Estimates, 1992. - Vote 25: Environment (Revised Estimate).

Thursday, 25 June 1992

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 421 No. 6

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Minister for the Environment (Mr. Smith): Information on Michael Smith  Zoom on Michael Smith  I move:

That a sum not exceeding £620,144,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1992, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for the Environment, including grants to Local Authorities, grants and other expenses in connection with housing, and miscellaneous schemes, subsidies and grants including certain grants-in-aid.

I welcome this opportunity, my first as [1393] Minister for the Environment, to debate the areas of responsibility embraced by the 1992 Environment Estimate.

Because of the limited time available, and the wide range of services covered by the Estimate, I can only refer to a limited selection of the major areas within my Department's remit. However, I will try as far as possible to deal with points raised by Deputies at the end of the debate. The House has had other opportunities, of course, over the past few months to discuss major areas of my Department's responsibilities, in processing the Local Government (Planning and Development) Bill, 1991; the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1992; the Housing Bill, 1992; the Roads Bill, 1991; and the Control of Dogs (Amendment) Bill. In addition, there has been a special debate in preparation for the UNCED conference and we can look forward to debates on the Electoral Bill, 1991 which is at present being discussed in the Seanad, and the Road Traffic Bill, on which drafting is well advanced.

The net estimate before the House is just over £620 million, an increase of 4 per cent over last year. The most significant increase is in the provision for national road improvement which is up by £27.48 million on 1991.

I would, of course, prefer if the provisions for the many other worthwhile services in the Estimate were higher but we have to remember that the Estimates as a whole were determined against an economic backdrop which required all public expenditure to be fundamentally examined and all possible economies to be made, without endangering the delivery of essential services. The fact that we cannot look to ever-increasing expenditure on State services presents a challenge to all of us. We must take a fresh look at established practices and devise new ways of providing improved services more effectively and at minimum cost. This responsibility must be shared by the local authorities, who provide many of the services which are funded from the Environment Estimate, and I look forward [1394] to a fruitful partnership with them in working towards this objective.

The traditional format of the Estimate has been changed this year by classifying the expenditue involved on a programme basis, as far as possible. This facilitates analysis of the sectoral implications of the Estimate rather than merely focusing either on the overall figures or on individual services or activities.

My Department's annual review of the construction industry should be completed and published shortly but I can say, even at this stage, that the signs are good.

Overall, the industry has been performing reasonably well in recent years, in contrast to the decline which marked much of the eighties. Output rose by over 25 per cent in 1989 and 1990. A levelling off in activity was apparent during 1991, but there were signs of an emerging recovery in the housing sector in the late months of the year.

The indicators for the industry this year are positive. The relevant Public Capital Programme allcations have been increased by over 10 per cent compared to the 1991 outturn and this should help to sustain strong performance in areas such as energy, transport, housing, education and health. In the light of this increase, I am confident that activity generally will show an increase on the 1991 level.

The urban renewal programme is one of the most visible achievements of the Government over the last few years. This has generated some £721 million worth of private sector development between projects completed, in progress or in planning. When the Custom House Docks development in Dublin is included, the total comes to more than £1.1 billion.

This high level of investment has generated construction jobs and, most importantly, a significant number of long term jobs. It is clear that, without the incentives offered under the urban renewal programme, most of the projects concerned would not have gone ahead.

This year's Finance Act makes provision for a final one-year extension of [1395] these incentives to 31 May 1994 for projects already underway on 31 May 1993 in designated areas. In addition, the time limit applying to the tax incentives in the Custom House Docks Area is extended by four years from 25 January 1993. These extensions will allow sufficient time for projects in the designated areas at the pre-construction stage, currently valued at about £380 million, to be undertaken, and will facilitate completion of the Custom House Docks development.

Expenditure on roads-related services accounts for almost 44 per cent of the gross estimate. The need for major investment in our road network is unquestionable, as is the link between that investment and economic development. My Department estimated in 1987-88 that investment of £9 billion was necessary, of which £3 billion related to national roads. Fortunately, we have been able, with EC assistance, to adopt an integrated five-year investment programme to meet that need. And the positive result from the recent referendum means that we can face into the negotiations for the period after 1993 with confidence that the present programme can be continued and, indeed, expanded through increased Structural Funds assistance and support from the new Cohesion Fund.

I am happy to report that the investment programme involving national primary roads projects is substantially on target. All but one of the 23 projects due to commence in the period 1989 to 1991 are now under way. Seventeen projects, with a combined cost of some £204 million, were completed during the same period, and at the end of last year, construction was under way on 14 major projects with a combined cost of £305 million.

The commitment given in the 1989 budget that £150 million would be provided over three years in discretionary grants to county councils for regional and county roads was more than fulfilled. In fact, total gains over the three years 1989-91 amounted to £182.47 million and I am maintaining the momentum this year [1396] with a continued high level of investment. I want to emphasise, however, that the State grants for non-national roads are intended to supplement, and not to replace, the expenditure on non-national roads financed by the local authorities from their own resources. It is the local authorities who have always had primary responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of these non-national roads and I look to them to sustain their own financial commitment to this essential service and to ensure that the overall resources available are used efficiently.

The past year has seen significant changes in the social housing area with the implementation of a wide range of new measures to secure decent housing for low income groups on the basis set out in the “Plan for Social Housing”. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1992, currently before the House, provides the legislative framework for many of the policy measures announced in the plan.

The overall capital provision for housing, including both Exchequer and non-Exchequer resources, will be some £158 million in 1992, an increase of nearly 30 per cent on the 1991 outturn. This is primarily due to the expected increase in the take-up of the various new schemes, particularly the shared ownership scheme, for which a provision of £35 million has been made in 1992.

Taking into account all the new measures to provide social housing which were announced in the plan, as well as the traditional local authority housing programme and new lettings arising from vacancies, we could cater for up to 7,000 households in 1992 if local authorities make full use of the various measures and resources at their disposal.

The total 1992 capital provision for the local authority and voluntary housing programme is over £78 million, up 3 per cent on 1991. This includes £41.5 million for the completion or acquisition by local authorities of about 1,500 dwellings this year, compared to 1,180 in 1991. A further 1,000 new starts have been authorised and these, when added to the starts authorised but not actually proceeded [1397] with in previous years, should enable local authorities to commence up to 1,500 new houses in 1992.

The 1991 outturn figures on the local authority housing programme were disappointing, given the pressure on the local authority waiting lists. Fewer local authority dwellings were started last year than had been authorised and there were fewer completions than expected. I have therefore asked local authorities to ensure that the numbers of new starts and completions for which resources have been allocated this year are achieved in full.

In order to assist in this respect, my Department have reviewed the procedures relating to the approval and control of the local authority housing construction programme and I will be putting new streamlined procedures in place shortly. These will reduce submissions to the Department to the minimum, consistent only with ensuring that value for money is achieved and that overall expenditure remains within the resources allocated.

An allocation of £11 million has been made in 1992 for the capital assistance scheme for voluntary housing. This will provide some 550 units of accommodation, bringing the total provided since the scheme began in 1984 to over 2,600 units. Furthermore, £500,000 is again being made available from national lottery funds to provide communal facilities in new or existing voluntary housing projects.

The new voluntary housing rental subsidy scheme, aimed at the provision of accommodation for families, is now taking off. One project comprising nine dwellings is already completed, three projects are in progress and some 20 more are at various stages of planning. In all, about 400 dwellings are involved. I have made a capital provision of £5 million for the scheme this year.

The Local Government Act, 1991, placed local authorities in a new legislative framework, allowing them greater scope and discretion to undertake activities which they consider to be of benefit to their local communities. I am firmly [1398] committed to the continuation of a programme for the improvement of our local government system. This will involve, among other things, the removal of various statutory controls, and further measures to modernise outdated legal provisions. The special ministerial committee which is examining the complex matter of sub-county structures — on which the independent advisory expert committee failed to agree — and the related matter of the devolution of functions will complete their work well before the end of the year, so that whatever legislation is required can be brought forward early in 1993.

The report which I recently received from the London-based Institute for Fiscal Studies — IFS — on rate support grant distribution in Ireland follows directly from the work of the advisory expert committee on local government reform — the Barrington Committee — which arranged for a two-phase study on the grant distribution process. A report on Phase 1 of the IFS study was published last year as a supplement to the report of the Barrington Committee.

The Phase II report outlines equalisation models, based on various assumptions, which make it possible to compare the effects of a range of possible indicators for the distribution of the rate support grant by reference to needs and resources. I have sent the local report to local authorities for their consideration of the IFS methodology for assessing needs, and their findings generally, and I will await their views before reaching any conclusions on the report. I had asked for these views to be submitted by the end of July, but I am extending this date to the end of September in response to a request by the City and County Managers' Association. Needless to say, all of the implications will have to be very carefully considered before we can decide on the feasibility, or the desirability, of adopting one or other of the IFS options or, indeed, any other option of that kind.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development — UNCED — which took place in Rio de [1399] Janeiro, from 3 to 12 June, was the most comprehensive international effort ever mobilised in favour of the environment. UNCED was inspired by the influential report in 1987 of the World Commission on Environment and Development — the Brundtland Report — which advocated the concept of “sustainable development”, that is, development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The UNCED conference has made a major impact on public consciousness and has raised the status of environment and development issues on national and international agendas. The Earth Summit was attended by some 170 countries, with well over 100 of them being represented by Heads of State or Government.

Ireland participated fully in the UNCED process. We were represented at all of the preparatory conferences and I myself attended the final conference in New York last March. In addition, we were privileged, last January, to host the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin which was mandated to contribute to the UNCED preparations.

The Taoiseach, who attended the Summit segment of the UNCED Conference, has already made a full statement in the House on the outcome and I dealt with other aspects in replying to Questions earlier this week. At this stage, therefore, I merely wish to reiterate that, in so far as national environmental policy is concerned, the implications on UNCED will be addressed through the Environment Action Programme, the next review of which should be completed in the Autumn.

Work on the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency is now under way. One of the first tasks will be the selection and appointment of the director general and other directors. It is my intention that the process leading to these appointments will be initiated soon so that the agency can start work on the very important functions assigned to it.

[1400] The provision of £710,000 in the Estimate for the agency and environmental research reflects the fact that it will be some time later in the year before the agency becomes operational. This sum is, of course, exclusive of whatever funds will be transferred to the agency as a result of the assignment or transfer of staff from other bodies for whom budgetary provision has been made separately.

The public water supply and sanitary services programme for which £72.5 million is provided this year plays a significant role in supporting the various sectors of our economy, as well as meeting the needs of local authorities. It is a programme and a service that is often taken for granted. But we have to remember that water is not a free good, nor is it in unlimited supply. All of us must become more conscious of the cost involved in supplying large quantities of clean water for all our daily needs, and adjust our actions accordingly. The capital cost of new schemes, which is met by the Exchequer, is quite considerable and we must remember that the operation and maintenance of water and sewerage schemes is also an expensive process — costing local authorities some £90 million a year.

Significant progress was made last year with the completion of 53 schemes valued at £51.3 million. In addition, tenders valued at £74 million were approved, providing the basis for the 1992 work programme.

While pressure of time precludes a full survey, my remarks today demonstrate that the functions of the Department of the Environment and of local authorities cover a broad range of activities which impinge on our daily lives. The Estimate before the House will enable the many services involved to be continued and enhanced this year, in spite of the difficult budgetary circumstances, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Information on Jim Mitchell  Zoom on Jim Mitchell  I make no bones about the fact that I consider the present Minister for the Environment to be one of the most bland, laid back, unconcerned Ministers for the Environment we have [1401] had for a long time. We have just heard one of the most smug speeches on the Environment Estimate that has come before this House for many years. The Minister did not refer once to the fact that there are still in excess of 20,000 dwellings in the State, many within a half mile walking distance of his office, without bathrooms. There is no reference to any plan to ensure that those basic facilities, indoor toilets, bathrooms and running water, are provided in those dwellings. There is no reference in his smug speech to the disgraceful condition of many flat complexes within a few minutes walk of his plush offices.

There is no mention in the Minister's speech of the housing crisis that now besets this country where we actually have paid servants of health boards going out canvassing landlords to please allow clients to come into one of their flats and promising to jack up the housing subsidy because of the housing crisis. There is no reference in his speech to the fact that in this city of Dublin, and, I am sure, other cities and towns throughout the country, there are couples with children sleeping in cars for weeks on end. There is no reference in his speech to the awful pressures being applied to local authority staff in housing departments every day. There is no expression of concern for those on the waiting lists. He mentioned his disappointment at the low number of starts in 1991 and the possibility of a small increase in housing starts in 1992. The figures he quotes are only a fraction of the housing needs and even a smaller fraction of the housing completions in the five-year period before Fianna Fáil returned to office.

The Minister thinks he can be smug with the House but I wish to raise a most profound issue concerning the attitude of his Department to parliamentary questions. The Minister thinks that by curtailing debates, for instance today's debate on the Environment Estimate and next week's guillotine on the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, he will get out of being accountable to the House. I give notice that from today I shall refer to the Committee on Procedure [1402] and Privileges the manner in which questions are being dealt with by the Department of the Environment. I have gone to the Clerk of the Dáil and shown him examples of Questions in reply to which the Department of the environment have either told lies to the House or have used the ruse of having questions ruled out of order.

In respect of certain matters the Department have said that the responsibility lies with local authorities but every member of a local authority knows that when an approach is made to the local authority the response is that the permission of the Department is needed. The Department constantly use the ruse of having questions ruled out of order on the basis that they are repeats. For example, I tabled a general question about lottery grants in 1992 and asked whether the Government were living up to their commitments as spelt out in the Revised Programme of Government in October, when it was solemnly agreed by the parties in Government that lottery grants — which, incidentally, the Minister referred to only in passing — were to be decided by the local authorities. The Government have got out from under that solemn commitment by using the ploy of having no new lottery grants for local authorities this year and merely continuing grants that were selected by Fianna Fáil last year. By using all kinds of ploys the Minister refuses to come into the House to answer questions. My question on lottery grants generally for 1991 was ruled out of order after pressure was put on by the Department of the Environment on the basis of a question asked by Deputy Spring about County Westmeath lottery grants.

I put it to you, Sir, that that is disreputable behaviour by the Minister and his Department, who are trying to get out of their accountability to the House. I have here a file of information to use as an example. I asked the Minister whether he was aware of the Greenhouse Action Programme in the United Kingdom. His Department sought to have and succeeded in having that question ruled out of order as a repeat because of a question [1403] that had been asked earlier of the Minister of State, although neither that question nor the reply to it at any time referred to the United Kingdom Greenhouse Action Programme.

My party and I take a most serious view of the behaviour of the Department of the Environment. We have come to the conclusion that that Department are by far the worst when it comes to replying to parliamentary questions. I intend to ask that senior officials of the Department be called before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to account for the advice they are giving to their Minister and the pressure they are putting on the General Office of this House in relation to questions. The revelations now coming before the Beef Tribunal concerning the behaviour of officials in other Departments should serve as a warning that officials of the State cannot subvert the authority or rights of this House to hold them and their Minister to account. I ask the Minister himself to take an interest in the record of his Department in replying to questions, in using ruses to have questions ruled out of order, and in giving one-line replies. In reply to a question yesterday in which I asked about the Greenhouse Action Programme, the Minister said, “I refer to the reply to Question No. 77 of 25 March 1992.” Question No. 77 of 25 March does not even refer to the Greenhouse Action Programme. As I have said, I shall refer these matters to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges as examples of the misbehaviour of the Department of the Environment, and I am intent on making sure that the Department are accountable to the House and that such misbehaviour will discontinue forthwith.

I should like to share the remaining short time available to me with Deputy Bernard Allen.

Acting Chairman:  Is it agreed that Deputy Mitchell share his time with Deputy Allen? Agreed.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Information on Jim Mitchell  Zoom on Jim Mitchell  I wish to refer to some [1404] points raised in the Minister's speech. He claimed one — and only one, I think — achievement for the Government. That achievement was urban renewal. The Minister has a brass neck. The urban renewal programme was commenced under the urban renewal legislation of 1986 by the Fine Gael Labour Coalition Government. It was under that legislation that the designated areas and incentives were introduced. However, the Minister's speech claims as an achievement of the Government all of the great urban renewal that is going on. Indeed, I very much welcome that urban renewal. For a Minister who has been in office for three or four months to claim the kudos for that urban renewal for himself or for any of his Fianna Fáil predecessors is an effrontery. The urban renewal programme was a very well thought out and inspired move of the former Fine Gael-Labour Coalition. The Minister's speech states:

The Urban Renewal Programme is one of the most visible achievements of the Government over the last few years.

The Minister is claiming credit for something that was conceived and started before his Government came to office.

It is my personal belief that much more needs to be done in relation to urban renewal. For instance, I do not believe that the programme will have the desired results if the urban renewal programme and the incentives are put in place and left there and we just hope that ad hoc individual projects will develop our cities in a graceful and co-ordinate way. I point to the example of the Dublin City Quays from Heuston Station to the East Link. The Custom House itself is a very beautiful building and has been refurbished at enormous public expense, quite rightly so. The Four Courts building further up the quays, has now been refurbished. Apart from those two buildings, the quays are a disgrace to this city. There has been some urban renewal along the quays but it has been done in an ad hoc manner. It is all unmatching, unco-ordinated and uninspired. The time has come [1405] to have an overall design plan for major routes such as the city quays. We ought to have a clear view of the way the quays should look 20 years from now. That would inevitably mean some grand objectives in the French style. For instance, we would need to consider the construction of one, two or three major public buildings on the quays in the next 20 to 25 years. We should plan to set off the quays rather than just wait for applications for a garage, office block, shopping complex and so on — some of which developments would be in red brick; some of which would be five, six or seven storeys high; some of which would be set back 20 feet and some of which would be set back 40 feet. Ad hoc developments have no real co-ordinated plan or vision.

Far from claiming credit for the urban renewal programme, the Minister should recognise that while there has been success in the urban renewal initiative of the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition Government, more needs to be done and we cannot just sit back and hope that all will be right and that our cities will develop in a grand, co-ordinated and elegant appearance. They will not develop in that way. Apart from the need for elegance and grand objectives, as I have mentioned, the reality is that despite many of the incentives there are still many gaping sites of dereliction in our cities. That is very evident when one walks a few hundred yards north, south, east or west of the Custom House. If you travel through Mountjoy Square, Seán McDermott Street, Cumberland Street, along the diner Street, Macken Street, along the quays to Smithfield or down to Sheriff Street, it is obvious that there is terrible dereliction and there is no plan or dynamism to bring this urban blight to an end. The smugness of the Minister's speech in relation to urban renewal is contemptible, bearing in mind that he and his Government had very little to do with it and obviously he does not have any new ideas of his own.

The Minister made the point that his speech had to be curtailed, the same applies to mine. This is because the [1406] Government did not make adequate provision for proper debates in this House on Estimates. More than a full day should be devoted to teasing out, line by line, the Estimates of Departments of State. However, we are yet again nodding through the Estimate of a Department which, by any standards, needs a great deal of improvement and to be made made much more accountable to the elected representatives.

Mr. Allen: Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  An Estimate of £620 million is being discussed and I have only eight minutes in which to speak on it. It is a commentary on the way we do business in this House. The Government should introduce real Dáil reform where we can have at least one day to go through these Estimates and even set up committees to deal with them. Until that is done we will have a repeat of this charade.

The Minister's smugness in dealing with this Estimate is unbelieveable. I am sure at this stage he believes his own propaganda. His speech was totally devoid of reality. For example, he said he was disappointed that local authorities had not carried out their responsibilities or utilised their resources in the area of housing. If the Minister was in touch with reality he should know that local authorities throughout the country have programmes for house construction which they cannot implement, because the Minister is squeezing them dry for finance. In Cork city alone over 2,000 people are on the housing list. It is contemptible to hear the Minister say that local authorities have failed to carry out their responsibilities. The Minister has failed in his responsibility to give money to local authorities——

Mr. Smith: Information on Michael Smith  Zoom on Michael Smith  The Deputy's colleague said that he would not build any more of them——

Mr. Allen: Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  That is not true, the Minister is misrepresenting the position. The public relations companies are propping up the Government but when they are left on their own they cannot deliver. The Minister's speech was a public relations [1407] exercise, everything in the garden is rosy. However, the reality is that people are being exploited throughout our towns and cities because of inadequate housing. As I said, in Cork city there are over 2,000 people on the housing list but the most we can build this year is 40 houses; properties worth millions of pounds are empty because we cannot maintain the buildings. It is a scandal.

In relation to urban renewal, it is indicative of the Minister's attitude that he dealt with the Custom House Docks site in Dublin. Many other cities and towns need urban renewal and are crying out for money to implement urban renewal programmes. There are local plans for parts of cities which cannot be implemented because of lack of finance. The Minister should concentrate on cities throughout the country which are falling into disrepair and which are totally blighted by urban decay. Local authorities — including my own — have plans which they could implement tomorrow if the money was available. We do not even have money for public lights, if a residents' group want a light erected on the corner of a laneway in a city it cannot be provided because of lack of funds. Local authorities cannot even collect cut grass in our estates and parks throughout the country, the grass is left to blow on to the roadway, causing further litter. We do not have the finance, manpower or equipment to deal with these matters.

It is codswallop for the Minister to speak in glowing terms about urban renewal; it is all shadow and no substance. We should have a real programme of urban renewal where living conditions are improved and people's spirits uplifted because the downward spiral of unemployment and urban decay is demoralising. It makes areas of high unemployment unattractive for industrial investment. We all know that if there is industrial investment it will create good conditions, which is the case in modern parts of the country. However, the older parts of our cities do not have a hope of attracting industry and employment to [1408] their areas because they are run down and unattractive.

Yesterday I tabled a question to the Minister's Department regarding repossessions and evictions, which are a growing problem because of the economic climate. I received a reply that the question had been disallowed because the Minister did not have responsibility in the matter. Who has responsibility for evictions and repossessions which cause misery and heartbreak to many families struck down by illness and unemployment and who cannot fulfil their responsibilities to the local authorities who have advanced loans? Nobody seems to have responsibility in this regard. Will we ignore people who have been trampled on by the pressures of unemployment and everyday living? Can we give them any hope? The Minister has a responsibility to carry out a national survey on the level of repossessions and evictions by local authorities and the financial institutions. There is a problem in that regard which the Minister should address. It is disgraceful to receive a reply from the Minister's Department saying that he does not have any responsibility in the matter, that it is one for the local authorities. It is not a matter for the local authorities; they can carry out their responsibilities only if they are funded. I urge the Minister to carry out a survey and to take the necessary steps to give people dignity when they face problems like this. We need a departmental plan to allow people to escape from the trauma of eviction and repossession in cases where there is genuine hardship because of unemployment or sickness.

I wish to refer to the question of national lottery funding. The generosity of our people and their weakness for a gamble are being exploited in a base manner by the Government because part of the national lottery funding is being used as a political slush fund by the Government. All the pious platitudes contained in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress have been cast aside in the interests of political patronage. Local authorities were promised control over the distribution of lottery [1409] funds but that has not been the case. The Minister promised that this year local authorities would be given the right to decide and allocate moneys from the national lottery. That has not happened. The sporting and community organisations throughout the cities and towns do not know where they stand. Their development plans have been stalled because they do not know where they are going. Where has the money gone? It is being siphoned off to other areas. The Minister has a responsibility to tell those people who spend between £1 and £5 each week on national lottery tickets where the money is going, because it is not being allocated to the local authorities to support the community-based organisations that are dependent upon it.

Let me say in conclusion that I am disappointed in relation to the information contained in the Minister's speech regarding the Environmental Protection Agency. It is obvious that this is yet another example of where legislation will not be implemented. Having regard to the amount of money that has been allocated for the agency this year the indications for next year and for the next two to three years are that agency will be a lame duck with the result that local authorities and other groups around the country will be unable to meet their responsibilities under the Air Pollution Act and other legislation relating to environmental protection. I therefore ask the Minister to state clearly who is responsible for this important task of environmental protection. We have a lame duck agency who are under-funded and, who, by the looks of things, will have a long gestation period. At the same time the local authorities are being starved of funds to carry out work that needs to be done.

Mr. G. O'Sullivan: Information on Gerry O'Sullivan  Zoom on Gerry O'Sullivan  The Department of the Environment are a big spending Department. Indeed, the sum involved is mind boggling. It would be fair to say also that the Department of the Environment touch the lives of practically every person in this country. As a result, we must analyse and scrutinise carefully this Estimate [1410] in relation to the effect that they have on our citizens.

The recent summit at Rio de Janeiro emphasised the importance of the environment. Those interest groups who do not realise the gravity of their action, who are deliberately careless and ignore the danger posed to the environment in their quest for profit and gain pose a danger and a threat. These “get rich quick” merchants who have no vision must be condemned given that they pose a threat to all our futures, in particular to those of our children.

This country is reputed to have a good, clean environment. We must therefore jealously guard and promote that reputation worldwide. However, there is room for co-operation with industry in the pursuit of policies that would benefit everyone. Indeed, I must compliment all those industries which are complying with the regulations which have been laid down and, in particular, those industries which have indicated their willingness to co-operate with the local authorities and Government Departments in creating much needed jobs while preserving our clean environment. It is also necessary to heighten awareness among young students of the value of the environment to this country.

I should say to the Minister that there are many environmentalists who at great cost to themselves have shown both public representatives and Government Departments that they have a strong desire to preserve the environment as one of our most valuable assets. I am referring in particular to people such as Matt Murphy who is doing great work in this area, with particular reference to the marine sector and landfill sites. He has brought together people with immense knowledge to impart this knowledge to the community. These people must be complimented as they are doing an excellent job for the country.

It would be churlish of me to condemn the Estimate and the Minister for not making any progress. Some progress has been made but there is room for much more. I should point out that the local authorities have major difficulties. The [1411] time is opportune to examine these problems and to look to the Minister for action to resolve them. As a member of Cork Corporation — Deputy Allen has already referred to some of the problems facing them — I wish to highlight the fact that they have been starved of resources and that this is a major problem for local communities.

Emphasis is no longer placed on local government as we know it. I believe that the local authorities could act as job creation agencies but, unfortunately, this is not the case. These authorities would be able to identify quite easily those areas where jobs could be created if they were provided with the resources to do so. Not alone are they being starved of finance but they are being starved of manpower also.

Each year as the Estimates are being prepared the local authorities face a crisis. Indeed, it has now become an annual event and invariably those authorities who work diligently throughout the year to improve their town or city are left with a shortfall at the end of the year when that horrible phrase “service charges” surfaces again and again. There has been a strong reaction from people in towns and cities outside Dublin to the issue of service charges. They consider it to be double taxation and it is hard to blame them because this is what it amounts to. While those living in Dublin get away scot free, the rest of the country have to pay and this has led to divisions among communities. The Department of the Environment dictate the quality of life that citizens enjoy. Unfortunately, for many the quality of life has deteriorated rapidly during the past few years.

The number of staff in our local authorities has been reduced. For instance, since 1987 the workforce in Cork Corporation has been reduced by 500. Not only has this led to a loss of services but also to a reduction in the amount of finance in circulation within the city. This reduction in the labour force has affected each section of Cork Corporation. [1412] Their parks are no longer attractive despite the fact that the workers who remain are doing their level best to keep them attractive. For example, there are large properties and tracts of land owned by Cork Corporation left to become derelict or unkempt with grass growing over them and so on.

If we are endeavouring to present a city attractive to industrialists to set up there and create jobs then it is very serious that we are on a care and maintenance basis, which is the wording of the city engineer. A care and maintenance basis means that it is a mothball ship or a redundant factory, which is left to stand idle, merely switching on the lights in the morning and switching them off in the evening. Cork city is now being classified as a care and maintenance base city, which is not good enough. If we are serious about tackling the problem of the huge numbers of unemployed people in Cork, then the city must be made attractive to industrialists who may want to come and establish factories there, but also attractive and amenable to people who want to live there.

Now that the Central Statistics Office is being transferred to Cork I sincerely hope we will receive some funding to make that area of Cork city attractive also. It is important, in any area encountering problems such as massive unemployment, half or totally empty industrial estates, that, when people are brought there by the IDA or any other job agency, they can present that city, town or wherever as a place to which people would like to come and spend their working lives. That is not happening because of lack of funds, which is a false economy.

There has been reference already to public lighting in our cities and towns nationwide. In most cases these are antiquated lighting systems which cannot be replaced by local authorities by more modern-type public lighting systems which would be a saving in the long run since their maintenance costs would be reduced. At present the public lighting bill in Cork alone amounts to £650,000 annually, and that in respect of anti- [1413] quated lighting which no longer meets citizens' needs.

Our library services have been downgraded because of cut backs on manpower, with no renewal of books and so on. It is most important that every city have an adequate public library service. In addition, there has been a minimal increase in charges which again hits many unemployed persons availing of those services since they cannot meet them. In the case of swimming pools, increased costs means that fewer people use them, again mostly caused by the high levels of unemployment.

While it would be churlish of me to totally reject the Minister's introductory remarks, I might deal with a couple of points he made. For example, he said there would be a streamlining of his Department leading to quicker approval of housing schemes. That is indeed to be welcomed because the position that has obtained to date was ridiculous. For example, we are told it took two years from the date a local authority housing application was submitted to the Department to the time an occupant could be installed, a ridiculous time lapse.

Unfortunately, time did not allow my participation in the debate on the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1992. However, in the few minutes remaining I should like to speak about this most important local authority housing problem. For example, last month's figures showed there were over 2,000 applicants for local authority housing on Cork Corporation housing list, a horrendous figure by any standards. The local authority housebuilding programme is practically nil. I have the relevant figures before me which are frightening. For example, in Cork in 1987 there were 193 local authority houses built; in 1988, 121; in 1989, one house only; in 1990, 14; there are presumed to have been 56 built in 1991 and there are some starts, with the prediction of about 40 to be built this year if I am not mistaken.

I have served on the housing committee of Cork Corporation since 1979, have seen those figures increase month by month, year by year and witnessed the [1414] misery it has caused many families. The present position in Cork is reflected nationwide, in Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Dublin. Private landlords have seen this as a lucrative market and have exploited others' misery, increasing rents out of all proportion to the standard or value of the property they rent. The only place in respect of which I can quote figures is Cork. For example, two years ago the Southern Health Board paid £200,000 in rent and mortgage subsidies in the north Lee area, comprising half of the Southern Health Board area. That figure has now risen astronomically to £750,000, and that in just over two years. Indeed the figure in respect of the south side of the River Lee has risen proportionately with £2 million now being paid by way of subsidy by the Department of Social Welfare to the Southern Health Board in order to supplement people's accommodation costs.

Of course, I welcome the fact that people are being housed somewhere but it cannot be denied that there are unscrupulous people here who are ripping off the system. I would ask the Minister, along with his colleague, the Minister for Social Welfare, to examine those figures very carefully; they can be ascertained from the southern Health Board. Indeed the problem can be easily identified. Applicants on the Cork Corporation housing list have to go into private accommodation, sometimes of intolerable standard, and pay between £50 and £80 weekly, subsidised by the taxpayer, which goes into the coffers of unscrupulous landlords who have perceived this to be a growth industry. That is a reflection on how we spend public moneys and look after our people. I would ask the Minister again to examine this issue very carefully. Indeed if that £2 million was expended on local authority housebuilding programmes it would at least go some way to tackling the present housing problem.

Any public representative involved in housing will verify what I am saying, that there is a housing crisis. The demands for housing have increased gradually over the years. There is no way of meeting [1415] those demands except through the building of houses. While I appreciate the point the Minister made, that large housing schemes are no longer acceptable, at the same time, Cork Corporation, like other local authorities, have shown that they have the expertise, willingness and ability to undertake first-class housing schemes which would be of benefit in urban renewal, inner city renewal and which would be effective and a credit to any local authority. I have first-hand experience of this. I have personally witnessed the misery caused thousands of families who, with two and three children, must live in flats, sometimes without water or sanitary facilities and pay exorbitant rents. Indeed the present public housing programme condemns them to live in those conditions for the foreseeable future. That is not a quality of life of which we can be proud. The Minister referred to the public water supply and sanitary services programme which is a challenge to all of us. I accept that but must point out that some people will not meet that challenge and, in such circumstances, others will suffer.

Progress has been made on certain issues. I hope the Environment Protection Agency will get off the ground. A number of amendments from the Opposition parties have been incorporated but much more has to be done. There is an urgency at this time to tackle housing and the job situation which, of course, can be related to the environment. There are no major problems. If we are realistic we can sit down with the people who are willing to come into the country with industry and any fears can be allayed.

I ask the Minister to consider the points I have made here. People are anxious to provide for themselves in the best environment they can find, but that requires funding and local authorities cannot provide that funding. At present they are working on outmoded formulae. They are doing their best but it is not good enough because people are paying taxes and they expect some return for those [1416] taxes. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that there is a huge crisis in Cork and if possible make extra funding available so that the housing crisis can be met.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  I call Deputy Kelly and I remind him he must confine himself to ten minutes.

Mr. Kelly: Information on Laurence Kelly  Zoom on Laurence Kelly  The passing of the treaty on European union by the Irish people will be of enormous benefit to the Department of the Environment. The use of Structural Funds up to now has led to major improvements to our national road network, and when Cohesion Funds become available for the Department of the Environment we will see further major improvements in that network.

I would like to refer in particular to a national primary road of tremendous importance in my constituency. This road stretches from Cork city to the Kerry county boundary and from there into Killarney. The Kerry side of this stretch of roadway is in a pretty good condition, but a major portion of the roadway from Crookstown to the Kerry county boundry is in a deplorable state. This roadway is more appropriate to by-gone days than it is to modern vehicular traffic. I strongly urge the Minister to ensure that this stretch of roadway is treated as a priority when funds become available. I have little doubt that the failure over the years to address this main artery between counties Cork and Kerry has had a serious adverse economic effect on both counties and on the city of Cork in particular. Any work carried out on this roadway should coincide with the building of the by-pass to Macroom town. It is impossible for visitors to the town to stop, and traffic congestion in the centre of Macroom town is an everyday occurrence. Macroom town is suffering as a result, and the present situation is a cause of tremendous frustration to all motorists.

While I am on the subject of roads, I would like to mention the road from Mallow to Killarney between Longueville House and Lombardstown Cross. The stretch of roadway concerned measures approximately three kilometres [1417] and again the condition of this road is causing serious traffic congestion. Cork County Council have not touched the road for the best part of ten years.

While the roads leading from the east and south-east coast into Cork city are a credit to the Department and the engineering staff of Cork County Council, the condition of the aforementioned roads leaves much to be desired. This, of course, is not the fault of the Cork County Council engineering staff but rather of the EC inspired policy of major improvement works on national primary roads on the east coast to the detriment of road arteries along the south-west and west coast. If this EC-directed policy only serves to make the richer counties richer and the poorer counties poorer, it can only lead to a similar disparity within the county. I know the Minister for the Environment understands the situation and I have every confidence that he will ensure a more equitable distribution of funds for roads in future. If it is to be the only contribution he makes to his Minister — I have no doubt there will be many more — he will leave an indelible mark on the Department of the Environment. I thank the Minister for responding so positively to my representations about a £3 million sewerage scheme for my home town of Kanturk. This work is now under way and will be completed in the next 12 to 18 months. I strongly recommend the Minister to make moneys available for the laying of new footpaths and new streets in this rapidly developing provincial town when work is completed.

I have been made aware by my constituents of a very serious water problem in the village of Banteer, north Cork. About 25 years ago Cork County Council built a reservoir at the bottom of a hill. Unfortunately, time has caught up with the reservoir because new farming technology means that following heavy rain slurry and fertiliser spread on the highlands flow into this reservoir from surrounding hills. This is disgraceful in his day and age. Naturally, the people of Banteer are quite alarmed by this ongoing problem. I know the Minister [1418] will agree that this is unacceptable and that in these circumstances he will do everything in his power to assist Cork County Council to solve the problem. Indeed, Cork County Council have acquired a water source on an alternative site and I ask the Minister here today to instruct Cork County Council to proceed with that development immediately.

The Minister will also be aware of my representations about the sale to an individual of eight and a half acres of land by Cork County Council for the nominal sum of £1,000. This land forms portion of a 16-acre holding which Cork County Council purchased for £47,000 of taxpayer's money in 1987, a short five years ago. Cork County Council have made their argument about the sale and I have made mine. Too often in the past the sale of property by statutory authorities has not been properly debated. There should be greater monitoring of the sale of public assets and a number of valuations should be acquired before any sale proceeds. At least two-thirds of the members of the statutory authority should agree to such a sale. In this instance, in particular, I ask the Minister, Deputy Smith to ensure this matter is investigated fully before any sale proceeds.

I congratulate the Minister warmly on his appointment and wish him every possible success. Judging by his past record I have no doubt he will be a resounding success in this Department. I hope he will consider all my recommendations seriously.

Mr. Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  The Minister's speech introducing this Estimate was a great disappointment. In it we see no indication of the Government's policy in the area of the environment. We see no indication of any new direction and there is really no message in it, apart from the fact that the Minister is managing a budget of £620 million. In the limited time available to me I want to deal with a number of specifics.

The first is a topic which is now becoming the most urgent environmental problem for the Minister and the Government, that is the crisis now facing [1419] the greater Dublin area with regard to waste disposal. Within a period of four years there will be literally nowhere to dispose of the domestic and other waste that is generated in the greater Dublin area. At present the Dublin region produces almost one million tonnes of waste per year. The total remaining capacity in the landfill sites in which this waste is now dumped is only three million tonnes, enough to last a little more than three years. The Ballyogan and Friarstown tips are due to close by the middle of next year, leaving no refuse disposal facility whatever in south Dublin. Following the diversion of the south county waste, Dunsink dump is likely to close in early 1994. Although Balleally has some additional capacity, it too will close within five years if it has to take the entire waste of Dublin. Dubliners are now facing the prospect of there being nowhere to dump their refuse within four or five years.

The response by the Dublin local authorities to this crisis has been to purchase a site at Kill, County Kildare, bale the Dublin waste and transport it by road to that site. However, this proposal has encountered strong local opposition. The site is near a disused former toxic dump and it is close to the water supply for Dublin city and county. There is no guarantee that planning permission will be granted for the dump. In any event, the thinking which lies behind the Dublin local authorities' approach to this dump, which is based on a reliance on land fill dumping, has been environmentally discredited.

The Minister has just returned from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In his speech he spoke about the efforts the Government will now be making to try to implement some of the aspirations outlined at that conference. The Dublin waste crisis will be the first test of the Government's commitment to the new environmental thinking outlined out at the Rio conference. Quite simply, the Dublin local authorities are not in a position to solve this waste crisis on their own. They have been put into the position of [1420] having to approach the problem purely on the basis of land fill dumping because we do not have a national waste policy or waste management plan. We have been promised on a number of occasions waste management legislation but so far it has not appeared. If it takes more than a year to introduce this legislation and prepare a national waste management plan, it will be too late so far as Dublin is concerned. We need action now.

We need an approach similar to the approach taken by Denmark in dealing with its waste management problems. It adopted a waste management Act about 15 years ago which sought to solve the problem by reducing waste at source and recycling. Denmark has managed since then to reduce its requirement for land fill dumping and the disposal of waste by more than half.

We cannot afford to allow a situation to develop whereby within four or five years the area with the largest concentration of population will not have anywhere in which to dispose of its waste. The approach currently being pursued has been environmentally discredited and is out of date. We will regret it in years to come. I ask the Minister to bring forward whatever plans he has for a waste management Bill and to introduce a national waste management policy urgently and in time to address the waste disposal problem we are now faced with in the Dublin area.

I wish to refer to local government reform. When we were debating the local government Bill last year we were told that the elections for urban district councils and town commissioners were being postponed, it was intended to introduce legislation this year and elections for urban district councils and town commissioners would be held this summer. This has not happened. According to the Minister's speech, the legislation will not now appear until early 1993. If some of the political predictions being made are correct, the plans to introduce that legislation in early 1993 might be interrupted [1421] by other events, including perhaps a general election in which case——

Mr. Smith: Information on Michael Smith  Zoom on Michael Smith  We have no worries.

Mr. Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I worried about this issue last year and my worries were borne out. We did not have local elections this year. I am worried that we may not have elections to urban councils, town commissioners and sub-county structures next summer either. By next summer it will have been eight years since members were elected to urban councils and town commissioners. It cannot be described as democracy, and, in particular, local democracy of any kind if there is such an interval between the time people elect their urban councillors and when they have to seek re-election.

Some Members, including the previous speaker, referred to the problem of roads. I wish to refer to this issue also. In his speech the Minister referred to the work which is taking place, assisted by the EC, on national roads. Our non-national roads are falling asunder not just in Banteer and County Cork but throughout the country. All Members could list roads in their constituencies which are in serious need of repair. For example, in my constituency Wyattville Road, Barnhill Road and Ballinclea Road are in need of repair. The Minister's answer to these questions about this problem is to state that the State grants for non-national roads are intended to supplement and not replace the expenditure on non-national roads financed by local authorities from their own resources. Where does the Minister expect local authorities to get the resources to maintain and carry out the necessary upgrading required on non-national roads? It is a simple fact of life that local authorities do not have those resources because of the degree to which the funding of local authorities has been cut back in recent years. The point made by the Minister in his speech ignores the critical fact that local authorities are very largely dependent on the Department of the Environment for their funding. That [1422] funding has been cut in recent years and they are simply not in a position——

Mr. Smith: Information on Michael Smith  Zoom on Michael Smith  Who do the Department of the Environment depend on for their funds?

Mr. Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  The Minister stated that the non-national roads, most of which are potholed, can be maintained by local authorities out of their own resources and he is not going to provide the money for them. I am telling the Minister that the local authorities do not have the resources to maintain those roads. If the Minister persists with that line of thinking then the condition of those roads will continue to deteriorate. Many of those roads are already dangerous and contribute in large measure to the number of traffic accidents and fatalities that occur. Approximately 400 people are killed each year on our roads. The local authorities do not have the resources with which to maintain them. The Minister will have to change his attitude to the funding of non-national roads, which are in critical need of repair.

Mr. Jacob: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  As this is the first time I have spoken in this House in the presence of the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Smith, I should like to belatedly congratulate him on his appointment. I have no doubt that he will bring the same enthusiasm, energy and pragmatism to this ministry as he brought to the other portfolios he has graced.

In the short time available to me I should like to concentrate on roads and general infrastructure. The outstanding problem with which we have to deal today is our colossal unemployment level. The need to create jobs is obvious; this is of paramount importance and must be addressed urgently and expeditiously. This problem can be solved by adhering to the overwhelming decision by the Irish people recently to continue along the road of greater integration with our partners in Europe, thereby availing of the economic opportunities open to us. We need to attract more foreign investment in Irish-based industry. We must ensure [1423] that our existing industries are able to trade at a realistically competitive level in the large European market open to us. Due to our peripheral geographic location this can only be achieved by providing first-class infrastructural facilities. For example, our roads, ports, railways and so on must be brought up to the very highest standards. Foreign investors and industrialists are interested, and will be interested, in establishing here, as Ireland will give them greater access to EC markets. These prospective investors will look very closely at what we have to offer. They will be particularly interested in our transportation and distribution facilities. This is not conjecture on my part; it is proven fact, and I can quote evidence of it from experience in my constituency of Wicklow.

The town of Arklow and its substantial south Wicklow hinterland has been devastated by unemployment in recent years due to the run-down of traditional industry. The IDA, to their credit, have placed Arklow and its hinterland top of the list of areas deemed to require special attention in terms of job creation. IDA personnel have brought to Arklow many prospective investors who are interested in setting up industry in this country. While the town has many advantages in terms of the port, its skilled labour force and its geographic location vis-á-vis Rosslare and Dublin Airport, these potential investors invariably decline to come to the area. In crude terms, they do not want to know, simply because they have a very understandable aversion to the congested nature of that town.

Plans are now well advanced for the provision of a motorway — the Arklow by-pass — which will solve this problem. It is also planned to acquire land adjacent to the by-pass on which to build an industrial park, thereby providing the IDA with a worthwhile product to market. The people of Arklow and south Wicklow are looking to this new by-pass as a means of solving the congestion problem and, with it, the appalling unemployment problem. This by-pass will greatly improve the route to Rosslare. This main [1424] route which is of such vital importance to the Irish economy is a bottleneck. Our viability in the context of the European market will certainly be enhanced when that project is put in place, and I earnestly ask the Minister to ensure that work will commence on it without delay. I merely cite the example of Arklow to illustrate my point. The importance of modernising and upgrading our national infrastructure is of paramount importance if we are really serious about Europe and about dealing with the unemployment malaise.

In the area of tourism there is further evidence of the need for road improvement and upgrading. In line with Government policy, growth in Irish tourism has been phenomenal over the last half dozen years — 3.2 million people are expected to visit our country this year, an increase of 68 per cent over 1985 when there were 1.9 million visitors. These tourists are most welcome. We have striven hard to attract them and when they come here we must look after them. The difficulty is that our tourists arrive at peak periods. It is envisaged that over one million people will visit Ireland in the next couple of months, which is our peak holiday time. This puts a major strain on our roads and other infrastructure. Traffic jams are commonplace, particularly in popular destinations. Already I see evidence of this in County Wicklow, with traffic jams in attractive, well loved and well visited places such as Glendalough, Wicklow town, Brittas Bay, Arklow, Blessington and so on due to the inadequacy of our roads.

If the excellence of the Irish tourism product, which is geared to increasingly providing jobs, is to be maintained we must address this problem. We must deal with our infrastructure, particularly our roads, and ensure that they are of sufficient standard. We must provide a safe and comfortable facility for our tourists who are thankfully coming here in ever-increasing numbers. Much improvement has been made, as has been outlined by the Minister, but much more needs to be done. We must strive for excellence in [1425] this area and I am quite confident that the Minister will achieve that.

In the time available to me I want to refer to the planning process, and I address this matter particularly to the Minister. There are difficulties in the area of planning appeals and I have evidence of this in my constituency. Planning appeals are submitted to An Board Pleanála by people who may be well meaning or perhaps by people who are merely being destructive, and it takes a lengthy period of time for An Bord Pleanála to deal with these appeals. Many applications have received a positive response from the local authorities, particularly in relation to industries and job creation projects, but the delays in An Bord Pleanála are an aversion to potential investors.

In the town in which I live the company, Avondale Chemicals, have received planning permission for a £50 million extension but work is held up as a result of appeals to An Bord Pleanála. This company could employ 360 people tomorrow morning on the building of the extension to their plant, with the prospect of 100 permanent jobs on completion of the project, but the project is delayed because of the difficulties in An Bord Pleanála. I have discussed this matter with the Minister and I know he has plans to deal with it. If decisions in An Bord Pleanála were expedited it would help in our attempt to deal with the unemployment problem.

Mr. Cosgrave: Information on Michael Joe Cosgrave  Zoom on Michael Joe Cosgrave  As a consequence of the popularity of residing near the coast, the area surrounding Dublin Bay, with the exception of the Howth peninsula is now completely built up. It is estimated that the population of the greater Dublin area is more than one million, or roughly one third of our population. With such a large population in the Dublin Bay area there is a heavy demand on the bay receiving waters to dispose of the effluent from so many people living in a small area.

Pollution in Dublin Bay has an adverse effect on fishing, swimming and water contact sports and on general amenity [1426] and recreational uses. I welcome the fact that seven beaches in the Dublin County Council area received blue flag awards, including, I am glad to say, the Burrow beach in Sutton. It is very disappointing, however, that none of our beaches received the silver starfish award for water quality. Dollymount beach, enjoyed by thousands of Dubliners, did not receive any award. This surely indicates that the water quality in Dublin Bay is not up to the highest standards. Dublin Bay, and adjoining areas, is a resource of immense value for recreational pursuits. It is estimated that the bay supports the recreation demands of up to 50,000 people.

Debate adjourned.


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