of county road maintenance. It has been the practice of successive Governments that local authorities should be fully responsible for maintenance of these roads from their own resources, while central Government concentrated their resources by providing 100 per cent funding of works on national and major urban roads, as well as providing some special grants and a block grant. This is also consistent with the objectives of the road plan. However, I have tried to help the position this year by the increase in the block grant and by introducing the special grants for improvement works to bridges on county roads. Also the improved financial position of local authorities, the reduced rate of inflation — particularly the favourable effect of the drop in oil prices on road making materials and equipment use — should give local authorities some scope for an improvement in the situation regarding the money they can allocate to county road maintenance.

Thankfully in recent years there has been a significant improvement in road safety. The number of road deaths has dropped by 35 per cent from 628 in 1978 to 410 in 1985. Despite the welcome downward trend far too many people are still being killed and injured on our roads and there is still considerable room for improvement. The European Community has designated 1986 as Road Safety Year and this provides an excellent [445] opportunity for a concentrated effort to further reduce the number of road accidents. To mark the year special programmes are being undertaken by the National Road Safety Association featuring seat belts, drink/driving, speed, child safety and safety of two-wheeled vehicles. I am further heartened by the figures for the first quarter of 1986 which show a drop of 23 per cent in the number of road deaths.

Nineteen eighty six also brings further improvements to road safety legislation. Already in force since the beginning of the year are regulations requiring the compulsory fitting of laminated wind-screens in new cars and rear underrun devices and side-guard rails on goods vehicles. Later this year I will be bringing a Road Traffic Bill before the House which will provide in particular for the reduction of the present blood-alcohol limit of 100 milligrammes to 80 milligrammes, thereby bringing us into line with prevailing trends elsewhere in Europe. I intend also to make regulations making compulsory the fitment and wearing of rear seat belts in new vehicles.

Among the measures being taken to aid the enforcement of the law against uninsured drivers are the requirement from 1 July this year that motor vehicles display insurance discs and the entry of insurance details onto the national computerised vehicle file maintained by the Vehicle Registration Unit in Shannon. Options for dealing with the insurance of motor cycle pillion passengers were published for discussion last year and many comments have been received from the general public and motor insurers. These are being considered at present.

Following the recent major improvements to the facilities for the payment of motor tax in the Dublin area, I am examining the feasibility of motor tax renewal at selected post offices. If adopted, this would facilitate motorists throughout the country. I hope to make an announcement in this regard shortly.

The availability of adequate water and sewerage services is another part of the physical infrastructure that is crucial to economic and social development. A [446] well-managed sanitary service programme is essential for the development of our housing, industrial, tourism and agricultural programmes.

The much increased level of investment in sanitary services since 1980 has ensured that the lack of these services will not, in the foreseeable future, act as a constraint on development. At constant prices total capital expenditure in the five year period from 1980 compared with the preceding five years was 66 per cent greater. Since the Government came to power the Department have been able to release many schemes that had been held up previously. Over 180 schemes, at a total cost of £256 million, including many high priority costly schemes, have been completed since January 1983.

That progress has taken much of the pressure off the sanitary services programme and has enabled us to concentrate on other urgent needs. The capital provision of £77 million for public schemes is still quite high by historical standards and I am satisfieid that it will be sufficient to meet existing commitments. Examples of the major schemes being funded from this year's provision are at Ardfinnan, the Tramore river valley, Drogheda water augmentation scheme, Churchfield, Cork, Carlow, Fermoy, Skibbereen, East Inishowen, Kerry, the Upper Liffey valley scheme, Limerick city, Kilmallock, Nenagh and Thurles. On average, the Exchequer subsidy covers 50 per cent of the total loan charges paid by local authorities for borrowings for this. The provision for this subsidy in 1986 is almost £46 million — nearly four times greater than it was in 1980.

As I have said, the sanitary services programme plays a very important role in relation to environmental protection — particularly the aquatic environment. Some time ago the Water Pollution Advisory Council identifed a number of inland water courses where abatement of pollution was required and made recommendations in that regard. I am glad to say that investment in the provision and improvement of sewerage systems and treatment in the past few years resulted in an investment of £43 million last year [447] and has gone a long way to meeting the priorities identified.

Group water schemes have made a major contribution to the extension of water supplies to rural areas. Since the early sixties, piped water has been brought by grant aided group schemes to more than 130,000 houses and associated farms throughout the country. I am pleased to note that the recent decline in grant payments was reversed last year, with expenditure showing an increase of nearly 16 per cent over the 1984 outturn. The 1986 provision of £3.2 million allows for a further 11 per cent increase this year.

There is a danger at Estimates time that environmental matters may not get the attention they deserve because, unlike the traditional programmes, large sums of money are not required for the services concerned. I want to make it clear, therefore, that I attach special significance to the role of my Department and of the local authorities in relation to the natural and the built environment. I regard the environment protection area as one which presents enormous challenges and opportunities and, as Minister, I will be working to ensure that we who live in Ireland and the many foreign tourists who visit our country can continue to enjoy a clean and healthy environment.

The success or failure of those efforts to conserve the environment depends to a great extent on the level of commitment of councils in relation to their arrangements regarding, for example, water pollution. Performance in that regard is uneven throughout the country and there is room for considerable improvement. I intend, therefore, to begin a new drive aimed at ensuring the full and more effective implementation of the 1977 Act in all areas.

The May 1985 programme on the reform of local government contained a proposal to give sole responsibility to councils for water pollution control. I know that generated controversy and I want to make it clear that the proposal did not imply a desire to weaken existing [448] protection arrangements. Instead, the objective was to strengthen existing arrangements by combining all of the resources in a unified way. The Government have recently decided to establish an inter-departmental group to review the implications of the proposal, and I am confident that this study will enable us to devise a package of measures which will enhance existing implementation and enforcement arrangements.

Air pollution is assuming greatly increased importance. Both international and domestic concerns give reason for this. Trans-boundary air pollution — acid rain as it is often called — is a very real problem for many European countries and has prompted the Geneva Convention, ratified by Ireland in 1982, as well as several EC directives.

On the domestic front, we have become more aware of the potential dangers from air pollution to human health, to the natural environment and to buildings. More particularly, we have to acknowledge that Dublin smoke levels cannot at all times observe Community air quality standards and we must take steps to remedy this by 1993, at the latest, in order to comply with EC directives.

A major response to all of these concerns has been made with the publication of the Air Pollution Bill, 1986, which is now awaiting a Second Reading in the Seanad and will come before this House later in the year. It has a comprehensive new legal framework within it which will relate to EC requirements and the domestic need. Pending full implementation of the Bill, regulations have already been made, and are now in force, to reduce the maximum permitted lead content of petrol by 60 per cent.

This Estimate makes provision for a new scheme of grants for the provision of recreational and community facilities in the major urban areas. Grant allocations totalling £5 million have already been notified. In making these allocations, I took account of the growing need to provide recreational and community facilities in those areas with rapidly expanding population. This is reflected in the selection of the 55 projects to be [449] assisted under the scheme, 32 in the Dublin area and 23 in other major urban areas. This important new scheme will generate significant employment throughout the country and in the case of some major projects, further employment opportunities will arise in subsequent management and maintenance.

A sum of £100,000 is provided under Subhead T as a grant-in-aid to the Custom House Docks Development Authority which is to be established under the Urban Renewal Bill, 1986, now before the House. The establishment of the authority forms part of the major new programme announced by the Taoiseach in October last to encourage redevelopment of inner city areas. This programme now applies to all five county boroughs. In the designated areas of each county borough, a special package of taxation incentives will apply and I am confident that these will provide a much-needed stimulus to redevelopment work.

I trust that the initiative taken by the Government will receive in turn a positive response from local interests and, in particular, business and investment interests in each city and that immediate plans will be made to get suitable redevelopment projects under way. I have already called on the local authorities concerned to respond to the Government's moves by ensuring that active steps are taken to bring about a general improvement in the urban environment in tandem with new private sector development.

Since taking up office as Minister for the Environment, I have spoken publicly on a number of occasions about the need for revitalisation of our inner urban areas generally. I want to see a new emphasis in the various local authority programmes on schemes and projects that will bring life back to these areas and ensure that they provide attractive and pleasant locations for living and working, and for tourists from home or abroad.

Very often, what needs to be done will not involve major expenditure or the carrying out of substantial works projects. What is needed is an appreciation of the valuable resources and amenity [450] that we have in our traditional town centres, a determination to conserve the best features, attention to detail in planning and implementing programmes that affect them and the deployment of resources for housing, roads and other programmes in such a way as to bring the maximum return in terms of urban renewal and revitalisation.

In addition, there is still great scope for the use by local authorities of the social employment scheme in imaginative ways throughout our towns, whether for carrying out landscaping and amenity projects, dealing with derelict sites, improving riverside areas, and so on. I will be pressing urban authorities generally to make more progress on pedestrianisation schemes, to take a hard new look at the clutter of street furniture which is blighting so many otherwise attractive streets and areas and to see to it, in their capacity as planning authority, that the proliferation of advertising hoardings, obtrusive signs and tasteless gaudy shop fronts is brought finally under control.

The physical planning system generally can play a significant part in bringing about better standards of development especially in urban areas. It is, of course, equally important that the system works efficiently, and causes minimum cost and delay at both local and appeals levels. I am pleased, therefore, to be able to report that the number of appeals on hands in An Bord Pleanála was further reduced by 36 per cent during 1985.

I am satisfied that the board are making every effort to ensure that appeals are dealt with expeditiously and that there is no avoidable delay in dealing with cases which could have a significant impact on job creation. When the new board took office two years ago, 36 per cent of appeals were on hands for more than nine months, whereas by the end of December 1985, this had been reduced to just 6 per cent.

In the coming months, I shall be considering, in consultation with the board, whether further improvements could be made and, in particular, whether we could go at least part of the way towards specifying time limits for dealing with [451] different classes of cases. A special additional provision to meet the cost of computerising the board's operations is included in the 1986 grant of £992,000.

I am looking forward to hearing the views of Deputies on the various issues embraced by this Estimate. Even if time does not permit me to comment on them all at the end of the debate, Deputies can be assured that they will be taken on board in the development of policies.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  The Estimate which the Minister has just presented relates to several major areas of public policy and concern. Including local government, local financing, the construction industry, development and maintenance of roads, water and sanitary services and other public services as well as the very important area of our environment. It is on that last question that I want to start my contribution. It is intolerable that in 38 pages of a script — next year when the officials are preparing the script for a Fianna Fáil Minister they should ensure that it will be read in 45 minutes — the Minister for the Environment, who is charged with protecting the environment of our citizens, did not refer to the Chernobyl disaster, radioactive pollution over the last three weeks or the fears and worries of the people of this country and of the world in relation to the whole question of radioactivity. No wonder there is an editorial in The Irish Times today, which I shall quote:

All Governments tell lies about security or carefully omit furnishing vital information in certain areas, which can amount to the same thing. Everyone understands that. But our Government has failed in the sequel to the Chernobyl incident by not having the gumption to come out and make any worthwhile contribution at all.

It has shown no sense of leadership — some would say of responsibility — and an appalling slowness in catching up with events and with public opinion.

[452] The public has been fobbed off with a series of figures and estimates, with soothing assurances and vague expressions of confidence, while hosts of mothers throughout the country are fearful for their young children, and the general public is not remotely aware of what organisation this State has to warn or help protect it in the event of a recurrence. Are we to be sitting ducks again?

Daily the news organisations bring information about counter-measures being taken in other countries. In parts of Germany green salads are not being eaten and crops of lettuce and other leafy vegetables are to be destroyed, but not ploughed in, as the radioactive elements would then persist in the earth.

Elsewhere, cattle have been kept indoors. There are still families in this country which are not drinking milk. All this is a topic of conversation everywhere in the country and yet no major attempt has been made by the Government to take the people into their confidence and help allay public disquiet.

And there is still disquiet. Never mind that there was more danger in the Sixties or whenever nuclear weapons testing was going on. We know about that now. We know with a vengeance. Citizens are concerned with today and tomorrow.

Have we adequate means of checking radiation? Is the checking adequately spread throughout the territory? We are not a major military force and no balance of power will be disturbed by acknowledging such facts.

And what about the next time? For there will be a next time. Sellafield has been so much in the news that there was almost a danger in that the public became used to the inconsistencies and lies about its indaequacies. Now this is a matter of urgency. What contingency plans has our Government for a mishap there on the scale of Chernobyl?

It may not be possible to have Sellafield closed down — though it should be closed — for it is an integral part of Britain's military establishment. Yet [453] the Danes have no inhibitions about telling their neighbours to do just that. A Motion is going through the Danish Parliament urging the Swedes to close their nuclear power station which lies just twelve miles across the Baltic Straits from Copenhagen.

Our Government may say that it does not wish to cause panic. Nor does anyone else. But the public would like simple, patient expositions of the position and from someone in authority rather than an official. The person most in authority is Dr. FitzGerald himself.

When it comes to the next general election, the greatest strike against the Government may be its lack of perception in handling the fears of the post-Chernobyl weeks. Not every Government in Europe has risen to the occasion. Ours has failed dismally and deserves to suffer for it.

I cannot understand why the Minister for the Environment did not refer to the worries of the people in this regard.

Mr. Boland: Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  Congratulations, that guarantees the Deputy publicity in The Irish Times.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  I do not remember interrupting the Minister, indeed I bent over backwards to allow the Minister——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  Just a minute please, Deputy.

Mr. Boland: Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  On a point of order, I suggest that the Deputy's remarks would be more relevant to the Estimate for the Department of Energy.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  The Department of the Environment are also involved.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  I did not interrupt the Minister and, when it was obvious he could not finish his speech in the time allocated to him, I indicated to the Ceann Comhairle that he should be allowed to finish it. If I hit a sensitive note, so be it. [454] The Minister should have carried out his responsibilites on behalf of the people.

A major area of enterprise which has been neglected by the Government is the construction industry. Just as the neglect of local government reform and other areas, about which I will speak later, does nothing to enhance democracy so, too, the neglect by the Government of the construction industry has seriously undermined our capacity to recover from the recession in which the Government insist on keeping us. It is well known that when there was a Fine Gael-Labour Government in office they drowned us in policies which led to a dispirited nation and unwillingness to invest. This Government are doing the very same thing and are putting wide gulfs between the people and local government by failing to reform it and discouraging investment and drive by penal policies and disincentives. This is particularly obvious in relation to the construction industry and the failure is a symptom of the general cancer brought about by the Government. The figures speak for themselves. This will be the fourth consecutive year in decline of the construction industry with unemployment rising to nearly 50,000 in the first quarter of 1986 which means that 50 per cent of the workforce is unemployed. The Minister said that last year was the best for the industry since the present recession began. The Government seem to be unaware of the extent of the unemployment in the industry.

Completions in the private house building sector are down from 23,000 in 1981 to 17,000 last year and for the first quarter of this year the starts are down by 25 per cent. VAT rates were also increased from 3 per cent to 5 per cent and cement sales, which have always been a classic barometer of the construction industry, have fallen by almost 52 per cent since 1980. Figures show a 15 per cent drop on the first quarter of this year compared with last year. In relation to cement sales — I want to digress for a moment — many people in the industry are very concerned about the fact that Spanish cement is being imported and is of such poor quality that the IIRS [455] recently reported on it in relation to the reconstruction grant scheme. The Government should ban the importation of cement or any other materials which are not up to the standards laid down by the IIRS. The Spanish cement in question should be banned on the basis that it is not up to the standard laid down by our Institute for Industrial Research and Standards.

Given the figures I have quoted I cannot see how the Minister for Energy can say, as he did on 29 March last, that the housing crisis of ten years ago is almost solved. If he believes that, not only is he living in cloud cuckooland but the Coalition is in worse shape then we have been led to believe by the incompetence in other areas. The attitude of the Minister for Energy to the construction industry is another indication of the Government's formula for handling public crises: stick their heads in the sand, invent their own story and stick to it wrong though it may be. We had an example of that recently with the Minister saying that last year was the best year for the industry since the recession commenced. If it was not so serious, it would be laughable.

It is not sufficient for me to come to the House to just criticise the Minister and that is why I am anxious to put forward our proposals. As I indicated at the recent Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis, the construction industry can and must play a vital role in reversing unemployment trends and recreating job opportunities. In Government we will create a positive environment for that industry. We have indicated that we will inject a sum of £200 million in direct public investment in construction projects. I should like to tell our critics that if we have to review that figure upwards we will do so. There are those who say borrowing should not be engaged in at this stage. The view has been expressed by the Government although in the four years they have been in office they doubled the national debt. With 50,000 people unemployed in the construction industry things cannot be allowed to continue as they are. There is [456] a need for investment in the industry and we will invest in it irrespective of what our monetarist critics say.

We will restore the VAT rate on the construction industry to the 5 per cent level. The Government's decision to increase that to 10 per cent was the straw that broke the camel's back. The section 23 incentives which we introduced and were working so well under our administration but were scrapped by the Government will be re-introduced by Fianna Fáil. We will provide greater incentives for joint venture housing schemes, co-ownership schemes and housing schemes for the elderly and the disabled. We will encourage the operation of voluntary housing agencies by a major review of the incentives in that area. We are also committed to encouraging the private sector to invest. We do not want the money of Irish citizens left lying idle in foreign or domestic banks. We want that money invested in the construction industry and other sectors of the economy.

The Minister dealt at length with the reconstruction grant scheme and told us that if work proceeds on the applications received to date the value of such work would total about £250 million. The Minister also used that figure at Question Time during the week but, as I did on that occasion, I should like to ask him to explain how he squares that with the fact that the Estimate provides for expenditure of £24 million on reconstruction grants. Assuming that two-thirds of the amount of work covered by the £250 million will be eligible for grants, one is talking about a figure well in excess of £24 million. If we assume that half of the applicants will be eligible for a grant we are talking about a figure of £125 million. If we assume that 50 per cent of the work involved in the £125 million will not be finished until next year and the grants will not become payable until then — I am being conservative in this estimate — the figure is reduced to £75 million for payment this year. How can the Minister say he has provided an adequate amount in the Estimates for this work when £24 million is listed to cover grant [457] applications? This morning he said the work will total about £250 million. The Minister has claimed that the expenditure of that amount of money will mean a great boost for the building industry and get that sector moving again. To be fair to the Minister he was not responsible for the Department of the Environment when the Estimates were prepared, but he was a member of the Government who allocated a figure of £24 million for the reconstruction grant scheme. This is a fraud and the Minister knows it.

I must question the operation of the reconstruction grants scheme. I note that the Minister had done a row-back on the so-called letters of approval prior to inspection that were announced with a blare of trumpets by him soon after he took charge of the Department of the Environment. This morning he told us those who received such letters may apply for prior inspection so as to get clarification on the amount they are entitled to. Those letters were not worth the paper they were written on. Most people who received them were told that the work was approved but they would have to hold on to the waste materials until the Department's inspector called. People may spend in the region of £5,000 on replacing windows but be told by the inspector that it was not necessary to replace some of the windows. They may be told that instead of getting a grant based on an expenditure of £5,000 they will get a grant of £800. That will leave many householders in dire financial straits.

The inspectorate should be increased and the scheme operated efficiently. I should like to refer to allegations made by those involved in the construction industry, statements in the media and those sent to Members about inspectors. The charge has been made that inspectors are deliberately undervaluing the work so as to keep the level of the grant down. If that is happening many people will find it impossible to continue with their projects. I hope the Minister will respond to that when replying.

Last May the Government published [458] their proposals for local government reform. I was puzzled then as to why the Government then, and on several occasions since, described this as a great reforming package. It was nothing less than a cynical attempt to influence voters in the local elections. It was a declaration of intent as opposed to the production of a comprehensive policy on local government reform. The Government postponed the local elections for one year on the pretext that such a package of reform would be available but one year after the elections we do not have any idea of what the Government have in mind. Today the Minister told us he is reviewing this matter. How can the Government talk about local democracy when the democratically elected councillors will not have any input into the reform package? That backhanded and dismissive attitude to local representatives and the whole concept of local responsibility and authority is typical of the Government's attitude to local government. Fianna Fáil believe in giving power back to the people. Unlike the present administration, we are committed to a review of local government. It is a real commitment which is to be seen in our policy and public statements. As early as 1971 the then Fianna Fáil Government put forward proposals for reorganising local government. We were intent on pushing ahead with these proposal until the Coalition consigned them to the rubbish heap in 1973 when they came into power.

Mr. Kelly: Information on John M. Kelly  Zoom on John M. Kelly  As early as 1940 they took away nearly all the powers of local authorities under the County Management Act.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  This is the difference between——

Mr. Kelly: Information on John M. Kelly  Zoom on John M. Kelly  Power back to the people, my eye. Will the Deputy's party repeal the 1940 Act which they introduced?

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  I have no doubt that Deputy Kelly will give us the benefit of his thoughts.

[459]Mr. Boland: Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  It is the Deputy's own fault, he publicly condemned those proposals in 1972. It is on the record.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  As the Deputy concerned is no longer alive to defend himself in that situation I assume the Minister would leave him out of it——

(Interruptions.)

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  This is the difference between intent and reality. The reality is that this Coalition were not, and I believe are still not, truly interested in local government reform. I blame successive Coalitions for the fact that local government at present is more an agency of central government than of the locality. Since 1982 Fianna Fáil have been pushing for reform of local government. We are glad the Coalition have finally taken this on board. But, again we say to the Coalition: if you are pressurised into reform, then do it properly, comprehensively, not by way of half-hearted and vague hints because that is all the Minister continues to speak about. We need a comprehensive plan for local government. Fianna Fáil presented just such a plan last June. Considering that the Minister is ignoring the views of local councillors, speaking on behalf of a party with the interests of local government at heart, I will put our proposals to the Minister, hoping that he will move outside his own private little world and consider the views of the country's local authorities, the people on the ground, the people who realise what is local democracy that the Government are so anxious to strengthen.

We believe there should be a two-tier system of local government. For example, the first tier would retain the councils and county boroughs and the second tier would be composed of districts, complementing the first. We believe the second tier, composed of districts, constitutes a useful measure for local participation since there are many small urban areas where local government does not exist at all or, where it does, is limited or excludes the hinterland. To be fair, I was glad to [460] note that the Minister referred to that aspect in the course of his remarks.

Of course the Dublin region represents a special case. I assure the Minister of whatever assistance our party can give since we have the largest membership on both major local authorities in Dublin. Therefore I assure him that, in implementing his reform package, Fianna Fáil will co-operate fully as it comes before the House. We want to see a far greater level of participation by local communities in the greater Dublin area. We want to see them become more involved in local affairs. This is particularly pertinent to new towns like Tallaght, Blanchards-town and Clondalkin. We want to see people in those areas become more involved and be more in tune with their local needs.

Local government must be strengthened. Local democracy can be served best through specific additional powers being devolved on local authorities in areas of housing, water, sanitary services, roads, transport, the administration of grants, arterial drainage, education, local enterprise and by way of involvement also in the fight against crime, lawlessness and vandalism. We believe also that local authorities must have more direct access to EC funding. In these areas Fianna Fáil are concerned to ensure a meaningful role for local government and genuinely to give power back to the people. With regard to EC funding, I should say that on a recent visit to Brussels with the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Deputy Tunney, and the Cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire Borough Council, Mr. Bill Harvey, I had to listen to the EC Director General of regional funding tell us that he was writing to the Irish Government asking them to make application for available EC funds. He told us that, under the new structures and systems being operated within the EC, if there was was an integrated programme devised for a region then that region would fail to secure funding from the EC in future years. This Government are blocking an application for an integrated programme for the Dublin region because the Department of Finance will not allow an application [461] to be proceeded with, despite the fact that there is up to 75 per cent grant available from the EC for such a study to be carried out. We are talking about a relatively small amount of money but the Department of Finance are blocking that application for an integrated programme for the Dublin region.

Fianna Fáil adopt a different approach to applications to the EC. Since we joined the EC, traditionally applications for regional funding and other aids have gone through central government. This was how it was at the beginning and has continued to date. In future we will ensure — because we recognise the need to review that policy — that each local authority gains maximum benefit from EC regional funding. We will introduce procedures whereby local authorities can make direct application for regional funding, receiving such funds directly from the Community.

The Minister in the course of his remarks this morning referred to the amount of money from the regional fund being directed at road projects. Very often regional funding money is used for projects that would have been financed at national level anyway, which means that the money is expended on projects already decided, not on extra ones. This pattern needs to be changed so that payment is made directly at local level and not through the national Exchequer. This is a fundamental change of policy we propose and intend to implement. To date the Department of Finance have been taking the funds that should be expended on other projects. Of course the whole area of local government finance is a minefield as far as this Government are concerned. So far as finance is concerned they have left local authorities in an appalling position. We believe that local authorities should receive a guaranteed, statutory contribution each year from the central Exchequer to enable them operate properly.

At the moment, local authorities are being deliberately frustrated. The Government are trying to undermine the decision to abolish domestic rates introduced [462] by Fianna Fáil in 1978. The Coalition have been advising the teachers, for example, to abide by Dáil decisions but they deliberately undermine the Fianna Fáil Government decision. Their inconsistency never fails to amaze me. They talk of local democracy and they leave preliminary plans lying on the table. I ask them to stop trying to con us with all this rhetoric about Government reform. Fianna Fáil will not support the Coalition in any effort to impose local charges. They are a form of double taxation on the already overburdened tax paying public. Here I would remind the Minister that the percentage of people paying above the standard rate of tax has risen from 14 per cent in 1982 to 42 per cent in 1986. Fianna Fáil will make every effort to ensure that the Government will not introduce creeping local taxation. Our direct and indirect taxation is high enough and enough is enough.

Fianna Fáil call for the settlement of the local government finances through the establishment of a statutory annual contribution from the Central Exchequer. Local authorities cannot function under the present system. This year the domestic rates subsidy for Dublin council was cut back by 7 per cent — and the Government make a song and dance about supplementary welfare allowances and the release of internal capital resources for revenue purposes. They do not take into account that there is still a net decrease of £1.2 million, or nearly 4 per cent, on last year's figures. How can local authorities function against this background where cutbacks are added to uncertainty?

This uncertainty is heightened by the failure of the Government to consult with local officials. Last August the then Minister for the Environment refused to meet a delegation from Dublin Corporation to discuss the corporation's financing, despite the fact that such meetings had been held in the past. While the previous Minister had a local authority corporation controlled by the Coalition parties, it was at that time controlled by the Fianna Fáil Party and the Minister simply refused to meet them. He brought [463] party politics into a matter as to whether local government should function and sought to circumvent the decision of the people. And we hear talk of democracy from this Government.

My time is limited. Many other speakers wish to contribute on this Estimate which concludes at 4 p.m. and I shall not delay the House much longer, but I am amazed that the Minister should come into this House, two weeks after the Chernobyl disaster and, as Minister responsible for the environment, say not one word about that disaster or measures to protect our environment.

He has told us that the building industry had its best year last year, when 50,000 workers in that industry, 50 per cent of the workforce, are out of work. This shows a callous disregard for these people. It is a pathetic attempt to mislead the general public to claim that all is well in local government at a time when every local authority are being put to the pin of their collar to survive. There is talk of local government reform and it is two years since the decision to postpone the local elections. A roads programme encompassing 60 years' investment is now disintegrating countrywide, with the county road system crumbling around us. These three and a half years of Coalition administration have been a disaster as far as local government and the construction industry are concerned. The electorate are willing and able to get rid of this pathetic Government, in particular with regard to their record on the construction industry, and it is time for this Government to go. As soon as that happens, a single party Fianna Fáil Government can take up the reins and get the building industry moving again. I am opposing this Estimate.

Mr. Kelly: Information on John M. Kelly  Zoom on John M. Kelly  The Minister began his speech by referring to local government reform; and while I do not want to delay too much on that subject, I must say I regret that over three years since the Government took office, the only local government reform seen so far has been confined to increasing the number of [464] beneficiaries of the system, namely the number of councillors, juggling some boundaries and, as it is called, “upgrading” Galway to the status of a county borough. So locked are we into an English way of doing and thinking about things that I recall Deputy Molloy, when this change was made, half-complaining that the change was not accompanied by re-christening the chairman of the Galway corporation “Lord Mayor” instead of “Mayor”. That is an adequate commentary on what passes here for republicanism.

Local Government reform needs to be looked at partly in the light of its history and partly in the light of a sober assessment of what we need today. The structure is essentially the same, although very much diluted, as that introduced here in 1898 by the British, which was known to be part of the then policy of trying to “kill Home Rule with kindness.” It was a system which first brought what I might call ordinary people, as distinct from the big wigs, into the process of local government. We still have the same structures in many ways. The role of those councillors — who frequently in the early days showed themselves both incompetent and corrupt — has been progressively reduced over the years, most notably by the Fianna Fáil Party who now speak about their commitment to — what was that sweet phrase of Deputy Burke's? —“bringing power back to the people.” I should like to know why they took power away from the people in the first place?

In 1940, Mr. de Valera, seeing rightly that half of the councillors were not fit for the jobs which had been left to them — at any rate that was his estimation, and I have not heard anyone on the far side challenge that — scrapped most of their powers and replaced them with the functions of an official, a county manager or city manager. I have never heard the far side, in the context of “bringing power back to the people”, suggest the repeal of that Act. When they start unearthing the reasons for the passage of that Act and relating this to current conditions, I shall take seriously their claim that they [465] want to “bring power back to the people”.

The second devastating blow at local Government in the old form was taken in 1978 by the abolition of the domestic rates. It must be said that Fianna Fáil are not alone to blame for that. This party — rightly as I then thought, and wrongheadedly as I now feel — also committed themselves to the abolition of domestic rates. We had abolished 25 per cent of them by the time the 1977 election came. We were to abolish the remaining three quarters over the next two years, as far as I remember. I thought then that it was a sensible move, because I could see in my own constituency that many people were being charged rates which they simple could not afford to pay. Looking back, I think it would have been better to have left domestic rates in place, but to have a more generous extended system of waiver in hard cases. In fact, waivers were generously enough applied to people like widows who found themselves living in a house which was, looked at objectively, perhaps too big for them but from which it was very hard and inhuman to ask them to move. That system should have been more generously administered, although I accept that it could not have been within the then financial limits. Had it been, it would have been nationally more effective and it would have been more effective for local government had the rates not been abolished.

What we see left of local government is very often what I can only call misbehaviour. I do not hesitate to describe it as such when a council refuses to strike a rate simply because it is popular to appear to buck a system which imposes charges on people. It is a misbehaviour when they decline to charge for services, although both main parties of this House at various times have expressed support for the principle of charging for services. Nobody likes having to pay for things. I do not want to be out in front of everybody else in recommending water charges or other charges, but, once the domestic rates were abolished and the Central Exchequer faced the colossal [466] burden of sustaining most of local government, these had to come. Fianna Fáil when in Government, and our party, were committed to them; and that democratic approach or decision of the House, under whichever Government, has been in some cases frustrated by local authorities taking it on themselves to cease imposing water charges.

Other forms of misbehaviour are less serious but perhaps even meaner, for example, the selfishness which we have seen down the years for which this party and the Labour Party are just as much to blame as the other side, in hogging the chairmanships of local authorities. Between 1967 and last year the Lord Mayorship of Dublin was rotated between the Fine Gael and Labour Parties.

Everybody knows my opinion of this Fianna Fáil Party. But about 40 per cent, a little less sometimes and a little more at other times, of the people of this city vote Fianna Fáil, rightly or wrongly. Why should they be denied occasionally the right of having a Lord Mayor, for what it is worth? I think nothing of these offices. I would not give tuppence for any of them: chains, coaches, cocked hats and the rest. But even allowing that I am in a minority that point, the Fianna Fáil people in this city are as much entitled to a Lord Mayor from time to time, in due proportion to their own strength, as anybody else. I consider it contemptible that we should have hogged it. I say that because otherwise I will be thought of as criticising only the other side. They, too, have shown exactly the same selfish hoggishness in councils around the country whenever they could. I have no doubt that we will now see an inauguration of the same system in Dublin, the first representative and beneficiary of which is Deputy Tunney

Surely, some party will have the guts and the decency to put an end to that system. It gives bad example all round. It adds to a bad atmosphere in politics and it is distasteful. Most ordinary people do not run their affairs like that. They do not hog all or nearly all the places on a committee if they have just more than 50 [467] per cent of the vote on the main council. Ordinary people hate that kind of thing; and they get the worst kind of example from people elected to public office, who strike big attitudes about “bringing power back to the people”. The people reject that way of doing business.

Local government in its present form is in many respects a negation of democracy. It means the wielding of power, in some cases the disgraceful wielding of power as in the shower of section 4 motions of which the business of some councils seems to consist nearly exclusively; the bestowal of rate collectorships many of which are sinecures, or near sinecures, because the number of rates collected has dropped substantially although the number of collectors on the ground has remained the same; the enjoyment of perquisites, expenses which are collected very often at a rate which guarantees an income rather than mere reimbursement; skites, of the sort that Deputy Burke presides over as chairman of Dublin County Council, have reached a level where they are a public scandal. I have said that often in this House before and the public know it. I have had free trips many times and enjoyed them, but I must say that the thing as represented by the Irish local government structure goes beyond all bounds.

The power is being wielded and the perquisites are being enjoyed; but the local authorities refuse — and this is the crunch in democracy — to carry the odium of imposing the revenue necessary for these things. They want central funds to carry it. That is not democracy. I will not apply an epithet to it which will be offensive to the many decent people who are members of local authorities, as I believe they nearly all are; but whatever it is, it is not democracy. Democracy means taking responsibility, taking the rough with the smooth, making the unpopular decisions as well as getting the high profile, the perquisites and public approval. It means all of these, not one but all.

The whole system should be looked at, [468] I will not say scrapped from the bottom although there are many sides which I would scrap. It should be looked at in the way that Departments are supposed to look at their Estimates. It should be looked at on a basis of “zero budgeting” We should start from nothing, and suppose, just for the sake of argument, that there was no local government structure whatever, that there was nothing but the Dáil and Government and beneath it a bureaucracy. We should ask: do we need local government? If the answer is yes, and I would say the answer is yes, then what functions can it usefully, responsibly and economically perform which ones are beyond it which one it is not fit to be trusted with, or which in the past, as we know did it tend to abuse or fall down on?

I cannot sketch out, in the few minutes I have left, anything approaching a total system of local government reform but I am very interested in the Minister's words. In his speech there is a gleam of hope in this regard where he announced his interest, which I believe is genuine and I was delighted to hear him proclaim, in having local government “promote local social and economic development”. Now, we are talking. Local people are best qualified to know the economic potential of their own districts. They know what skills and land resources there are and what other resources there are of a mineral or tourist kind of some special kind which may be peculiar to their area. A local government structure which started with that and which started with allowing people some role, matched with private enterprise, in which the private sector was knitted in a contributory basis, and where the poor old sow of a State would not be asked to carry the entire 100 pence-in-the-pound burden, would really be worth having. I would start it from scratch with no expenses and no perquisites.

Another thing which I want to mention — apart from a brief reference to the nuclear business, which I would have brought in if Deputy Burke had not done so — is urban revitalisation, which I know is something of a hobbyhorse of mine; and I know it gives offence to colleagues, [469] whether because they do not share my views about it or because the thing is indefensible in its present form. I was pleased at the Minister's references to the unsightly aspects of our towns which he would like to see local authorities get to grips with. But I have heard similar things said by Ministers before; and the situation seems to get worse, not better.

I am still waiting to hear of a council which passes a section 4 motion directing a manager to refuse planning permission for anything which includes a plastic facia. I am still waiting for a section 4 motion which would in any respect — naturally, I cannot be positive because I have not got access to a total list — reflect the sensitivity to such things which the Minister is anxious to awaken. The Minister made reference to the “clutter of street furniture,”“obtrusive signs and tasteless gaudy shop fronts”. I absolutely agree with and applaud those words. There is something else he might have added. He might have added, that you do not have to go further than across the street to Merrion Square which is supposed to be the jewel of what is left of Georgian Dublin, Upper Mount Street, where the headquarters of both of our parties are situated; you do not have to walk more than three minutes from the back gate of this House to see something which you will not see in any other capital city in Europe that I know of.

In the core and the heart of the city you will see broken, seamed, patched pavements, which in Upper Mount Street are virtually a hazard to walk on, where paving stones are not replaced, and those which are left there are cracked. If they are badly cracked, they have to be taken away altogether and replaced with a shovel of asphalt which melts in hot weather. The pavings are an absolute disgrace to us. I know this will be regarded as “elitism” and the “Dublin approach” to such matters. Funnily enough, I do not hear that kind of abuse being thrown round much in Italy or Holland or in the countries to which people flock in their millions merely to see their urban amenities. How would you get on in Amsterdam if you were to complain that somebody who [470] had put up a plastic fascia or left a street in that kind of a condition in front of his house was an elitist or that he made this complaint only because he himself came from a district in which people hoped for something better?

The corporation have done, within the limits open to them, a lot of very fine work, some of it not very well advertised and a delight when you stumble on it, for example, the little park which has suddenly sprung up behind the village of Ranelagh on the site of an old convent and, for example, a thing which amazed me to see, the perfect rehabilitation of a set of Edwardian lamps and the parapet on the bridge over the Dodder at Ballsbridge. I wish that it was possible for the corporation and for every other local authority to follow up efforts such as that, and to declare war on the kind of developments which the Minister, not I, has officially condemned.

He might also have added what would be improvements to buildings. I refer here particularly to a thing which I especially hate, which is the haphazard nailing of creosoted timber battens onto perfectly decent Irish gables and fronts in a pathetic effort to give an impression that it is half-timbered. You can see that ghastly crazy diamond shaped, rubbishy, tatty would-be improvement applied to shops all over Ireland. It is a disgrace to us. People who come here must say to themselves, if they have any eye for such things, “where do these people come from, what kind of training have they or above all what kind of local government system have they got that would permit such a thing.” Try half-timbering a house even in a slum in Florence. Try putting a fascia of plastic even on a slum in Amsterdam, and see how you get on. These countries are not run by fascists. They are not dictatorships. They are democracies as proud as ours; and their Governments are as a rule usually a good deal further to the left than ours, particularly their local governments. They are not afraid and ashamed to stand up for standards which render their cities places that people travel across the world to see.

I want to say a word or two about the [471] Chernobyl disaster and its effects here. To make a literary reference, there is a Sherlock Holmes story called “Silver Blaze” in which the local plodding police officer, in a case where a race horse had been stolen said to Sherlock Holmes, “Is there anything else to which you would wish to draw my attention?” Sherlock Holmes says “Yes, to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. The local inspector says: “But the dog did nothing in the night-time”. “That” says Sherlock Holmes, “was the curious incident.” The analogy I draw here is the total silence from the benches of The Workers' Party, from Deputy Gregory and from a host of outside bodies whom I will not name because they are not here to defend themselves but these are all usually very vocal when it comes to the British, to Sellafield or to the Americans. Had it been a West German power plant that exploded and looked like poisoning half of Europe to a greater or lesser degree, they would not have been behind the door in raising a row. In the Sherlock Holmes story it was the trainer who had stolen his own horse, and the dog did nothing in the night-time, did not bark at or attack him, because he was familiar with the trainer. He felt among friends. I suspect that my analogy, without pumping it to death, can be extended to the uttermost limit of that parallel.

Finally, I wish to refer to Sellafield. Deputy Reynolds was shrieking here the night before last that it was not good enough for the Government to “express concern” about Sellafield, they should “demand” that it be closed down. What would happen if the English ignored this demand? When President Hillery was Minister for Foreign Affairs he was challenged by Deputy Mark Clinton as to whether he was satisfied with some disadvantageous situation which had arisen out of the Anglo-Irish free trade area. Deputy Clinton asked if the Minister was satisfied with the position and if he was going to put up with it. Deputy Hillery replied, and I had to hand it to him for one of the best parliamentary riposts I ever heard: “I am not satisfied, but I can [472] do nothing about it. What would you do, beat them with your cap?” Naturally that demotic expression had to be tidied up before it was put into the Official Report. It is to be found in the Official Report of late 1972.

I ask Deputy Reynolds, Deputy Haughey and the others not to make demands that cannot be enforced, not to leave themselves open to the humiliation of being refused or ignored just as Deputy Haughey did when he made a demand on President Reagan. It would not be acceptable, when the President came here two years ago, unless he thumped the table for the full enforcement of the Forum Report on Northern Ireland. Of course he was absolutely ignored. Deputy Haughey was still able to jump over fences in an effort to be photographed shaking hands with the President. That is where one gets with demands which one has no ability or capacity to enforce. This Government have handled the Chernobyl and Sellafield affairs as responsibly as they can and, in contradistinction to what we have come to expect from the other side of the House, with dignity.

Mr. Lyons: Information on Denis Lyons  Zoom on Denis Lyons  I am rather surprised that our time is limited in this debate. When I heard the order being read out this morning, unless my attention was distracted and I doubt if it was, I was not aware of any time limit. I am disappointed that in an area such as environment we are expected to deal with that Department's Estimates in a limited way, limiting our contributions to half an hour. I protest against that. The Department of the Environment covers so many areas that this is not good enough.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien): Information on Fergus O'Brien  Zoom on Fergus O'Brien  That is not an order of the House today.

Mr. Lyons: Information on Denis Lyons  Zoom on Denis Lyons  It is somebody's order because I have heard it already. Whose order is it?

Mr. F. O'Brien: Information on Fergus O'Brien  Zoom on Fergus O'Brien  This is to be the procedure for taking all Estimates for the [473] public service in the future and this House agreed to that.

Mr. Lyons: Information on Denis Lyons  Zoom on Denis Lyons  Whether it is or not I am making a protest.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on John J. Ryan  Zoom on John J. Ryan  A similar system was carried out this day week and the Chair indicated that the House agreed, without dissent, to the order. I appreciate the Deputy's concern but there is nothing the Chair can do about it. The time allocated is 20 minutes.

Mr. Lyons: Information on Denis Lyons  Zoom on Denis Lyons  The principal theme of my contribution will evolve around one of the most important items in our economy, that is, unemployment. The national average unemployed here is 18 per cent whereas in the rest of Europe it is only 11 per cent. The Minister indicated that local authorities are major employers. They ought to be but because of financial constraints, particularly in recent times, they are not the major employers they should be. There is so much work to be done by local authorities, even the pavements which Deputy Kelly referred to, but they are precluded from getting on with the work because of financial constraints. The allocation to local authorities for 1986 is £264 million. This is a reduction on the 1985 allocation which was also a reduction on the 1984 allocation. One of the principal areas under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Environment is the construction industry. It creates employment far quicker and at a lesser cost than many other areas of activity. There is therefore considerable scope for positive Government action to increase jobs in the construction industry.

Coalition Governments and the other titles they have been known by down through the years — inter-party Governments and national coalition Governments — have demoralised and undermined the confidence of the construction industry in every period that they have been in Government. Their withdrawal of £200 million from our Estimates for the capital programme on assuming office in 1982 was a most retrograde [474] step. It began a downturn in the industry which now has 50,000 unemployed. In the Cork region more than 50 per cent of the 8,000 people who would normally be in better circumstances under another administration are idle. This includes engineers, surveyors, draftsmen, consultants, trades people and others. Also severely hit by the lack of activity in the industry are the support industries and services.

The Minister for the Environment in reply to my Parliamentary Question on Tuesday 6 May reflected the Government's total unrealistic perception of the extremely grave situation of the construction industry. He refused to accept the link between falling cement sales and the decline in construction activity. He would not acknowledge the need for real Government incentives to stimulate the industry. In fact, my question asked specifically about the drop in sales of cement. I quote:

To ask the Minister for the Environment given the deteriorating situation of the construction industry underlined clearly by the recent figures for falling cement sales, and given the importance of the sector in the overall industrial economy, if he considers it appropriate to take steps to stimulate the industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

In almost two pages of a reply he never once referred to the sales of cement and the drop in those sales, the subject matter of my question. It is very evident why. A drop in sales of cement is a clear barometer of activity or otherwise in the construction industry.

The Minister then went on to enlighten the House on house improvement grants and the incentive of the special tax schemes for inner city development and for designated areas in Cork and Galway. I do not know why he left out Dublin. As proof of the Goverment's interest in the industry the Minister chose to ignore the very worrying decline in the construction industry since 1982 and the need to take corrective action. The plight of the construction [475] industry was underlined by statistics issued by An Foras Forbartha this week which reveal that construction output fell by 5 per cent during 1985 and construction investment last year was only 10.6 per cent of gross domestic product, the lowest since the sixties.

Builders are facing a serious cost squeeze because costs rose by 13 per cent last year as against 4.7 per cent inflation rate. The Construction Industry Federation estimate that there was a drop of 5 per cent in cement sales in 1985 by comparison with 1984. This worrying trend is continuing this year.

I challenge the Minister to answer my question on cement sales when he is replying. There has been a drop of 16 per cent in cement sales in the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 1985. It is obvious, therefore, why my question was not answered. It would have embarrassed the Government seriously. The Minister must accept the point I made here last Tuesday because sales of cement are a barometer by which activity in the industry can be judged. The Minister said that is not so. Then, how would he assess activity in the industry?

While cement sales contract in Ireland, across Europe the makers of cement are expanding their plants at a rate not seen since the sixties economic expansion. The Building Material Federation pointed out last month that construction output here has declined by 32 per cent since 1981 and employment in the industry is only half the 1981 level. Nevertheless, the Minister said here today that the construction industry had its best year ever in 1985. I heard Deputy Sheehan a fortnight ago telling us about the cuckoo that he had heard. The cuckoo has been late this year, and I think the Minister must have been with the cuckoo before he was heard here because when we hear the Minister making statements about the construction industry he must have come back from cloud cuckoo land.

Analysts have pointed out that this contraction in the construction industry is not only seasonal. I emphasise that. [476] Since 1982 the underlying trend has been one of consistent deterioration. I must keep referring to cement sales. So far in 1986, they are 25 per cent down on 1984 and 52 per cent down on 1980. Private dwelling starts are down by 25 per cent. The breakdown is as follows: nationally, 1983, 10,830; 1984, 10,422; 1985, 8,819. Figures for the same period in relation to Cork are, respectively, 1,511, 1,268 and 1,077, showing a continuing downward trend, going unnoticed by the Minister and the Department.

On 6 May the Minister put a value of £250 million on activity to be generated in the construction industry by the applications received under the housing improvement grant scheme. All the forecasts about the impact of the scheme on construction, made also by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, have been called into question by construction industry experts. Predictions of additional work worth between £100 million and £200 million for the industry are flying in the face of reality according to a construction economist, Mr. Michael Walsh. He reckons that a more realistic figure would be £10 million to £20 million, in addition to committed grants in the Department's Estimate of £24 million.

The Minister's evasive reply to my question earlier in the week chose to ignore the hard realities facing the industry, and if he is serious about providing a realistic boost to the industry — let us not forget that it is a labour intensive industry with considerable employment potential — he should urge his fellow members of the Cabinet to restore the £18 million taken from the public capital programme by the budget, reduce the 10 per cent VAT to the 5 per cent it was before the budget and restore ways and means of encouraging private investment on infrastructural development. Fianna Fáil will most certainly do so because this Minister obviously is not prepared to do it.

Our challenge to the Government has been responded to in a cynical manner by the Government who have told us that Fianna Fáil would raise money by more taxation. That shows how bereft of ideas [477] the Government are. There are funds available for investment, plenty of money is available, but investment in nil under this Government because there is no confidence in them. An indication of the decline in house completions is shown in the following figures: in 1981 there were 28,917; in 1982, 26,798; in 1983, 26,138; in 1984, 24,944; and in 1985, 23,948. These figures include local authority houses. There is a five year table showing the continuing fall of activity in house building which the Government choose to ignore, while the Minister tells us that last year was the industry's best.

The CIF point out that the house building rate in Ireland is not far off the levels of the mid sixties. They point to the significant fact that the level of private sector house building is inadequate to meet the long term demand for housing. The number of new house starts in Dublin city and county, for instance, for the first quarter of 1986, is at 13 per cent below the 1985 figure and 40 per cent below the corresponding period in 1984. The figures for the country generally are 10 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively.

There is great lack of confidence among private investors in the industry. The greatest blight affecting the industry is that lack of confidence. Government policies have been eroding investors' confidence. In the Government's plan, an 8 per cent to 11 per cent drop in the volume of public investment in construction over the period 1985 to 1988 is forecast. When they should be encouraging greater investment they are talking about a reduction. The big Irish construction companies are moving into foreign pastures in search of growth opportunities. This is the result of the anti-investment policies being pursued by the Government. We must create a climate in which Irish construction companies will be encouraged to concentrate their diversification activities at home.

The Government could with benefit implement many of the proposals in the report on the construction industry by the Committee on Small Businesses. That report includes far-reaching proposals on the vital role that investment in infrastructural [478] development can play in economic recovery. The Government should introduce tax-related incentives to stimulate private sector investment in infrastructure and in the construction industry generally.

The local authorities should be major employers but that is not the case because of the financial constraints on them. The changes introduced by this Government on local finances are having a detrimental effect on the employment of staff to carry out the necessary works. The Minister, Taoiseach and other Government Ministers, as well as members of both parties in Government, are making great play about the grants scheme for house improvements. Like other people, I welcomed a scheme that could be availed of by people to repair their houses; but all of us know that this announcement was made hurriedly in the House last October by the Taoiseach to quell a very evident backlash on the Government backbenches following the decimation of the Government parties in the local elections. It was a hurried announcement and even the officials in the Department were not aware of what was happening or when the application forms would be available. The scheme commenced in a welter of confusion, but that is but another hallmark of this Government. It was rushed through without planning or thought and even to this day confusion still exists. It was an attempt to stave off revolution on the backbenches.

Matters such as the volume of traffic on our roads, the axle weight of vehicles and the development of technology are not being taken into account when planning and maintaining the infrastructure required to cater for the activity on our roads. Some of the county roads are a century old, but they cannot be maintained in a satisfactory condition because of shortage of funds. The Government may say that the block grant is being increased, but generally county roads are repaired and maintained out of revenue. In County Cork it has been the practice to surface dress the roads every seven years, but because of the lack of finance we will be very fortunate to carry out this [479] surface dressing once every 60 years.

The statutory charges on local authorities for items such as justice, agriculture and education are biting into the revenue that should be spent on county roads, but no recognition of that fact is given by the Department in their allocation. They have been cutting back on funds to local authorities since this Government came to office. When rates on houses were removed Fianna Fáil gave a 100 per cent grant to local authorities in lieu of rates. To do this we raised direct and indirect taxation but, while this Government have increased that taxation and have included charges under the 1983 Act, they have not given the local authorities the 100 per cent grant given by Fianna Fáil.

The retention tax is biting hard into the revenue of the local authorities. The City and County Management Act took powers from the local authorities. Cork is somewhat different in its election for the post of Lord Mayor in that the matter is dealt with by agreement. In County Cork we allocate seats in proportion to the parties on the council——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  The Deputy's time is up.

Mr. Lyons: Information on Denis Lyons  Zoom on Denis Lyons  Deputy Kelly raised these matters. In 12 years we have had only three cases dealing with section 4. I have dealt already with the question of removal of domestic rates and the increase in taxation by this Government.

Mr. M. Cosgrave: Information on Michael Joe Cosgrave  Zoom on Michael Joe Cosgrave  I welcome the Estimate and I wish to congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He is well suited to the Department, having presided over the fastest growing local authority in Ireland or even in Europe. He gave valuable direction to Dublin County Council and I know the Department of the Environment will benefit from his vast experience.

I welcome the efforts of the Minister to generate activity in the building industry. There is a strong demand for local authority loans to purchase new and secondhand houses. This Government [480] solved the housing problem that has plagued Dublin and the country since the foundation of the State. My own local authority, Dublin County Council, have seen a significant fall in demand for housing. At the end of 1985 there were 840 approved applicants on the council's waiting list compared with 1,600 in 1982 and 1983. In Dublin County Council approved applicants have been or are about to be offered housing. The council attributes this position to the impact of the £5,000 grant scheme. A steady flow of applications are being received up to the present. That grant is also boosting the housing output and this must be a considerable help to builders because up to 40 per cent of those who avail of the scheme are purchasing new houses.

I welcome the scheme of house improvement grants introduced in October 1985. It has been a great help to the building industry. I understand there are 70,000 applicants at the moment. However, there is a bottleneck in the operation of the scheme because when people are not able to find out the amount of money they will get they are reluctant to go ahead with the job until they obtain clarification. Some constituents have reported to me that when they go to the banks the latter are reluctant to give money until they ascertain the amount of the grant to be paid. I assume this is a matter for the inspectorate. The Minister said he is increasing the number of inspectors, and this is welcome. I note the Minister has offered them some incentives to carry out the inspections as quickly as possible. The Minister should do his utmost to ensure that inspections are carried out without delay. This week a person reported to me that an inspector called to inspect windows, for which work a grant application had been submitted. The constituent had a quotation for aluminium windows but when he had finished discussing the matter with the inspector he realised he would have half of the windows in aluminium and the remainder in timber. People who apply for the grant should get the full £800 and they should be entitled to put in aluminium windows if they wish.

[481] The instruction to the local authorities to raise the amount of unsecured loan from £1,000 to £2,000 is welcome. This will enable people to get money more easily and will also encourage banks to lend money as they will not have to lend so much.

I welcome the reduction in the mortgage rate to 9.75 per cent. However there is room for further improvement and the Minister should put pressure on the building societies to reduce the mortgage rate still further. Those who borrow from local authorities are also benefiting from this with the cost of an SDA loan now being 9.5 per cent. This will also help the building industry.

I welcome the provision of £5 million for remedial work to defective local authority houses built during the seventies. In Seagrange Estate in my constituency there are 309 houses. They have been the subject of many a section 4 motion in Dublin Corporation and Dublin County Council. The roofs are deteriorating on some of these houses and if something is not done shortly they will be of no use to anyone. I ask the Minister to make part of the £5 million available to those residents. I understand they are looking for £1.25 million. Remedial works should be carried out to the roofs and windows of those houses.

Darndale is another estate in my constituency. Recently the Taoiseach visited this estate and announced it would be upgraded. I know the Minister has taken an interest in this estate and I ask that the works be carried out as soon as possible. Many people in this estate took up the £5,000 grant and now most of the new tenants are unemployed or single parents. I ask the Minister to ensure that the work goes ahead quickly.

I appreciate the Minister making every effort to reform local government but there are teething problems. In my area we were affected by this when part of my Dáil constituency was put into the county. I now find I have no say in planning matters or housing matters. Houses are allocated by Dublin Corporation. There are over 70 councillors on Dublin County Council. The new local authority [482] of Fingal is a sub-committee of Dublin County Council. I ask the Minister to introduce local government reform as soon as possible. Developers are encroaching on open green spaces in my area particularly on the Hill of Howth. I ask the Minister to place an amenity order on the Howth area which would help to preserve Howth and keep developers at bay.

People who have a Housing Finance Agency loan or a special category loan find that it takes a long time to get an appointment to close the sale of their houses. As a result they must take out bridging loans. This costs a lot of money and I ask the Minister to take this matter up with the county council as it is a worrying aspect for those wishing to buy their own homes.

Mr. Keating rose.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Barrett,: Information on Michael Barrett  Zoom on Michael Barrett  Dublin North West): The next speaker on the list is Deputy Nolan. This is the order I have been asked to follow.

Mr. Nolan: Information on M. J. Nolan  Zoom on M. J. Nolan  I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. The level of funding we are talking about is adequate testimony of the seriousness of the Department of the Environment. The major aim of local government should be to combine local community with Government in a system which is comprehensible and accessible to the citizen. It must also embrace a system in which a local representative can play an effective part in making policy decisions for his electoral area. On that I welcome some of the proposals put forward by the Government. However, I question if we are moving fast enough in the area of local government reform. The question of local government funding must be tackled. There are major question marks hanging over the role of certain local authorities, for example, town commissioners. At present town commissioners have little part to play in local government and this must be examined. The boundaries of local authority areas, be they county councils, urban district councils [483] or town commissions, should be reviewed every five or six years.

Deputy Lyons questioned the part county councils and urban district councils play in the area of employment. While commendable efforts have been made in the last 18 months to put social employment schemes in operation in various counties it is regrettable that the level of employment given by county councils has fallen. Road workers and other employees are not being replaced and much of the work previously carried out by local authorities is now being done under the social employment scheme. This gives much needed employment particularly to young people who might not otherwise get worthwhile employment in the community. There is no incentive for the industry to employ people and this problem must be tackled.

It is wrong for the Government to suggest that the building and construction industry is not in a serious position. Major construction firms are moving out of the country in order to find work. It is regrettable that cement sales should have taken such a nosedive since 1982. There are specific areas where the Department of the Environment could encourage greater use of cement. A call was made recently for the use of cement in major road projects. I agree with this. If the Minister insisted that in all new housing estates cement roads should be laid, apart from giving much needed employment to the construction and cement industries it would cut down on our import bill as many of the ingredients used in tar and bitumen are imported. I would ask the Minister to seriously consider it.

There are major problems also in the administration of house improvement grants. The Minister recently announced that applicants for house improvement grants would not need a prior inspection up to a certain date. However, every Deputy in this House and every county councillor in the country has been inundated with questions from applicants who have applied under this scheme and who are now in a limbo, [484] not knowing how much they are going to receive in the form of grant assistance. It is regrettable that this should have happened and I do not believe it has done anything for the scheme itself.

The whole area of local government must be multipurpose. It must be governed by local councils. Each authority must have a comprehensive range of functions and a variety of public services to deliver. Each authority must have its own geographical area to administer. Each authority has a range of clearly defined functions to carry out — for example, the provision of housing, sanitary services, serviced sites, halting sites and the provision and maintenance of a proper road network. The Minister is not being fair to local authorities in asking them to provide these services with the funding which he is currently giving them. It is obvious to anybody who travels down the country that there is a breakup of our county roads system. A lot of work has been done on our national primary and secondary roads. But let anyone go off these roads and look at the condition of our main county roads. It is very difficult to explain why millions of pounds are being spent on national roads; but, when one turns off them, within 200 or 300 yards one finds potholes as big as barrels. Something must be done about the financing of our road system.

There is, regrettably, duplication in many of our local authority functions. I am glad to see that the Minister has identified some of these and has taken away the onus on local authorities to provide supplementary welfare allowances. However, how can the Minister justify the fact that in regard to the administation of house improvement grants and water schemes, inspectors have to come down from Dublin to the various counties at enormous expense? These schemes could and should be administered locally. We have fine professional employees in our local authorities who would be more than able to deal with such applications. We have situations where local authority engineers are going out to inspect houses followed by the departmental inspectors [485] coming from Dublin. Surely this is gross duplication.

The financing of local government has been a contentious problem for some time now. All local authorities are very concerned about the present unsatisfactory nature of their funding. The amount of discretion local authorities have in spending has decreased drastically in the past number of years. Now local authorities find themselves as mere administrators of funding which is being provided by central Government. Local government must incorporate local judgment and in this regard local councils must be given more discretion in spending their money. Judgment of need is better made by those close to the reality of local circumstances. True efficiency and economy lies in the matching of local resources to local needs. There are defects in local government, as I have pointed out. But the only alternative to local government is centralisation. This concept is a major cause of the crisis in public administration today. Local authorities are almost totally at the mercy of the Minister and the Department of the Environment. This Department and Minister possess powers, control and sanctions over the operation of local authorities. The best analogy is that of the parent and child relationship, the child in this case being the local authorities. Moves have been made to rectify this unhealthy situation, and I am glad that Fianna Fáil are moving on these lines. Local authorities have a better defined knowledge of how funding should be made in their area. A recent report states that the striking feature of the Irish system of local government, when compared with local government systems abroad or with other administrative systems within the country, is that the degree and extent of the controls exercised over it by the Department are too much.

The Minister must tackle a growing problem not alone in Dublin but also in the country, and that is the problem of vacant houses. While we on this side of the House welcome this £5,000 special grant for local authority applicants moving out of their houses, it has created [486] a problem in that houses are now being left vacant and are being vandalised. I listened to a report recently which revealed that it is taking Dublin Corporation eight or nine weeks to find occupants for vacant houses. At that stage they have to send in maintenance crews to put the houses back into a state of repair such that families can in fact live in them. This problem does not exist in Dublin alone but in other urban areas as well. There must be some system of safeguarding what is public property. The Minister must move to ensure that houses which become vacant are occupied as quickly as possible.

There are major question marks over the Housing Finance Agency. Every public representative I have spoken to in the recent past has been inundated with representations from people who have taken out a Housing Finance Agency loan and now find themselves unable to meet the repayments. This problem is being experienced not just in Dublin but everywhere.

The Minister must also look at the question of housing loans and house improvement loans from the local authorities. The legal fees involved in getting these loans are very severe. I cannot understand why some simple system cannot be introduced whereby an applicant for a £12,000 loan does not have to pay anything from £400 to £600 for such a loan. There must be some room for manoeuvre in this area.

The local authorities have to a certain extent control over our natural environment. The pollution of our rivers is now being monitored by most local authorities and this is to be encouraged. However, it must be borne in mind that the same local authorities are in most cases the biggest polluters of our rivers. Funding must be made available for sewerage treatment plants and for the improvement of such plants where they exist in all our major towns. A monitoring system must be set up either by the Department of the Environment or by the Department of Energy to monitor air pollution as a direct result of the recent nuclear accident in Russia and I would [487] ask the Minister to seriously consider the setting up of such a monitoring body.

I was pleased to have this opportunity to speak on this very important Vote and I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the points I have outlined.

Mr. G. Mitchell: Information on Gay Mitchell  Zoom on Gay Mitchell  Deputy R. Burke said there was an integrated programme in the EC which was being blocked by the Government. This was a programme which the Fianna Fáil chairmen of the three Dublin authorities were told existed but for which we had never applied. I want to put on the record that there is a line in the European Parliament budget entitled “Integrated Programmes”, put there by a Fine Gael MEP for Dublin. Fine Gael have been giving the lead in seeking funds from the European Parliament and there has not been a peep out of the other Dublin MEPs about this programme. That will be found to be a fact if anyone wishes to check the record.

We had a very eloquent well-rehearsed speech from an eminent Member of this House this morning. He did not have much time for chairmen of county councils, lord mayors, for chains and coaches or top hats but the same Deputy does not seem to feel uncomfortable in the company of wigs and gowns and other outmoded systems. I will be impressed when that same Deputy comes in here and criticises what happens in the Law Library and other State institutions. There are many people with no experience of local authorities who hold themselves as experts to get a little newspaper coverage at the expense of many councillors who are working very hard. I am sick and tired of my colleagues chipping at other councillors when they are not willing to criticise their colleagues in similar professions outside this House, professions which are not without their imperfections.

Many people say TDs should not be councillors and vice versa. I often wonder why a TD should not be a councillor if it is all right for a doctor, carpenter or journalist to be a councillor. If there is a [488] good reason why this should not happen, I should like to hear it. Most Members present in this Chamber have experience of being a councillor. If we were to provide that TDs may not become councillors, equally we should say that councillors may not become TDs. It may not be possible constitutionally to legislate for that, but because of the party system we operate it should be possible within the party to arrange our affairs in such a way that councillors cannot become TDs if TDs cannot become councillors. It is because that provision is not there that no TD can afford to resign his seat on the council. Unless we are prepared to look at this matter from both points of view we will not make any progress. I ask the Minister to give consideration to this.

I want to draw attention to one or two points which I did not hear raised this morning. I feel very strongly that the ultra vires rules which apply to local authorities should be withdrawn. It is not set down what local authorities can do; rather it is set down what local authorities cannot do. We should give local authorities wider ranging powers to do what they believe to be in the common good and the ultra vires should be withdrawn. The main sanction on local authorities should be the electorate. I understand there is a second Bill on local government reform promised, and I urge that this provision be considered.

In my view Dublin Corporation should be allowed to compete with building societies. I see no reason why a local authority like Dublin Corporation should have to take up the lower end of the market when they are not allowed to compete for the higher end of the market where there are profits to be made. The local authority is already operating like a building society, albeit in a very confined and down market way. I see no reason why we should not give the city council the power to decide if they want to go into the building society end of the business to a greater extent in order to fund some of the other costs which cannot be met by the Exchequer.

I was elected to Dublin Corporation [489] in 1979, in common with a number of Members of this House, and I can say in all honesty that the housing situation in Dublin city today was never better. In 1979 the housing situation was impossible. We could not get anybody a house in Tallaght. Now, because of the house building programme, and specifically the £5,000 grant scheme, there are houses available in certain areas and the pressure on the housing list has greatly eased. The problem now is that people want houses in specific areas whereas before they would take a house anywhere. That is a great improvement. The problem is that tenants who have a stabilising effect on the area and who tend to be self-sufficient are surrendering their houses and moving to other areas, thereby leaving a different mix in the area. I do not know if we can overcome this, but it is a problem we should confront.

I welcome the new house improvement grants scheme announced last year. This has helped to cut out the cowboys in the industry and encouraged small registered builders. This is very significant. I know of a number of small industries employing two, three or four people. Before this scheme was introduced those firms would not have been able to compete with the unregistered cowboys operating in this city.

Why has the 1985 sales scheme of local authority houses not been announced, let alone the 1986 scheme? Is there a reason why maisonettes cannot be sold to tenants? There is agreement in principle that maisonettes can be sold, but there seems to be some problem about who is responsible for the maintenance of the garden and who is responsible for the maintenance of the roof. For quite some time many people have been trying to purchase their maisonettes. There must be some legal definition of who is responsible for what, so that these people can buy their maisonettes. I ask the Minister to give this some attention, too. Why has the 1985 sales scheme of local authority houses not been announced? We are now in May 1986 and we have not yet heard about the 1986 scheme. Perhaps the Minister would look into this. Many [490] people feel their applications have been mislaid because they have not had their letters acknowledged and they do not know what will happen.

There is a surplus of houses in places like Tallaght because people are surrendering their tenancies under the £5,000 grant scheme, but at the same time we are building houses in Tallaght because the corporation have a very large land bank in that area.

We would be wise to consider diverting some of our house building programme funds not away from house building but to house enlargement. A number of houses in the south inner city of Dublin and places such as Maryland, Crumlin, Kimmage and Drimnagh have no bathrooms and the occupants have been seeking to have bathrooms built. The corporation can provide bathrooms for such houses only on a very limited scale and at the moment they are dealing with houses built prior to 1930. We should divert funds from some of our housing schemes into providing bathrooms for houses which have not got them so that tenants who are happy to live in those areas can do so and the housing stock will not deteriorate further. I am pressing Dublin Corporation on this matter. We could do a public service by enlarging existing houses rather than building houses in areas where there is a surplus of houses.

Let me pay tribute to Dublin Corporation and Dublin County Council for what are probably the most advanced parks departments in the world. They are second to none. I have seen public parks in various countries and no other country in the world has parks departments better than those in Dublin Corporation and Dublin County Council. No other country or city has parks which have been developed and maintained in such an imaginative and pretty way as the parks in this city.

Those of us who pay our car tax annually and do not remember when it is due are often embarrassed to find some morning that our car tax expired perhaps for a couple of weeks ago and we have forgotten to tax our cars. We have not been reminded, or we may be unlucky enough [491] to find a Garda or traffic warden's notice on the windscreen to remind us that we have not paid car tax. Nobody else reminds us of it and many of us who would not dream of not paying car tax do not receive any reminder. Once or twice I found that my tax disc had been out of date for two or three weeks before I realised it. There is nothing in the car to remind the driver that the tax is due. Car tax discs should be redesigned to be printed on both sides and self-adhesive so that they can be stuck on the windscreen and can be read from inside the car, thus reminding the driver of when his tax is due. It is very simple. Reminders are issued about car insurance and car licences but not car tax. On the couple of occasions that I found that my tax had expired I had to pay back tax for the short period that my car had been untaxed.

I want to bring to the attention of the House and the Minister the shyster landlords who are destroying the streetscapes of Dublin by neglecting to maintain their premises, particularly premises which are let out as multi-dwellings. Some of these landlords are greedy. They have large numbers of people in their dwellings but they make no attempt whatsoever to maintain their premises properly and they destroy whole streetscapes, some by erecting clothes lines in the front gardens, others by building extensions to the fronts of the houses without planning permission in total contravention of the planning authority, the appeal board and in some cases the High Court. In the older parts of the city, the inner city, Rathmines, off the South Circular Road which I represent and so on, they make no attempt at the proper unkeep of their premises. This is not pleasant for the neighbours. Rotten gutters and missing slates may have an adverse effect on neighbouring properties. Such general disrepair is not acceptable.

Neither is it acceptable that landlords who are making a profit on their houses are not required to maintain their premises at a reasonable standard. They would not live in such places. They live in other areas, but they are quite happy [492] to have other people living next door to such conditions. The Minister should give local authorities powers similar to the provisions of the Derelict Sites Act to enable them to demand that the landlord maintain his property properly. If he does not do so, they should be empowered to move in and do the work and send him the bill, payment of which if necessary could be enforced by the courts. Too many shysters are going around destroying the city. It is not just the local authorities to whom a Deputy referred who would not be tolerated in Amsterdam, Brussels or anywhere else. Some of our landlords would not be tolerated in these places. It is time that we gave power to local authoritries to deal with this.

I regret very much the way O'Connell Street has been allowed to develop into a honky-tonk street by an Bord Pleanála despite the fact that in many cases planning permissions have been turned down by Dublin Corporation. O'Connell Street has been turned into a burger joint. It is distressing to see the main street in our capital city full of burgerlands, burger-kings and so on. The local authority should be given power to overrule a decision of An Bord Pleanála by a two thirds vote in favour of that. An Bord Pleanála are an anonymous body appointed in a way with which I did not agree, and I said so at the time, but now probably matters have improved. No elected representative in this city would approve of the way O'Connell Street has developed. What were once the offices of The Irish Press are now a burger joint. O'Connell Street is turning into one big burgerland. That would not be allowed in any other city in the world, and it was done against the wishes of local representatives by an anonymous un-elected body who are too powerful. No group should be more powerful than the Government of the day, the elected Parliament of the day or in local matters the elected council of the day. I consider that a majority vote of two thirds of the local authority members to overturn a decision of An Bord Pleanála is a reasonable provision. I ask the Minister to consider that because it is in [493] nobody's interest that further development along the lines permitted by an Bord Pleanála in this instance should take place.

Mr. Keating: Information on Michael Keating  Zoom on Michael Keating  One matter that interests me about this Estimate is that it is in a sense a misnomer. We are debating the Estimate for the Department of the Environment. The manner in which the Department of the Environment have been run since they became the Department of the Environment forces us to re-examine what that Department do. The Minister's speech contained many constructive, sensible and rational proposals and in some cases achievements. We should review to what extent the Department of the Environment should be restructured, because the Estimate should be about environmental matters, predominantly if not exclusively; but, traditionally, that did not happen.

The Minister's speech covered a wide range of issues, many of them of questionable relevance to the Department of the Environment. I cannot understand, for example, why motor taxation and insurance should be the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. I understand that they have responsibility in those matters at present, but the tendency to deal with almost exclusively local government issues under the Department of the Environment is not just a misnomer or confusing, it creates the risk that none of us will focus adequately or comprehensively on the need for a proper policy on the environment, and we all have to rely on the Department of the Environment in that regard. Perhaps the Department should be restructured and given added powers in the area of environment. Perhaps some of the areas with which they deal at present should be given to the Department of Industry and Commerce, in respect of cars, or to local authorities, in respect of roads. If that happened — and I hope it does — it would mean an increased national emphasis on the need to develop a sensible, comprehensive and positive policy on the environment, which we do not [494] have at present. That is a shame, because our country is unique in the perception, at home and abroad, of being a green and clean land, although I have some doubts as to the accuracy of that perception. More importantly, it would allow us to develop strategies for developing environmental welfare and a positive policy towards ecological matters.

We should also develop a preventative attitude to stop the increasing denigration and destruction of the environment which is going on apace. Some of these matters are outside our control, but I want to deal with one of them in some detail. The question of the environment should be central to today's debate but it has not been. In the Minister's 38-page speech approximately two pages dealt with the environment in a general and nebulous way, presumably because that is the way the Department functioned over the years. It does not indicate any lack of commitment on the part of the Minister or his Minister of State in these areas, as I know both these gentlemen are very concerned about these issues. However, the Department's structures do not allow a major environmental emphasis on these matters; and, until we focus the minds of everybody in the country on the need to protect and develop what we have, there will be a gradual slow death for environmental and ecological aspects in society.

One of the issues which must have focused all our minds on the need for a strategy in that respect was the nuclear tragedy recently in the Soviet Union, the full implications of which are not yet clear, including those for this country. I should like the Department of the Environment to lead our response in this issue and to ensure, in so far as one can, that this country is protected in relation to these incidents, which, incidentally, occur all over the world in varying degrees of seriousness all the time. Unfortunately, and in a sense mysteriously, the Department of the Environment seem to have no hand, act or part in responding to that threat, or at least do not adopt the vanguard position in that respect. The Minister for Energy is deemed the appropriate Minister to deal [495] with the matter. There are a number of serious matters which need attention in respect of which the Department of the Environment should be charged with protecting the environment of the country and its people. The recent accident in Chernobyl and our reaction to it created deep unease. I was disturbed and remain very unhappy at our response to it. I cannot understand why there has not been a very serious re-evaluation of a situation where the Minister who assumes responsibility for dealing with this matter was clearly at odds with and issuing statements in conflict with professional bodies who have an interest in the areas of nuclear energy. There was a major conflict of evidence in the statements issued by the Minister for Energy and the Nuclear Energy Board regarding radiation levels which has not been satisfactorily or adequately explained.

There is a further conflict between those two sources and other professional bodies issuing information in this respect. Any thinking person must feel uncomfortable with our capacity to understand what is happening, in regard to issuing accurate information and to our ability as a Government and people to respond to similar threats in future. My personal view — and I believe it is the view of many people — is that we should learn a grave lesson from what happened and take steps to ensure that we create the right structures to monitor levels of radiation and atmospheric poisoning of all kinds in a clear and properly structured fashion, not with a plethora of political heads and professional bodies, some of whom have disclaimed responsibility for the central area of monitoring. We should, therefore, review the present structures. I urge that some form of inquiry be held into the incidents to ascertain why the Minister for Energy made public information which apparently did not square with the facts, although I have no doubt it was given to him by professional advisers, who, I am sure, acted with integrity and in good faith. However, the impression given over the weekend was not accurate, if the scientists who [496] subsequently gave information are to be believed. An inquiry and explanations are necessary.

Many of us are haunted by the belief that, if the awful truth had to be told, that if there was a tragedy of great proportions with major health and safety implications for this little island, we would probably not be told because of the obvious implications for public order. That is worrying, because it may mean that the Government may be forced at some stage to take a decision not to tell the people what they have a right to know. The structures we create should involve lay people being aware of threats to the environment, because there is a legacy of lies by international agencies in the area of nuclear energy.

A restructured body to deal with the environmental threat and the development of policies in that area should have on it representatives of the ordinary man and woman in the street, lay people who are not professional scientists, who do not have a vested interest and are not politicians. Those people should act as a direct line of truth from the ordinary people to the repository of fact as it becomes available.

The tragedy that occurred in the Soviet Union is a source of great distress to all right minded people throughout the world and we all hope the authorities there will be able to control and maintain it although there is some evidence to indicate that they are not in that position. The environment here is also under threat from the spinoff of that industry. I should like to ask the Government, arising out of that incident and the way we have allowed our waters and, in particular, the Irish Sea to be used as dumping grounds, to adopt an aggressive and assertive stance in regard to the dumping of waste off our south west coast, waste which is being dumped there from all over the world, and say clearly to our neighbour that we cannot any longer tolerate the saucer shaped Irish Sea being used as a dumping ground for the seeping, obnoxious poisons that go into it daily from the reprocessing plant at Sellafield. It is not acceptable as a [497] strategy or environmentally, and we must mobilise all our people into accepting the belief that we cannot put our waste, our dirt and filth off the edge of the world or into somebody else's backyard and that such waste should not be created unless it can be neutered in some safe fashion.

The Department of the Environment should take on the primary responsibility for environmental issues. They should develop a policy which will be aggressive and assertive with proper legal sanctions at home and, if necessary, seek them internationally through the European and other dimensions within which we work to ensure that the traditional relative purity of our environment is maintained. The nuclear industry, unfortunately, has been fraught with great problems in relation to its spin off. It is perfectly clear to anybody who takes any interest in this area that internationally we have created a monster that is out of control by virtue of the fact that the wastes that derive from that industry cannot be handled adequately. They are stock-piled in countries all over the world, are dumped into the seas and are kept in containment without adequate safeguards. That has all been fully written up.

Sir Macfarlane Burnet, a Nobel Prize winner has said, “Nuclear energy is incompatible with life as we know it”. He went on to state that it would not be possible for any country to take adequate measures to protect itself against the threat of nuclear energy because we live in a global village and because of the effects on the international community of radiation. They are unquantifiable and are not guessable simply because this is a relatively new scientific phenomenon. Nobody knows how long or how deep are the effects of nuclear radiation on genetic makeup or on our environment. In the area of environment many of us rely on the belief that somehow everything will be all right on the day, that scientists in the end will manage to resolve the issue. In that regard I was struck by the words of Professor Paul Ehrlich:

[498] Those who believe that science will pull a technological rabbit out of the hat to save us at the last minute simply suffer from an inability to learn. Technological rabbits tend to create more problems than they solve — they usually have large appetites and abundant noxious droppings.

Surely the nuclear industry is very appropriate to that comment.

Prophetically Ralph Nader said on 20 November 1973 in New York:

It does not make any sense to replace the present energy crisis with a long-term radioactivity crisis.

It is a reasonable conclusion that within ten years or so there may be a catastrophic release of radioactivity from an operating nuclear power reactor.

His words were accurate almost to the year.

On the question of the dumping of nuclear waste in respect of which Ireland has endured more than any other country in terms of the amount and quantity of nuclear waste dumped into the seas around us, Norma Turner, writing in the New Scientist on 30 October 1975, said:

According to the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the quantity of waste that has already been dumped in the sea is considerable, to say the least, and even so all the facts and figures are still a matter of conjecture... Indiscriminate dumping still goes on.

That dumping has accelerated in the 11 years since Norma Turner made that statement.

Professor R.F.Dasmann, Senior Ecologist at the time at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Switzerland said:

The nation that adopts the nuclear option helps to endanger the future of life on earth and almost guarantees the growing restriction of human freedom imposed by the need for increasing [499] security measures. Furthermore, it is no answer to the energy problem, but may mitigate against finding long-term solutions.

If that is the case one must wonder why this has happened and whether it has a lot more to do with human greed and the business of commerce rather than with energy or the well-being of the planet.

Scientists and engineers working at the Institute of Energy at the University of Grenoble said:

Since nuclear energy is not competitive and involves numerous risks in addition, we might well wonder why someone has chosen it for such rapid development.

That sinister suggestion is supported by the study and research group of the Trade Union for the Electricity Industry in France which made the following comment in public:

It is, moreover, certain that the nuclear authorities deliberately hide the risks from the public. And again, research into safety and the environmental consequences are derisory compared, for instance, with expenditure on publicity.

This is a small and fragile country environmentally and ecologically but it has the ability to reverse a great deal of the damage done and in my few words I have only dealt with the damage on one front. I am convinced that, until such time as the Department of the Environment are entrusted with the responsibility centrally of protecting our environment and developing appropriate strategies and policies, we will not be adopting an adequate approach in this area. To do that it may be that the Department will have to shed some of the other extraneous matters mentioned in the Minister's speech this morning. I suggest that we should learn from the incident last week and that we should have an independent inquiry into the handling of it by the State and the conflict of evidence at the time.

We should restructure the systems by [500] which we handle information and the monitoring of date arising from that kind of ecological disaster. In that restructured approach there should be room for lay people so that we do not have to trust professionals, Governments or people in authority. In this area we can take no chances in the sense that it is too serious to be left to the people at the top, if I might put it that way. There are no safety levels, no permitted limits in the area of nuclear radiation. Any release, any spill, is too great and any massaging of people's concern by the kind of bland statements we have had is not adequate.

We have a chance to learn a serious lesson from what has happened. I hope the Department of the Environment will take a lead in so doing. I believe I am speaking on behalf of the people in saying that none of us could have been that impressed with the conflicts of evidence that arose in recent days in relation to matters of major importance, affecting the safety and security of this country.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien): Information on Fergus O'Brien  Zoom on Fergus O'Brien  I welcome this opportunity to debate the Environment Estimate especially as the funds provided will enable local authorities to continue to provide the very wide range of services, which we all enjoy. These services cover most aspects of day-to-day living, ranging from basic necessities of shelter and water supply to the overall environmental fabric in which we live. The Government have taken steps in the past three years to deal with the problems which the eighties, and indeed, the seventies, have thrown up. I am glad to say that 1986 will be no different. The Government, by way of this Estimate and the Environment portion of the Public Capital Programme, have provided substantial funds to maintain and improve the progress made already.

Local Government is a very important part of our democracy. It is the aim of the Government to improve it wherever and whenever possible. I might say that there is one Deputy on this side of the House who continuously attacks some councillors and their behaviour. I want [501] to say that I have the highest respect for the work undertaken by members of corporation and county councils. Up and down the land they give of their time freely. It is not fair to pillory people like that who undertake such work on a voluntary basis. I say that sincerely as one who served on a corporation.

Last year we had the Local Government (Reorganisation) Act, 1985 which introduced a new system of local electoral areas in counties and county boroughs and provided for adjustments in electoral boundaries in Dublin and Galway. It also upgraded Galway to the status of county borough. Further Bills are in preparation in the Department to complete the reorganisation in the Dublin area and for other reforms in local government law which will be introduced in the House later this year.

Because of the time constraints I shall be brief and refer mainly to the areas for which I have special responsibility, that is urban development and renewal.

Last month, I gave this House details of the Urban Renewal Bill when the Bill was read for a Second Time. The Urban Renewal Bill arose from the package of special measures announced by the Taoiseach in October of last year relating to unemployment and taxation. This package of measures included the implementation of the recommendations of the working party, of which I was chairman, and whose report on the best approach to be adopted in relation to the Custom House docks site in Dublin was completed last October. The Urban Renewal Bill is complementary to the provisions in Chapter V of the Finance Bill, 1986 which gives effect to the tax incentives announced by the Taoiseach and the Minister for the Environment to promote development and reconstruction in certain designated inner city areas in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway.

Urban renewal, in the broad sense, seeks to regenerate those areas of our cities and towns where the fabric of society has deteriorated. The problems associated with this deterioration have many dimensions — physical, economic, social and environmental — and must be [502] met by a diversity of remedies applied in a co-ordinated manner by both public and private interests.

As regards the public sector, the Government have given a lead. As previously mentioned, the Urban Renewal Bill and the Finance Bill will provide for various incentives for the private sector to become involved. The provisions of these two Bills, when enacted, will provide very wide measures of relief for designated areas. The Finance Bill provides for the granting of capital allowances in respect of commercial buildings and structures offices, shops, leisure and car-parking facilities, etc. — on the same lines as the allowances available for industrial buildings and structures. The allowances will generally be given in respect of the cost of construction work carred out in the period from 23 October, 1985 to 31 May, 1989, but, as regards the Custom House docks area, will apply for the five year period commencing on the date of approval of a proposed planning scheme for the site.

The allowances in question are, in general, a 50 per cent initial allowance and a 4 per cent annual allowance with free depreciation for owner-occupiers. However, one-half only of those allowances will be available in the designated areas in Dublin other than the Custom House docks area.

Section 39 of the Finance Bill provides for the granting of relief to lessors under section 23 of the Finance Act, 1981, for the construction or conversion cost of dwellings provided for rental in the Custom House docks area in so far as the work is carried out in the five year period. Tax relief under this section will be available against the rental income of the lessor and not merely the rental income from the premises in respect of which relief was given. The normal rules relating to section 23 relief in regard to such matters as the size of flats or houses, the letting of premises for ten years and compliance with standards of construction will also operate for the purpose of this section.

As regards residential development outside the Custom House docks area [503] the Finance Bill provides that a tax allowance will be available to owner-occupiers in respect of a dwelling newly constructed or refurbished during the period from 23 October, 1985, to 31 May, 1989, in the other designated areas in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Galway. The individual who incurs the expenditure on construction or refurbishment must be the first owner and first occupier of the dwelling after that expenditure has been incurred. The allowance may be claimed in each of the first ten years of the life of the dwelling following construction or refurbishment provided that the dwelling is the sole or main residence of the individual. The annual allowance will be of an amount equal to 5 per cent of the expenditure incurred by the individual, excluding site costs and net of all grants payable to him.

The Bill also provides that a double rent allowance as an expense in computing trading profits for tax purposes will be available to traders in the Custom House docks area and in the designated areas in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway. The relief may be claimed for each of the first ten years of each new lease entered into by traders during the period from 23 October, 1985 to 31 May, 1989, or, as respects the Custom House docks area, during the five year period commencing when the planning scheme for the area is approved.

The Urban Renewal Bill provides for the making of schemes for the remission of rates in respect of premises in designated areas and these schemes will be made as soon as possible after the enactment of the Bill. The intention is that there will be full remission of rates for ten years on new buildings constructed in a designated area between 23 October, 1985 and 31 May, 1989 and full remission of the rates on any increase in the valuation of enlarged or improved buildings. I am confident that the incentives in the Finance Bill and the Urban Renewal Bill will provide a unique opportunity to revive and develop the Custom House docks site and revitalise the designated areas in our larger cities. I am confident [504] also of a very positive response from the private sector to these incentives. We hear much criticism from the Opposition that we are not doing anything for the building industry. We hear talk of dereliction within our cities. In my view this constitutes the first really positive step to eradicate such problems obtaining within our inner cities. It is up to people who have been critical of Government for their alleged lack of response to acknowledge that this constitutes a positive response. It behoves developers and others to take this up and run with it. I hope they will do so because it obtains for a three year period in designated areas. I know that the corporations in various cities are drawing up their plans and have appointed officers to integrate all of these schemes.

This Government and the last Coalition Government can be proud of their record with regard to inner city housing. That problem was tackled first when the Coalition came to power in 1973. I remember, in an area part of which I represented, an order being made by the corporation for a CPO to develop an old part of the city, City Quay, but that was turned down by Fianna Fáil who were then in Government. I now hear them trying to take credit for this development. However, the important thing is that refurbishment has started on many parts of the city which needed it. I should like to see a greater emphasis on the encouragement of private development, to get a proper social mix, which is necessary for a balanced community. Never has an urban renewal programme on this scale been undertaken by any housing authority in the State. Dublin Corporation can be justly proud of the work they have done and they are continuing with their programme.

Another area of Government help is the Dublin Inner City Group Fund, for which the Estimate provides a £300,000 grant this year. This successful group have been actively engaged in assisting a number of worthwhile projects in the economic, social and education fields. The activities of the group have been [505] concentrated on job creation, the provision of training courses and education, youth clubs and community facilities, amenities and recreational facilities. All these are necessary in an inner city context. Very good value is being got for the money being spent. In the policy statement of 30 May 1985, “Reform of Local Government”, it was announced that the administration of the Dublin inner city programme should be devolved to Dublin Corporation as part of a programme to revitalise local government. Arrangements to implement the Government decision have now been completed.

As the House is aware, the home improvement grant scheme has been very successful and over 70,000 applications were received. One important aspect of this tremendous scheme is that it is realised that there should be a differentiation between old and new houses. The houses of pre-1940 can warrant a grant of £5,000 for repairs. If an extension is needed there is a grant of £2,000, for a bathroom £800 and also a grant for a water supply. These improvements are essential. For the short time this scheme is in operation I can see improvements taking place particularly in the older areas of Dublin. No doubt, in two or three years' time it will have a tremendous impact on improving older areas.

For too long there was a tinkering around with small grants. Deputy Lyons was criticising our scheme this morning, but he did not criticise when his party removed the only grant scheme available at the time, which was not a particularly healthy one. Our approach is positive and the scheme is working well. It is generating much needed employment.

Other areas of Government action in the housing area include the £5,000 grant. Some Deputies have been critical of this, saying that it was taking away from the local authority housing stock. My answer is that we should encourage people to own their own dwellings as much as we can. I am a great believer in home ownership and this is one of the ways in which we can encourage it. This grant has made a tremendous impact on reducing local authority housing lists. That is [506] something of which we can be proud. I know we are constrained in time, but I should like to say a few words on joint venture housing, which should be encouraged. We should get local authorities working together in this context. That is necessary to get the kind of mix for which we are all looking.

Amenity and recreational facilities are recognised as essential for balanced development, especially in areas of high youth population. Indeed, amenity and recreational facilities are in demand for all age groups. Local authorities have done much work in the past in providing amenities such as parks, open spaces, community centres and swimming pools. They deserve our appreciation — in particular, the parks section. In the public capital programme there is loan provision for local authorities who wish to borrow to establish such facilities. Some works such as libraries and swimming pools are supported by a State subsidy of 50 per cent on loan charges.

To meet the increased demand for urgently required amenity facilities in built up areas, last October the Taoiseach announced a special scheme. The provision of £5 million is included in subhead U of the Estimate for this scheme. Details of the various 55 schemes to be aided were announced last March. The schemes are spread throughout the country. In the Dublin area there are 32 and in other major urban areas there are 23. This injection of money leads to an improvement in the quality of life, particularly in areas of social disadvantage.

In addition to providing the necessary infrastructure, urban areas need to improve their environmental image as an aid to attract people, whether they be industrialists, shoppers, or tourists. Local authorities need to ensure that urban areas are attractive and special attention should be given to providing good landscaping and suitable street furniture so that locations will be attractive and pleasant for both residents and those who work in, or visit, urban areas. That is something to which we should give far more attention, particularly in our capital city which requires special attention and [507] special structures to ensure that this great old traditional city will have the image we should all like it to have.

Before ending, I should like to refer to progress being made on the provision of halting sites and homes for travelling people. This year there is a capital provision of £3 million, as against £1.5 million spent in 1985, for the provision of fully serviced sites. Group housing, rural cottages, or standard local authority dwellings allocated to travelling people are financed out of the general capital allocation for local authority dwellings. In addition, almost £1 million is provided for the payment of social workers in Subhead E of the Vote.

The policy decision taken by the Government in July 1984 was a turning point in our treatment of travellers. We decided that a co-ordinated and sustained effort would be made to provide services.

On the accommodation front there are now tangible results. Group housing schemes have been provided or are under construction in six counties. In Dublin two schemes have been completed and a third is under construction. Progress on serviced sites has been substantial. Sites have been completed or are under construction in 11 local authority areas. In Dublin, two sites have been completed, one in the city and one in the county. There are other sites under construction. We can only welcome this type of development. My Department are examining plans for the provision of another site in the city and the refurbishment of existing sites. Planning on the other sites in Kilkenny. Meath, Westmeath and Kildare is at an advanced stage. The most significant stage was the adoption by Dublin County Council in March of this year of a programme for 30 sites. This is another important development.

Despite the achievements since mid-1984, there is no room for complacency. The accommodation provided, under construction or being planned will not be sufficient to absorb the number of families on the roadside. I would ask all local authorities to do what they can. I have attempted in the brief time available [508] to me to outline the various programmes and schemes which are in operation or will be available soon to further develop our urban areas. However, developments must be planned, co-ordinated and integrated so as to achieve a sensible community mix in the balance between dwellings, commercial, industrial, social and amenity developments in keeping with the character of the area.

The measures which I have outlined show that the Government recognise the need for more urgent and direct action to cope with the problems associated with urban decay, especially in the inner city. The Government expect the relevant local authorities to promote the various designated areas, to act as development corporations and to use the wide powers they have under the Planning and Development Act to promote and facilitate development. They also expect the private sector to participate in the development of designated areas, especially as there will be every incentive in the Finance Bill and the Urban Renewal Bill.

Mr. S. Walsh: Information on Seán Walsh  Zoom on Seán Walsh  I would like to open my remarks by congratulating the new Minister, Deputy Boland, on his appointment. I have no doubt that, while his brief as Minister for the Environment must cover the whole country generally, since he represents a Dublin constituency he must be conversant with the problems both in Dublin city and county. As I say, I wish him success in that Department.

There is no doubt that this morning we had a very lengthy document read by the Minister and now we have a second document read by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien. In this document many matters have been referred to. I would like to refer to one of these, about which much has been made. I refer to the three new councils in the Dublin area. I would appeal to the Minister of State and to the Minister, Deputy Boland, to speed up the legislation required and all the other arrangements which are necessary to set up these three councils, particularly Dublin County Council.

At present, Dublin County Council occupy a chamber which was designed [509] for 36 members. The number is more than double that at present. I want to say that the accommodation and facilities are anything but helpful. I would like to thank and congratulate the officials of the council for their efforts in trying to make the situation as effective as possible. Nevertheless, it was the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien who more or less introduced the legislation to increase the membership of the councils and who talked about their creation. We were told that the legislation would be introduced immediately after the local elections, which were held last June. I appreciate all these things take time. I would welcome this being done and I would urge the Ministers to have the legislation dealt with as soon as possible.

Much has been said about the £5,000 grant. I welcome this and I would like to congratulate the Government on their efforts in this respect. Unfortunately, it may be the policy of Ministers not to make any reference to the problems created as a result. Recently I endeavoured to raise one of these problems in this House, but the Ceann Comhairle felt that the matter was not sufficiently serious to allow me to raise it. It is one which I am pleased to have the opportunity to refer to today, and it is the number of vacant houses in Tallaght in the ownership of Dublin Corporation.

In the areas involved — Killinarden, Knockmore, Jobstown and Fettercairn — I want to put it on the record that this is a very serious problem facing Dublin County Council and Dublin Corporation. The Minister for the Environment should take some interest in the matter. When I refer in this House to vacant houses, many people will wonder what I am talking about. The point is that there are a number of vacant houses in the Tallaght area. These have come about as a result of people moving out, the majority of whom have moved since the introduction of the £5,000 grant. I congratulate these people on their initiative in availing of this grant. The problem has arisen as a result of the failure of Dublin Corporation, of which the Acting Chairman is a member and of which the Minister of [510] State was a member for a number of years, to reallocate these houses in a reasonable time. These houses are located in the Dublin County Council area of Tallaght. I am pleased that Deputy Taylor is present in the House. because he is also a member of the council.

But the problems do arise. For example, in a block of four houses one of the central houses could become vacant today. This will cause tremendous worry and concern to the people living in the adjoining houses. During the night this house is invaded by vandals and, perhaps, set on fire. The number of vacant houses in Tallaght which have been set on fire is a cause for concern. I am sorry that the Minister is not present. This matter was queried recently with Dublin Corporation as a result of a meeting which I initiated as chairman of the Belgard Council.

Lack of security is one of the problems. We were told at that meeting that Dublin Corporation spent £1.6 million on security last year, the majority of which related to security for vacant houses. Because of the cutbacks in finance they felt that it was not possible for them to continue with that security. This year there is a considerable amount — £600,000 — allocated in the estimates but this is small in terms of the requirement in this regard. We hear quite a lot in this House and also at local authority level about the scarcity of money. The cost of constructing these houses and making them available for habitation lies in the region of £30,000, £35,000 or £40,000 but when they become available there is a considerable delay in reallocating them. Some of them that are left vacant and without security are set on fire. Somebody must be responsible for this. The taxpayers have to meet the cost of constructing these houses yet they are often left vacant for three to six months. At night or in the early hours of the morning members of the council are called on to take some action but the only course open to us at that time is to call the Garda Síochána. They have been most helpful and most co-operative in this regard. I am making [511] a special appeal in relation to this matter and I hope the Ministers concerned will take note of it.

There is something considerably wrong with the policy pursued by Dublin Corporation in dealing with this matter. The money that is being spent on the construction of these houses is being wasted because there is nothing being done about the problem. The Government and Dublin Corporation should take note of this and take some effective action so that the people in the adjoining areas are not living in fear. I am not exaggerating this problem. Recently in the Tallaght area there were over 60 houses vacant and quite a number of these were burned out. Though some of the others were boarded up, this boarding was soon pulled down. This is a problem facing the councillors in the Tallaght area, the people of Tallaght and Dublin County Council. The body responsible are Dublin Corporation and I am making a special appeal that this matter be tackled immediately.

I was surprised that we did not hear anything from the Minister about a purchase scheme for the Dublin area. There is no purchase scheme available in Dublin County Council or Dublin Corporation. I do not know if this applies to the whole country. This purchase scheme has not been available for some time and I was hoping that I would hear something about it today.

I appreciate the intentions behind the £5,000 new house grant — to create employment — but one would have thought that this grant would have been available to people living in local authority houses and that it would encourage them to purchase these houses. The people moving out of these houses have been involved in work in the areas whether as group leaders, doing church work or in local residents' associations. The areas mentioned suffer as a result of these people leaving. If we are to encourage people to move out of areas we should give some encouragement also for people to remain in their areas. I hope that the Ministers concerned and the Government will examine this further.

[512] I wish to refer to the large areas of land in the Dublin area and particularly in the Tallaght area that are in the ownership of Dublin Corporation. It may be said that I am making this a constituency matter but this has been a major problem in Dublin county and in Tallaght in particular down through the years.

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  There is nothing wrong with making it a constituency matter.

Mr. S. Walsh: Information on Seán Walsh  Zoom on Seán Walsh  I am delighted to have Deputy Taylor's support. Large tracts of land are lying derelict. We hear a lot about urban renewal. The time has come when some of the people concerned should spend some time in these areas and realise the problems there. When these lands come into the ownership of the local authorities if they are not to be used immediately for building or for other purposes it should be let for tillage or for some other use.

Acting Chairman (Mr. J. Doyle): Information on Joseph Doyle  Zoom on Joseph Doyle  The Deputy has one minute left.

Mr. S. Walsh: Information on Seán Walsh  Zoom on Seán Walsh  I had not realised my time had gone so quickly. At the next corporation meeting the Acting Chairman might make special mention of this problem to the City and County Manager. I am now extending an invitation to Dublin Corporation to visit the Tallaght area and to realise the problems they have created for the people of Tallaght and for the local and public representatives of that area. I would urge that something be done about making a purchase scheme available in Dublin city and county.

A problem was created in the Tallaght area as a result of a developer going into liquidation. A large area of land was left practically derelict. I hope the Ministers will take note of this and make some effort to deal with the problem.

I am somewhat disappointed that there has not been more reference to roads in the Dublin area in particular. There is one road which all associations have been talking about. It was designed for the [513] purpose of helping to alleviate the problems in the Clondalkin area, one of the three new towns which was created some time ago. That is the Fonthill-Newlands Road. All public representatives over the years have been endeavouring to have this road done in order to remedy traffic hazards in Clondalkin, but no finance has been made available. I urge the Minister and the Department to have another look at this and to do something for the people of that town.

We hear much about Sellafield these days and I should like to congratulate the school children of St. Colmcille national school in Tallaght who went to the trouble of writing to the President of the Soviet Union. They showed intelligence in doing such a thing, whether it will have any effect or not.

The Minister referred in particular to the £5,000 house improvement grant and I cannot let the occasion go without referring to the large number of unemployed in my constituency and throughout Dublin. The building industry at the moment is at an all time low level and I ask the Minister to give it a lift. Let us hear soon a suitable announcement of help for the industry which would give jobs and hope to many people, particularly the young.

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  Because of the time at my disposal I will refer to two things. First, I want to refer to the Motor Insurers Bureau, the organisation which insurance companies were obliged to set up to pay compensation to people who suffer serious personal injuries through the driving of uninsured vehicles. I find it rather strange that the bureau comes under this Department, which seems illogical when one realises there are at least two other Departments, Justice and Industry, who have their fingers in the insurance pie.

That bureau has a very serious gap in its scheme. The scheme does not cover unfortunate victims of hit-and-run accidents. That gap has been left in the scheme throughout the 20 years since the Minister last negotiated an agreement with the insurers. It is time that was [514] reviewed. Not many people are aware until it happens to them or one of their family or friends or relatives that if they are unlucky enough to be a victim of a hit-and-run driver, struck down, left there with broken bones, possibly disabled for life with no hope of ever working again, they will not be compensated if that driver is not traced. A person will not receive any insurance cover whatsoever from an insurance company or from the bureau.

This is illogical and senseless. If the car is traced there are two possibilities: either the car is covered by insurance or it is not. If the car is traced and it is covered, obviously the insurance company will be liable, and if the car is not covered the Motor Insurers Bureau will be liable. One way or another, the victim will be entitled to compensation. The major gap in the scheme is that just because a driver has not been traced the unfortunate victim will not get a penny. It is all too common in the case of children victims, and the figures are increasing. Breadwinners of families have been disabled for life, but because the victims could not trace the drivers they could not seek compensation anywhere. This is untenable and the Minister should not allow it to continue year after year.

In the UK, where they have a similar insurers bureau, more than 20 years ago the insurance companies were compelled to come into line and provide compensation for the victims of hit-and-run accidents. It is high time the Minister now in the House, after 20 years of negotiations since the matter was last reviewed with the insurance companies, filled this gap in the system. I know that will affect premiums, but so be it: it has to be handled because we cannot leave those unfortunate people without compensation in cases in which motorists are untraceable. I hope note will be taken of this so that there will be action to make this long overdue change.

I wish now to refer to a problem faced by house owners and tenants during the past ten years. It concerns what we call prefabricated chimneys. Many were installed by small building firms in local [515] authority and private houses. Many of these chimneys have been found to be fire hazards. Many of them have caused houses to go up in flames and there have been injuries and loss of life. Hundreds if not thousands of these prefabricated chimneys have been installed up and down the country. The Department must face up to this.

After the event, as so often happens, we are faced with a serious fire hazard which could lead to loss of dwellings but, more seriously, to injuries and loss of life. Many tenants and house owners who have been unfortunate enough to have these chimneys installed are extremely worried and are casting about for means to make their houses safe. They are afraid to use the chimneys even in winter. Every now and again we read of a house going up in flames as a result of this danger.

I take the view that the local authorities have a responsibility to cope with this. Local authorities have to give by-law approval for the construction of those chimneys. Local authority inspectors would or should have inspected them and should not have allowed by-law approval for something that could be so serious a danger. The Department of the Environment as the overall supervisory agency must confront this danger and deal with it.

Many of the people affected are contemplating, legal action against local authorities for the cost of removing these fire hazards from their homes and replacing them with safer structures. Most people do not have the resources or the will to take legal action. Therefore, the Minister for the Environment should consider seriously the introduction of a new grant scheme specially devoted to those unfortunate people who find themselves having to pay for the replacement of these dangerous chimneys. The Department should pay if not all at least a major part of the cost. Such a scheme would give hope to many thousands of people. Ares such as Limekiln, Walkins-town, Castle Lawn and Castle Park in Tallaght have been seriously affected. There have been fires and houses have [516] been gutted as a result. A private estate, Springfield, Tallaght has also been seriously affected. I have spoken to my colleagues here and I know this applies throughout the country. The matter is urgent and I ask the Minister to bring in the scheme before all our assets in the form of homes go up in smoke with a tragic loss of life.

The financing of local authorities is a shambles. It has never been right since rates were abolished in 1977. All of us remember the kind of auction that took place as to which party would abolish the rates more quickly but the implication was always there that in the event of their abolition central Government would make good the financing of the local authorities in lieu of the rates. All Governments, both Fianna Fáil and Coalition, did nothing about this matter with the result that the amounts available to local authorities decreased. Thus, local authorities have been forced throughout this time to reduce their services more each year and that process is still continuing.

The level of services provided by local authorities ten years ago bears no resemblance to the level of services provided today. Local authority houses are not repaired in the same way, with the same regularity and to the same extent. The parks are not maintained as well as formerly and refuse bins are not collected as regularly but when we, as county councillors, complain about this we get the stock answer from the manager that the best possible service is being provided within the limits of the resources available to him. When one takes account of inflation that figure gets less and less in real terms. If we do not deal with the problem now it will get worse and eventually there will be chaos, with completely inadequate services. If some form of local taxation is raised, I hope the matter will be carefully thought out. I hope care will be taken to ensure that the burden of payment falls on those with the ability to pay and not on those who are in poor and difficult financial circumstances. It should not be a tax applied equally across the board but should fall [517] on those who can afford to live in the wealthier parts of counties and cities and who can afford to occupy valuable properties.

The previous speaker referred to the unsatisfactory situation under which Dublin County Council are operating. They work as one authority but, below the surface, they act on the basis of the three new authorities to be formed. The establishment of these three new councils is taking too long. The process should be speeded up. Dublin County Council are not working at their most efficient in the present unsatisfactory state of affairs. They have more members than Seanad Éireann, a council chamber that cannot cope and a staff who are overburdened. I do not know why the process is taking so long. It may be due to shortage of staff and other pressures but whatever the reason the residents of County Dublin are not getting a satisfactory service.

Articulated trucks are posing a serious problem in residential estates. Sufficient thought and planning has not been given to coping with this phenomenon. The problems arise because of the transport policy adopted in the past ten or 20 years of running down the railways, a mistaken policy in my view. It was a bad decision and it is something we will live to regret. Because of that policy and because of the concentration on the roads as a means of transport there has been a proliferation of articulated trucks. They are causing grave problems and dangers in residential estates where the drivers and helpers of the vehicles live. Usually they start their trucks at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. thus waking up the entire estate. They park in dangerous places because there is nowhere else for them. Accidents are caused by children playing around the vehicles or running out from behind them. Some of the vehicles take up half the width of the estate road and are a cause of intense aggravation. We will have to consider providing special parking lots for these vehicles and make it compulsory for them to park here. Even the Garda Síochána seem powerless to control this nuisance in residential estates.

I ask the Minister to discuss with [518] county managers the policy on allocation of tenancies, in particular the transfer of tenancies of local authority dwellings. There is a great reluctance on the part of local authorities to allow tenants to transfer from one vacant dwelling to another and this seems to be for no good reason. I could understand this reluctance to facilitate people if it meant the loss of a local authority dwelling, but I cannot understand it when it is a case of a tenant wishing to transfer to another vacant house belonging to the same authority. The tenant may have family or job reasons for making the request. I do not understand why the local authorities are not openhanded about this and why they do not facilitate people. It would not involve any cost to the local authority. I ask the Minister to look at this and to consider issuing a recommendation to local authorities to ease up on this control. It would not mean anything to the local authorities to facilitate such people by relaxing the existing regulations which are applied in these cases.

Mr. Barrett: Information on Michael Barrett  Zoom on Michael Barrett  (Dublin North-West): I welcome the opportunity to make a few remarks and congratulate the Minister on his appointment particularly as he is a Deputy who represents the Dublin area. That is no reflection on the Minister of State. We have two very large authorities, Dublin Corporation and Dublin County Council. Dublin Corporation is the largest authority in the country. The Minister is a former member of Dublin County Council and also a former chairman. He has experience of the problems that exist in local authorities.

Local Government reform was badly needed. One of the areas I represent, Ballymun, was previously under the authority of Dublin County Council and Dublin Corporation. The situation was intolerable because of the difficulty of knowing who was responsible for what. Now it is the responsibility of Dublin Corporation.

Ballymun is a very deprived area. About 60 per cent of the people are unemployed and there is great need for more assistance for Ballymun. I cannot [519] see why the Government would not consider setting up special employment schemes for areas like Ballymun. It would be of tremendous benefit in improving the image of Ballymun and improving the environment. There is great need to improve landscaping in the area. Trees and shrubs should be planted. The Taoiseach recently visited Ballymun. The local council in Ballymun represents about 83 different organisations in the area. They have set up the machinery to operate a job centre. It has been estimated that the minimum number of staff required to operate the centre is six. In the magazine, Quest for Ballymun, it is stated that the Taoiseach gave some indication that the Government would support funding the project. The magazine asks to what extent. The Taoiseach did not give any guarantee about the amount of assistance that would be given but said that his Department would negotiate with the council in Ballymun to see what could be done. He spoke about having a staff of three while those who set up the machinery to operate the job centre said the minimum number of staff required would be six. Ballymun is a very deprived area and the Government should consider giving full funding to the centre.

The Suss centre was funded by the Department of Labour for six months. This centre operate an office and give a great service to the people. I am glad the Government decided to give funding to that centre for a further six months. I hope they will realise the valuable service being given by the centre to people living in Ballymun and that they will continue to fund it. The six people working there were previously in receipt of social welfare and it is welcome to see such people doing valuable work in the community. I often wonder why more local people could not be employed.

There are 200 flats and a number of houses vacant in Ballymun. They have been vandalised. The corporation might not agree with that figure, but the people living there know the number of flats that are vacant. A number of houses are not [520] fit for human habitation. I called to see a couple in a flat last weekend. When I arrived I discovered they had left and to my amazement the central heating and water were on. I was told by the tenant in the flat next door that the couple had been transferred. Squatters had got into the flat. The front door was taken off and a door used on an inside room was hanging on one hinge. It is a known fact in Ballymun that windows and doors are taken away. That is a example of what is going on. Last year Dublin Corporation spent over £1 million on security. It would not seem as if they got value for money when one realises that a number of flats and houses were vandalised. There is no doubt but that something is wrong with the present system where security companies get £1 million of taxpayers' money and yet something like this happens.

Local men who are presently unemployed could be given gainful employment in the area. I see no reason why caretakers should not be appointed for each block of flats. One would never see high rise flats in any other part of Europe without there being a caretaker. I have visited many flat complexes in England and in all of these caretakers are appointed. If there was a caretaker in each block of flats vandalism would be reduced. We must balance the £1 million spent on security with the amount of social welfare payments being made to able-bodied men in the Ballymun area. The Minister said that local Government reform aims to improve, strengthen and modernise the system of local government and to complete and improve the strutures and procedures. This is the largest local authority in the country and, while I welcomed the abolition of domestic rates, sufficient funds have not come from central Government and this has caused serious problems for Dublin Corporation.

I am very concerned about the number of vacant sites around the city at the moment. As Deputy Mitchell said, the condition of O'Connell Street is appalling, and this has been brought about as a result of the planning committee of [521] Dublin Corporation refusing planning permissions which were agreed by An Bord Pleanála. Some beautiful buildings, such as The Irish Press Office, have been turned into take-away food joints. The whole area looks like Las Vegas.

There have been massive cutbacks in housing maintenance and this has caused enormous problems for tenants who are unable to maintain their own houses. Many old people have to live in houses and flats, the doors and windows of which are not secure as they are not being maintained properly because of the cutbacks in funding. There is also concern in Ballymun about some of the houses which are of partly wooden construction, which have been there for the last 20 years, and in which much of the timber has rotted. These are beautiful houses but, unfortunately, the corporation have not sufficient funds to take away the old rotten wood and replace it with bricks or blocks. Also in Ballymun where part of the area has now come under the authority of Dublin Corporation, there are serious problems relating to sewerage. In one area there is a problem where water pipes are only seven or eight inches below the ground so that in winter when there is heavy frost they become frozen and there is no water supply to the houses. Ballymun, Finglas and Santry have serious problems in regard to water pressure. This has been going on for a number of years and nothing constructive has been done about it so far. Recently I received a letter from the chief engineer of the waterworks department telling me he has plans to eliminate this problem. As I said earlier Ballymun is a deprived area with a high rate of unemployment. Yet there are practically no recreational facilities there. There is also a great need for similar recreational facilities in the Finglas area which also have a very large young population.

There is a great need to improve public lighting in the Dublin area. Most of the public lighting in housing estates is completely inadequate for the age we live in. I know that Dublin Corporation are doing their best with the resources they have and that they have not got sufficient [522] funds to improve lighting in the housing estates.

The local government housing grants have helped many tenants in flat complexes to purchase their own houses. This is one reason there are so many vacant flats in Ballymun. People who are in employment and can get loans are purchasing houses and moving out of Ballymun. Many of those people who moved out were doing great work in the community. If this exodus is allowed to continue places like Ballymun will become ghettoes. It is a fact that some people in Ballymun who wanted to buy their own houses had to move out because otherwise they would not be entitled to the £5,000 grant. Has the Minister any plans to re-introduce the tenant purchase scheme which has been discontinued for a couple of years now, because there are thousands of tenants who have applied to Dublin Corporation to purchase the houses they are living in? But all the corporation are doing at the moment is taking names and addresses and waiting for the Minister to announce the introduction of this scheme. I call on the Minister to introduce this scheme as soon as possible.

There is a great need to boost the building industry because there is a very high unemployment rate among people who normally work in that industry. The house improvement grants have not lived up to expectations. Many people who have applied for these grants are disappointed at the amount of money they are being approved for. There is a clause in the legislation which prohibits a grant from being obtained within ten years of a previous grant being paid. This has caused problems for people who have bought houses and would like to improve them but who, because of this clause, cannot do so. I would rather see a situation whereby that clause would not apply in the case of a new owner.

I want to refer to the delay in processing housing loans which result in many people having to get bridging finance that they can ill-afford.

I am pleased to hear that the Minister intends to take strong action against uninsured [523] drivers and that from 1 July it will be compulsory for car owners to display a disc indicating that the car is insured. The Minister also said that he is examining the feasibility of allowing selected post offices to deal with motor tax renewals and this will make it very convenient for many motorists.

I agree with Deputy Mitchell's remarks about councillors. They work very hard and I was disappointed to hear Deputy Kelly's remarks.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mrs. A. Doyle): Information on Avril Doyle  Zoom on Avril Doyle  Recent events have led to a situation in which environmental matters of one kind or another are attracting enormous media attention and are the subject of growing public interest and concern. The accident at the Chernobyl power station and the series of incidents earlier this year at Sellafield bring home to all of us the need for giving environmental protection a high priority, even at a time when financial, economic and social policy issues appear to demand so much attention.

Good environmental conditions are now more highly valued by our people than ever before and we must see to it that environmental policy and programmes are developed and extended to meet current needs. We must develop not only the capacity to respond to serious incidents but also preventive policies and programmes designed to eliminate threats to our environment. We need also to do more to integrate the environmental dimensions with economic and infrastructural policies and to educate and inform the community at large on environmental issues.

In fact, we must ensure that a nuclear free Ireland, which we have more by accident than design, is turned to maximum advantage from the environmental, agricultural, tourist and, above all, employment points of view. In media reports today the secretary of British Nuclear Fuels Limited is quoted as saying that the UK nuclear industry is on approbation. I would like to say to the secretary of BNFL that as far as Ireland [524] is concerned it has been on approbation for far too long. I was part of a parliamentary party which visited Sellafield, better known over the years as Windscale. I am not quite sure what the change of name ever did for it — in June 1984. We all made our views clearly known to BNFL, that the nuclear industry in the UK was on approbation as far as the Irish people were concerned. That is true now more than ever.

Two years ago, speaking in this House on the Paris Convention I made a statement which has an ironic twist to it today. I said on 30 May 1984, at column 2345 of the Official Report:

Neither the West German nor the USSR Governments permit discharge of radioactive material from reprocessing plants to water. They do, however, to compensate for this, allow greater discharges to the atmosphere.

Little did I know quite what was in that statement, even though it was not implied at the time. The tragedy of Chernobyl and the implications for all of us in this part of the world has brought it home to us. I went on to say that discharges of radioactive material to water on the scale permitted in the United Kingdom were unheard of in any other developed country. That is still the case; and I reiterate the plea I made several times in this House that the technology be applied to Sellafield to insist that their liquid discharges of radioactive materials into the Irish Sea be reduced to zero. The bottom line is that any risks incurred in this country in relation to Sellafield are for zero benefit. Therefore, the burden of proof that these radioactive discharges do not and will not cause harm rests with the discharging authority, not with the people or nations they may be putting at risk. That is my message today to the United Kingdom. Radiological protection, nuclear industry and environmental protection resulting from the nuclear industry are the responsibility of the Department of Energy. As Minister of State with responsibility for environmental protection, I feel it is incumbent on me [525] to refer to this today on the environment Estimate.

The Nuclear Energy Board is our radiological protection agency. For a long time I have felt that this is the most inaptly named board in the country. It has little to do with nuclear energy and everything to do with radiological protection. Perhaps some of the difficulty about and the slight cynicism with which the public have been treating the reports and results in recent times of the Nuclear Energy Board have to do with the fact that it appears to the punter to be a nuclear energy board rather than a board directly concerned with environmental protection. Perhaps they see a vested interest which is other than environmental protection. That would be unjustified in relation to the role of the Nuclear Energy Board, a board that has had to bear for far too long a title which bears no relation to its function. I suggest that those of us who can should turn our attention to rectifying that matter in the near future.

At EC level environment policy has made great strides in recent years in spite of the absence of any express provision in the Treaties. The Single European Act signed earlier this year now provides for three new Articles in the EC Treaty providing explicity for action by the Community in relation to the environment. This is an indication of the higher priority accorded to environmental matters by the Community as a whole and a pointer to us about the development of our policies. The new Articles provide that action by the Community is to have the following objectives: to preserve, protect and improve the quality of the environment; to contribute towards protecting human health; to ensure a prudent and rational utilisation of natural resources.

It is also required that action in relation to the environment is to be based on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source, that the polluter should pay, and that environmental protection requirements shall be a component of the Community's [526] other policies.

It is important also from an Irish point of view to note that the new Treaty provisions spell out requirements that Community action is to take account of the following: environmental conditions in the various regions of the Community; the potential benefits and costs of action or of lack of action; the economic and social development of the Community as a whole and the balanced development of its regions.

I have no doubt that the new provisions which are to be added to the Treaty will give a major boost to action at Community level which will protect and improve the environment in the Community as a whole and in the individual member states.

Over the years my Department have encouraged local authorities to promote environment campaigns in their areas in association with local community organisations. As a development of this activity, the Environment Awareness Bureau was established in 1985 to conduct promotional activities and carry on campaigns designed to foster a more caring attitude towards the environment. The bureau's programmes are still in their infancy but I have no doubt that they will develop and become more effective in the years ahead. For 1986 a grant of £125,000 is being made to the bureau and, to supplement this, sponsorship and other funding is being obtained from other public authorities and from private sector organisations.

The European Council decided in March 1985 to designate 1987 as “European Year of the Environment”. The Commission subsequently put forward an action programme for the year and this was endorsed by a resolution adopted by the Environment Council last March. The action programme proposes that general awareness campaigns, centred on a limited number of key topics, will be carried out during the year, that model environmental protection projects will also be undertaken and that there will be projects aimed at improving monitoring of the quality of the environment. Activities [527] contributing to the general awareness campaign will be funded, at least in part, by the European Commission but no special additional funds are being made available by the Commission for other projects.

In Ireland the Environment Awareness Bureau will play a major role in the preparation for European Environment Year and in carrying through an effective campaign for the year. It is intended also that the campaign should be integrated with our participation in the Council of Europe's 1987-88 Campaign for the Countryside. The active participation of local authorities will be sought in both campaigns and we will also be looking to State Departments and relevant semi-State bodies to bring forward suitable projects. I hope that a meaningful programme of activities can be organised and that the programme for the year will boost activity and interest in environmental matters generally.

The publication of the Air Pollution Bill last February marked a major step forward in the development of our environmental protection law. The Bill provides a comprehensive legislative framework which will enable us to ensure good air quality throughout the country and to give full effect to relevant EC Directives. All existing statutory provisions and regulations will be replaced by the Bill, which should provide the State and local authorities with all necessary powers for air pollution control now and for the foreseeable future. I hope that the Bill will shortly receive its Second Reading in the Seanad.

In general, Ireland enjoys a very high standard of air quality. Our geographical position on the perimeter of Europe and the prevailing westerly winds have spared us, in the main, from transboundary air pollution. I am very conscious of the impact of those words after the last week or two. Additionally, because of the nature of our economic growth, we have little heavy industry of the kind that caused serious air pollution in other countries. For over 20 years emissions from new industries have been controlled by [528] conditions attached to permissions under the Planning Acts and this has greatly contributed to preserving air quality.

Nevertheless, localised problems emerge from time to time and there is cause for concern about the trend in air quality in parts of Dublin, particularly the level of smoke at some periods during the winter. Since 1981 smoke pollution has increased, reversing the downward trend of the previous decade. The increased smoke levels coincide with the large scale increase in the use of coal and other solid fuels for space heating purposes and create problems in complying with EC air quality standards for smoke. In 1984-1985 the EC daily limit value was exceeded at a number of stations in Dublin, as was the value for groups of three days. However, the longer term values for the winter and for the year as a whole were not exceeded. To those in the industry who are concerned with solid fuel and fireplaces generally it is no harm to point out that already there are alternatives on the market. Smokeless solid fuels are available which perhaps we should concentrate on more and not wait to be directed in that area.

The Air Pollution Bill provides a statutory framework for dealing with the smoke problems of Dublin. However, before final solutions can be decided on, the situation in each area must be assessed objectively and appropriate remedial measures devised on a rational and cost effective basis. A number of options come to mind such as encouraging the use of natural gas and other smokeless fuels, prohibiting the use of certain fuels, requiring the use of appliances which burn solid fuel smokelessly, etc.

Much of the Bill is designed to ensure that preventive action is given a high priority. The licensing provisions relating to certain industries are a case in point. By taking appropriate action of this kind now, we can avoid the problems which are causing so much concern in other countries. I believe the Bill will be seen as a major step forward in environment policy in this country. Its success can, of [529] course, be guaranteed only by the co-operation of the local authorities, industry and the general public, but I am sure this co-operation can be relied on.

The Minister has already dealt with the controversial issue of giving local authorities sole responsibility for water pollution control in their areas and I do not propose to go over that matter again. I am confident that the review of the implications of the proposal which is now in progress will enable the Government to come to a decision which will enhance rather than dilute existing control arrangements.

It would be less than just if the recent controversy were to have the effect of giving the public at large the impression that local authorities have not been taking steps to deal with water pollution. With the support of my Department, a substantial programme has been initiated to cater for those locations where the disposal of town sewage has been causing problems. A 1983 report from the Water Pollution Advisory Council identified 34 priority locations of this kind.

To date, improvements have been completed at 12 locations at a cost of some £14.4 million. Work on sewerage schemes is in progress at five additional locations at an estimated cost of £11.4 million, while proposals for a further ten locations at an estimated cost of £18.6 million are at various planning stages. The cost of all of these works, whether completed, in progress or at planning stages, is of the order of £44.4 million. It is our intention to make the necessary resources available for continued investment of this kind by local authorities in the provision of treatment plants and other works needed to eliminate pollution caused by town sewerage discharges.

There have been a substantial number of pollution incidents attributable to the agricultural sector in recent years. In an effort to combat this threat, my Department requested the local authorities to establish at local level consultative committees of fisheries, farming and tourist interests, to improve co-operation and to increase the level of awareness among the farming community of the risks of pollution and of the need for [530] proper farm practices. I urge those local authorities who have not yet set up committees of this kind to do so immediately.

A considerable number of one-off pollution incidents attributable to the farming sector result in fish kills, and a number of such cases have resulted in threats to water supplies to homes and to industries. The growing reliance by farmers on silage making poses a particular risk to our inland waters. Advice is available from the ACOT advisers about the siting and construction of facilities for silage making and about the measures needed to prevent pollution. It is also important that local authorities should exercise vigilance in this matter and ensure that silage is made as far as possible from water courses and that in impervious base, proper interception channels and leachate storage facilities are available.

The work of preparing water quality management plans for important river catchments and for some of our bays and estuaries is now in progress. The preparation of these plans involves the assessment of the present water quality, determination of the various beneficial uses of the waters, and the establishment of standards such that selected uses can be preserved and protected against pollution. These management plans will provide the local authorities with an ideal framework within which to exercise their pollution control functions and enable decisions to be made about permissible effluent discharges on a proper scientific footing.

It may not be generally appreciated that more than £1 million per annum is being made available by my Department for the operation of the Water Resources Division of An Foras Forbartha. This division operates an extensive programme for the monitoring of inland waters and provides expert advice and assistance for the local authorities in the exercise of their functions under the 1977 Act. Almost 7,000 kilometres of river channel have been surveyed by An Foras Forbartha and the surveys are periodically up-dated. In addition, monitoring of some lakes and, less frequently, of estuaries and coastal waters is carried [531] out. At present, the potential for remote sensing of lakes, using a satellite, is being pursued. The monitoring programme is supplemented by the work of three regional water pollution laboratories at Kilkenny, Castlebar and Monaghan, which are operated by An Foras Forbartha on behalf of the local authorities. I am pleased also to say that the position regarding local authorities' own monitoring work and baseline studies continues to improve. This work is often carried out in the context of water quality management planning or in the context of supervising industrial effluent and agricultural practices.

Local authorities are also responsible for the organisation and supervision of all aspects of waste disposal operations in their areas. Many of them, however, have been slow in coming to terms with the new responsibilities which were assigned to them in this area some years ago and, as a result, problems have been arising in a number of areas. It is essential that local authorities provide the necessary facilities for the controlled disposal of land-fillable wastes in their areas. Failure to do so can cause environmental problems, seriously prejudice the expansion of existing industry and inhibit the attraction of new industry at a time when the need to provide employment is a top priority. My Department have provided guidelines on the selection and design of disposal sites, as well as advice on technical aspects of the provision and operation of co-disposal sites for suitable industrial wastes.

In addition, there is provision in the Department's Estimates for capital grants of up to 50 per cent of the cost of up-grading or developing new co-disposal facilities. This provision was intended to extend over a four or five year period, so that a limited number of well-engineered co-disposal sites could be provided to cater for the disposal requirements of different areas. I urge local authorities to take advantage of the provision as quickly as possible.

In relation to the proposal to provide [532] a central waste transfer station at Baldonnel, I should mention that a review which was commenced about a year ago has now been completed. This review was undertaken because it had become apparent that waste disposal services in the private sector had developed to a considerable degree since plans for the central facility had been decided on and that there could be an interest by the private sector in expanding these services and providing new facilities. The outcome of the review is now under consideration in the Department with a view to determination of future policy in this important area.

The visual blight of litter is a problem brought about, in the main, by a national carelessness and indifference. It remains one of our major environmental problems, despite the greatly increased powers given to local authorities under the Litter Act, 1982. Last year's White Paper on tourism policy highlighted the importance of the environment to the tourism industry and called for measures designed to influence public attitudes about litter and for more effective enforcement of the legislation in this area. I regret that the response from many local authorities to the Litter Act has been disappointing and that not enough attention has been given to the enforcement question. For this reason, I will be pressing the various local authorities to make better use of the strong powers now available to them and to implement the provisions of the 1982 Act as fully as possible in their areas.

I mentioned earlier the need to integrate environmental policy with economic, infrastructural and other policies and I hope to see greater emphasis on this in future years.

I wish to refer to some recent suggestions that there might be some form of agreement between the ESB and Wexford County Council not to allow any development in the Carnsore Point area so as to keep the way open for the development of a nuclear power station in that area. It is true that the 1979 Wexford county development plan included a specific provision for the protection of [533] the Carnsore Point area in case a nuclear power station was to be located there. However, in the most recent development plan, adopted on 30 May 1985, the policy objective is to avoid prejudicing a possible conventional or other suitable energy project in the area. This reflects a change in attitude on the part of the council members since 1979. Since the adoption of the 1985 plan, a number of planning permissions have been granted for houses in the Carnsore area for local people so that the earlier restriction on development has been removed in so far as the local community is concerned. Let me say in passing that the planning application by the ESB to Wexford County Council for a nuclear power station is still alive.

Finally, despite the change of name to the Department of the Environment in the late seventies, environmental matters have not been at the head of the queue in relation to this Estimate. I am delighted that the Government consider the protection of our natural and built environment a priority and I am honoured to have been given the specific and daunting task of Minister of State with responsibility for environmental protection.

Mr. J. Doyle: Information on Joseph Doyle  Zoom on Joseph Doyle  Local authorities make an indispensable contribution in many areas such as housing, roads and provision of services as well as planning and environmental protection. In order to carry out these programmes they have to rely heavily on financial support from central Government which is the principal point of the Vote we are discussing today.

Many functions of local authorities are taken for granted and they come in for a fair share of criticism, not all of which is groundless. Deputies of this House who are also members of local authorities, particularly Dublin Corporation, have been unfairly criticised by some Members of the House, especially by my dear friend and colleague, Deputy Kelly, who is of the belief that the agenda of Dublin City Council consists of section 4 cases, directing the manager to act on the wishes [534] of councillors. He also seems to think that the blight on the city is the result of such behaviour by councillors, but nothing could be further from the truth. The only section 4 that was ever passed by the city council, covering three such councils in the last 17 years, in relation to planning matters was a motion put down by a member of his own family in order to try to stop a development on Donnybrook Bridge.

Many of the unseemly developments in the city were refused by the planning department of Dublin Corporation but were subsequently overruled by ministerial orders. This happened in the case of the building at Donnybrook Bridge, while Deputy Kelly was Chief Whip of the Government at the time. The index in The Destruction of Dublin by Frank McDonald, shows a list of the names of former Ministers for Local Government and they include Molloy, Blaney and Boland who, time and time again, overruled Dublin Corporation in their decisions. In fairness to Dublin Corporation, as Mr. McDonald points out, they are not responsible for the dereliction in the city at present.

Deputy Kelly also referred to the groupings of particular interests to get mayoralty office, and I accept that. However, up to 1973 there was a convention in this House that the office of Leas-Cheann Comhairle was always held by a member of the Opposition, which was changed in the year when Deputy Kelly was Chief Whip. I did not hear him dissenting then. He set a standard which local authorities followed.

The Government, as a result of their policies, have almost eliminated the housing problem in Dublin which existed for a number of years and which was serious as late as three years ago. The housing programme was speeded up by the Government when they introduced the HFA loan and the £5,000 grant. I listened to Deputy Walsh earlier speaking about the situation in Tallaght and it is interesting to note that 1,500 people there have applied in the last year for the grant to enable them to move elsewhere. He criticised Dublin Corporation [535] because there are 60 vacant houses in the area. However, this is as a result of so many people accepting the grant. I regret that these houses have suffered at the hands of vandals but Dublin Corporation have spent over £1 million in the protection of property. Who damages these houses? Members of the community for whom they were built, which is unacceptable. People say that the Army should be called out to deal with the problem but the community also have a responsibility in protecting this expensive property paid for by the taxpayer.

I hope that Dublin Corporation will refurbish existing housing stock because there is no future in building new houses in areas in which there is no demand for them, expecially when there is a lot of old stock housing in the city which would be habitable if they had toilets and bathrooms. Dublin Corporation should also plan to build as many local authority houses as possible in the inner city and to de-tenant “flatland” in those areas. We will never get a social mix if people continue to buy private houses within corporation areas, but if inner city flats were refurbished we would then get it.

The Minister referred in his speech to shop fronts. Dublin City Business Association are to be congratulated in commissioning Patrick Shaffrey and Associates to prepare a scheme for the improvement of shop fronts in Henry Street. The corporation recently repaved Henry Street, one of the finest shopping centres in the city. Under this improvement scheme, each shop front will be designed in its own style, subject to the architectural integrity of the overall building, which will still allow for considerable scope, detail and design. Modern or traditional styles can still be used and firms can use either their own logos or other requirements subject to those principles. Generally, it would mean the eventual removal of the garish large facades which now block finely executed architectural details. I hope when this programme goes ahead in Henry Street that it will be an example to other [536] main streets in the city and that some of the terrible shop signs will be taken down.

Mr. Manning: Information on Maurice Manning  Zoom on Maurice Manning  I wish to thank Deputy Joe Doyle for sharing his time with me. I wish to refer to two themes. One of those, in a number of speeches, including that by Deputy Kelly, was the criticism of our structures of local government. Certainly, over the years we have failed to develop an adequate structure of local government as our system is over-centralised, which was referred to by many speakers. It has not developed adequate regional structures and we do not even have agreed regions. Local authorities have very little power and, apart from the provision of some basic local services, local government is remote from the people it serves. If we go by the reporting of council meetings, there is a tendency to concentrate on the statements of the more colourful councillors, personality clashes, foreign trips or section 4s instead of coverage of substantial matters which are often debated at council level. Reading the local papers one gets the impression that local authorities are good for a laugh, a jibe or an easy headline, but are not to be taken seriously. The image of local government is not good and this must be a source of concern to all. The principle of having matters dealt with by those who are closest to them and most competent to deal with them has always been a policy of this party and, if that principle had been followed through, we would have vibrant local government. This is not a reflection on the councillors. I am only in local government a short time but any elitist ideas I might have had have very quickly been dispelled. Generally speaking, local councillors work extremely hard, and have a genuine sense of commitment.

It is easier to put party politics aside on local authorities in the interests of the community than it is in the House. The local authority officials I have met have a sense of commitment which is extraordinary and is an example to others. It is not the fault of officials, or elected representatives, that we do not have the type of local government we need. We [537] are trapped into a system and reforming the structure of creating new councils is not necessarily the answer. We should ask ourselves why we are trapped in such a state that local government is not fully responsive to the demands of the people and does not excite the loyalty and sense of identity which is required. If we do that we will come up with three basic reasons for it. The first is that as a country we have tended over the years to centralise and centralise. We have suffered from creeping centralisation. It is the nature of central Government Departments and in the nature of senior civil servants to believe that they know more and can do the job better. It is in their nature to believe that they have a global view of what is happening in the country. They have a certain distrust of getting a job done at local level and, as a result, centralisation has grown over the years.

Speakers on all sides today referred to matters that could be done in a better way at local level. Obviously, that is compounded by the absence of independent financial funding, the key to why local government is not as strong as it should be. Local authorities have little option and very little discretion in what they do because of the absence of independent sources of financing. However, it would be wrong to say that there is any stomach in the House on the part of any party for the introduction of any new sources of independent funding for local authorities. We saw what happened when water and other service charges were brought. We are all aware of the revulsion and revolt at all levels aginst such a system. Unless local authorities can persuade the public that the extra services they would offer are worth being paid for, we are not going to get out of this vicious circle. I do not see that happening at present.

Another reason why we have not developed more distinctive authorities and more responsive local structures is the absence of strong academic traditions of research into the function of local government. We have had a few distinguished people over the years such as Tom Barrington, Des Roche, Tom Walsh and others who have put forward ideas [538] on reforming our local structures but, unfortunately, they were too few and they were not listened to. This is a major topic and I know that in the coming months when the Minister introduces his Bill for major reform of local government in the greater Dublin area we will have an opportunity to go into it in some detail.

In the short time available to me I should like to draw the attention of the Minister to developments in my constituency, including a major one which was referred to by Deputy Michael J. Cosgrave this morning. I am referring to the project to redesign the Darndale Estate. Darndale was one of the casualties of bad planning in the seventies. Even though the plan on which Darndale is based won international awards the end result was an estate which was virtually unlivable. Large sums of public money were poured into the estate but that has not had any remedial effect. The position there has been compounded by many social problems but the vicious circle is now being broken mainly on the initiative of local people. First of all we had the image changers, a local organisation of young people who carried out a survey, got the support of local people and identified what could be done there. That was followed by an initiative by local tenants and residents associations. People like George Lynch and Noel Maxwell persuaded the people of Darndale that their estate could be made livable and that there could be a future for families in the estate.

On foot of that the Government in conjunction with Dublin Corporation, have given a commitment to draw up a plan to redesign Darndale Estate in the coming months. I am happy to say that a team has been set up consisting of four officials from the Minister's Department, four officials from Dublin Corporation and local representatives. That committee will be in operation next week and will meet weekly from then on. I hope that in a short while definite costed proposals will be put before the Minister, that the Government will back those proposals so that plans outlined for the people of Darndale will become a reality [539] and hope given back to those who have suffered needlessly in that area.

I should like to endorse the plea by my colleague, Deputy Michael Joe Cosgrave, for an amenity order for the Howth area. I urge the Minister, and his Department, to do everything possible to end the nightmare of the people in the Seagrange Estate in Baldoyle whose plight is well known to the Minister. In natural justice they deserve to have the wrong remedied.

Minister for the Environment (Mr. Boland): Information on John Boland  Zoom on John Boland  I should like to thank Members who participated in the debate. I am sure it will be agreed that it has been a useful debate on environmental and local government matters generally. With regard to the remarks of Deputies Manning and Kelly I should like to place on record my appreciation of the work which has been done over the years by members of local authorities throughout the country often, indeed, usually, at considerable expense and loss of free time. Very few people would sacrifice that time. The work done by local public representatives very often goes unrecognised. Their contribution to the development of the infrastructure and the provision of the basic services which people now find so essential should not go unrecognised. I am glad to have an opportunity of expressing the appreciation of the Government of the work of council members of all parties over the years.

I will not have an opportunity to address all the questions raised in the course of the wide ranging debate and I shall confine my remarks to a few areas. The Opposition spokesman dealt extensively with the alleged opposition of his party to the imposition of local charges. The position about local charges is quite clear. It is up to each local council to decide whether they wish to impose charges for certain services. Irrespective of what may be announced nationally or claimed by Deputy Burke to be the policy of his party it is interesting to reflect that on the majority of local councils where his party [540] have a majority, estimates, including service charges, were adopted. Some, or all, Fianna Fáil members voted for them. That is not surprising because if we look back over the record we will see that the White Paper published by Fianna Fáil in 1972 advocated that:

...the Government consider the maximum possible amount of revenue should be derived by local authorities from charges for services, fees, and other non-tax sources.

When Fianna Fáil were returned to power in 1977 they immediately revived the question of the imposition of local charges. Twice during 1980 the then Minister, Deputy Sylvester Barrett, sent circulars to local authorities asking them to review and increase their charges. In January 1981 the then Minister responsible, in the course of a speech in Butler House, Kilkenny, said:

Local authorities have already been alerted to their powers to charge directly for certain services and have been asked to review their practice in this regard and, where appropriate, to consider bringing the level of charges up to date. For my part, I have been looking at the need for legislative action in certain areas to increase the scope for justifiable local authority charges.

The Minister at that time was Deputy Raphael Burke who was, presumably, implementing Government policy.

Later, in 1982, the Government of the day, of which Deputy Burke was also a member, published a document entitled The Way Forward which included the following statement:

In view of the increasing investment in sanitary services, it will be necessary to consider imposing realistic charges both on individual users of sanitary services and developers so as to recoup part of the cost. This matter will be examined in the context of legislation to empower local authorities to charge for services generally.

If by their words one shall know them [541] one would be forgiven for thinking that it was a long standing policy of Fianna Fáil to allow to be supplemented the income of local authorities by the imposition of charges in a realistic and justifiable fashion. However, for the purpose of electoral gain in the local elections last year the attractiveness of charges suddenly waned but once Fianna Fáil gained control of most of those councils they gaily went ahead and imposed the charges, as is the right of councillors.

We ought to clarify where Fianna Fáil really stands, as opposed to what it enunciates, in relation to charges. The record of Fianna Fáil nationally and locally over the last 15 years has been, correctly, to support allowing councils to impose charges for justifiable services. Reflecting on those observations might put into perspective the recent undertaking the Deputy gave to inject a further £200 million into the construction industry. Throwing money at the construction industry is not a way of solving their problems. We all know that the construction industry has been experiencing difficulties. There have been declining demands in the private sector, but it is worth bearing in mind that 70 per cent of the total income generated in the area of construction is Exchequer funded. One must ask the question: at what stage does one stop throwing money at an industry in trouble? The main part of the industry in which there have been difficulties encountered has been the private house construction area. We have gone through a period of 40 years in which there have been annual high levels of building and construction resulting in our now having quite a good housing stock. There are noticeable changes in the rate of family formation, in the numbers of marriages and, indeed, in the desire or otherwise of people to buy new houses in green field situations. There is an adjusting, changing market. The construction industry has to adjust to that market also. Indeed, the industry itself, in recent documents and studies, has recognised the fact that that market has changed.

The fact of the matter is that the most generous regime of new house grants and [542] mortgage subsidies, the most generous and most successful regime of house improvement grants, was put into operation by this Government. There has never been more aid or incentive available to various parts of the construction industry. But the level of demand in the private sector for industrial and commercial building is much lower than one would have hoped. The way to remedy that is to address the economic problems of the nation generally, and that is precisely what the Government have been doing. For example, we all know that this year there will be an increase in real incomes, a growth rate in GNP of between 3 and 4 per cent. Inflation is forecast to average approximately 2½ per cent over all the year. That is the sort of thing that the construction industry needs, not vague promises to inject £200 million of taxpayers' money into an area that already has 70 per cent of its income generated from Exchequer sources.

It is equally appropriate to reflect on the Deputy's suggestion of the level of unemployment in that industry. I am afraid that the monthly index to which he referred is not an accurate barometer of the level of employment in the construction industry because it excludes all public employment in construction and all firms employing less than five people. There has been a change in recent years towards firms of smaller sizes. A better barometer would be the data available from the live register of construction workers who are unemployed. That register showed that in March 1985 there were unemployed 49,106 and that in March 1986 the corresponding figure was 47,725. Those figures suggest that total employment in the construction industry has stabilised. To put the matter in perspective, it would be as well that we realise that at the time when the construction industry was enjoying the greatest, if somewhat artificial, boom in the late seventies, that same register showed — and at the time there was a shortage of certain skills in the construction industry — 20,000 unemployed construction workers. [543] Therefore we must put these things in perspective.

The Deputy and some others referred to the decline in the volume of cement sales, suggesting that that was a barometer of activity in the industry. Of course the fall-off element in cement sales is a matter for concern, but it is important to realise that that is not an accurate barometer of the entire construction industry. For example, there is a great level of activity generated in the area of house improvements at present because of the very generous grants available. Cement forms a much smaller part of the materials used in the house improvement and reconstruction work than it does in the area of new house construction. I have every confidence that the small decline shown in the volume of sales for April suggests that the underlying trend in cement sales is already improving. I am quite confident that that improvement will be maintained and that cement sales will recover strongly in the latter half of 1986. In that context I should mention that earlier this week I suggested, at a conference of local authority engineers, that they might consider substituting concrete for bitumen or asphalt in major road construction works. If that is found to be technically feasible — and my Department are at present examining its feasibility — it will mean a considerable boost and fillip for the Irish cement industry.

In relation to the area of local government reorganisation, there appeared to be some suggestion of a lack of consultation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since the general proposals were published in December 1983 there has been widespread consultation with, including others, the General Council of County Councils and the Association of Municipal Authorities. There has been a plethora of White Papers and discussion documents on local government reorganisation. I intend to carry out the reorganisation of local government. Indeed, I would suggest it is long overdue.

Deputy R. Burke seems to have some difficulty in understanding the figures in [544] relation to the house improvement grants. The level of grant applications indicates the multiplier effect of generating activity of approximately £250 million. The Exchequer provision for these grants for this year amounts to £24 million. Bearing in mind the length of time it will take to have construction and improvement works carried out and applications lodged, I am satisfied that that will represent an adequate level of draw-down for this year. If there is any difficulty encountered — I want to give the House this assurance — the Government will be pleased to ask the House to agree to supplement the moneys which will be made available and which would be an even further indication of the fantastic success of this scheme.

The Deputy made a charge that the housing grant inspectors in the Department are deliberately undervaluing the work to reduce grant payments. That is completely untrue. I have to say that I regret that a former Minister for the Environment would make such a suggestion. I can do no more than say that I intend to draw the attention of the housing inspectors to the Deputy's charge and ask them for their comments. I am quite satisfied that that is not happening and it is unfortunate that it should have been suggested.

The level of housing completions in recent years has stood up remarkably well despite the difficult economic conditions. In 1985 total completions in relation to our population were among the highest levels within the EC. That reflects the grants, the mortgage subsidies and the mortgage finance made available through the Housing Finance Agency and by way of SDA loans. I am pleased to be able to inform Deputies that new house completions in the first quarter of 1986 showed an increase over the same period of 1985 — up by 4.2 per cent at 6,413 completions as opposed to 6,152 for the same period last year.

I referred in my contribution to the fact that the so-called local authority housing crisis is ended. Not only is there not a crisis any longer, there is not a problem. That was reflected in the remarks of [545] Deputy J. Doyle and others. For instance, last year Dublin Corporation effected 3,800 lettings. It is interesting to note that the type of tenant has changed in recent years. Included in that figure are some 600 lettings to childless couples.

Deputy G. Mitchell referred to the question of advance reminders for the renewal of motor tax. I am glad to inform the House that arrangements are now practically completed to introduce just such a system within the next month or so on a pilot basis.

Deputies S. Walsh, Barrett and J. Doyle referred to the amount of vandalism in corporation dwellings in Tallaght and Ballymun. Vandalism has always been a problem. Obviously the increased numbers of houses available for re-letting as a result of the success of the £5,000 grant scheme has exacerbated it. Whilst the management and maintenance of local authority rented dwellings is entirely a matter for them, I have asked Dublin Corporation to submit a report on the number of vacant dwellings they have and are unable to let, which appear to run into hundreds and which is a matter of serious concern. Deputy Seán Walsh [546] referred to the number of new houses being built in Tallaght and the number of empty houses there. I should like to inform the House that it has now been decided that for the forseeable future Dublin Corporation will not carry out any more new housing schemes in the Tallaght area.

Deputy Mervyn Taylor asked about the question of special grant assistance to replace defective prefabricated chimneys. There is a scheme providing a £800 grant for that purpose.

Deputies' contributions have been helpful and constructive. I want to give an undertaking to those Deputies whose points were not addressed in my brief concluding remarks that they will be examined and, where appropriate, I will contact them directly.

Vote put, and a division being demanded, it was postponed in accordance with Standing Order of the Dáil, No. 123, as modified by Order of the House, until Wednesday, 14 May 1986.

The Dáil adjourned at 4 p.m. until 2.30 p.m., Tuesday, 13 May, 1986.


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