Dáil Éireann - Volume 355 - 24 January, 1985

Estimates, 1985. - Vote 29: Environment (Resumed).

Debate resumed on the following motion:

That a sum not exceeding £731,140,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1985, 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.

—(Minister for the Environment.)

Mr. Dowling: I agree with some of the points made by the Opposition spokesman in regard to local government reform. I agree with his suggestion that there should be a statutory right to the share of revenue coming to local authorities. A reform of the housing grant supervision system is long overdue because there is a lot of duplication. Inspectors travel from Dublin to inspect houses although local planning inspectors carry out inspections on the same dwelling. That is a waste of resources. With regard to the land-related income tax proposed in the national plan, it appears from the Minister's statement this morning that the revenue from that will go to local authorities. I welcome that.

Fianna Fáil have said they propose [687] introducing a Bill to deal with local authority financing and will give extra powers to members of such bodies. We would welcome such a move but, unfortunately, in the past a lot of local authority members funked their responsibility in that regard.

Because of the amount of time allocated for the debate I will not be able to deal with many aspects of the work of the Department of the Environment. The figure of 25,000 house completions in 1984 is satisfactory. The record of Coalition Governments on the provision of houses and their commitment to housing has been excellent. It is no different with the Government. In the current year a further 7,000 local authority houses will be provided. Coalition Governments have also introduced many innovative housing schemes. The 1973-77 Government introduced the low rise mortgage scheme but Fianna Fáil got rid of it. They want it back again because they see the sense of such a scheme. The £5,000 mortgage subsidy and the £1,000 grant for those who leave local authority tenancies to purchase their own home will result in many local authority houses being made available for new tenants. In addition, for the first time local authorities will be able to purchase houses on the open market for allocation to tenants. That new development is welcome. I also welcome the joint venture housing and the site subsidy. A figure of £3,000 may not be the market value of sites and the Minister should consider increasing the grant under that scheme.

The road section is also worthy of consideration. In the period of the plan there will be a 53 per cent increase in the amount of funds to be made available for the development and improvement of our national primary roads. That represents an increase of 10 per cent over and above what was promised by the Fianna Fáil administration in 1979. The Minister said he was happy to be able to report that the overall block grant allocation had been increased this year by 10 per cent. According to him the system had been [688] reviewed with regard to the most equitable distribution of available funds especially by reference to mileage of regional roads. That new development is welcome. Hopefully, my county which has a considerable mileage of regional roads will get its share to help us carry out the necessary improvements. I was disappointed that additional money was not provided for county roads. The county road structure is going into decay and funds should be made available before the position gets worse. The Department should consider making an annual commitment for the improvement and upkeep of county roads.

I note that the Minister indicated that a law will be introduced to make compulsory an insurance-tax disc system. There is a crying need for a change in the area of motor insurance. Many drivers under 25 years of age cannot get insurance cover. Most companies do not want them or when they quote a premium it is so excessive that the young people cannot consider it. We are all aware of how difficult it is for young people to get cover even if the parents of those young people were insured with companies for many years. I hope legislation is introduced to reform the structure of motor insurance. The legal system and awards made in accident cases should be looked at. Why not look at the British system? I have heard that insurance cover in England is cheaper and there is no great problem for people under 25 to get cover. The Departments of the Environment and Justice should prepare a scheme that will limit the level of charge and eliminate a lot of the fees paid to the legal profession for processing claims.

I am disappointed that an Estimate like this is not debated in greater detail here. I ask the Minister responsible for Dáil reform to allocate more time for debates on Estimates.

Mr. J. Leonard: In order to comply with the wishes of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle I will be brief. If one examines the Minister's lengthy speech one will not find very much in it. I am concerned about the construction industry, the [689] allocation for roads and job creation prospects. The Minister painted a very rosy picture about additional funding for roads but he failed to say that the money would be spent on the national primary and the national secondary roads. He said that 6 per cent of the roads carried 35 per cent of the total traffic, but those figures cover the roads in the city, not the region I come from. In my area we feel we are being neglected because of the Government's failure to provide funds for our county and main roads.

The Minister of State spoke about their three year programme and said industry know where they were going and spoke about priming pumps. If he were talking to people in the country they would be more inclined to say they were priming the pumps to get the water out of the potholes rather than setting up industries.

I fail to understand how the Department of the Environment, the Minister for Labour and the Manpower Services cannot come together. I often wonder if they are even on speaking terms. We are putting down questions asking that some of the available money be allocated to very needy essential roadworks but the Government appear to be completely involved in amenity schemes, sports pitches, with AnCO and training schemes. It is time the Department looked at other areas, especially county and minor roads which are deteriorating rapidly because the water cannot drain out of the channels. I believe we could provide jobs for our youth in this area.

Coming here last Tuesday I noticed a Northern Ireland lorry, which turned off at Phibsboro, with a full load of salt and sand to be spread on the roads. Can we in the Republic not even mix salt and sand to spread on our roads during the bad weather? It is about time the Department looked at all areas where jobs could be provided. In my region firms manufacturing concrete are in dire straits because of substantial imports of concrete products and ready mix products with an import cement base.

Deputy Molloy spoke about the black economy and the need for funds to be made available by the Department. It [690] must be remembered that almost all major works undertaken in this country are financed by the Exchequer. This means there should be a closer examination of where the products used are manufactured. Over the last few days, probably in anticipation of this debate, the regional development organisation in my area sent me notes of their programme for the period from 1984 to 2001. They came up with their proposals as a result of a number of reports commissioned by the EC — the EC Social and Economic Committee Report, the NERDO EC Report and the EC Catchment Study Report. These reports stressed the strengthening of bridges and the realignment of roads. They said that regional development could not proceed in the absence of adequate support infrastructure. The NERDO report set down the minimum requirements for the whole area, not roads alone. They spoke about the availability of adequate fiscal and support infrastructure, which was a key element of the economic and social development of the north-east region. They talked about the importance of infrastructure for the stimulation and maintenance of agriculture, industrial, commercial and tourist activity and recognised that as a key factor underpinning the total regional development. They said the success of the effective economic sector contributed to regional growth and prosperity was dependent on a phased completion of the infrastructural programme over the period to 2001.

We know we are in a serious financial position but we must acknowledge that infrastructure is the bedrock of development of the resources in all regions. We have to come to grips with this not alone at national level but at local and county levels, but at local and county levels we are inhibited by a lack of finance. Let us examine this document which we were given this morning. The refund in lieu of rates on agricultural land is only slightly above last year's figure and this applies to almost every other heading. The greatest percentage increases are in the areas of office machinery and office supplies, travelling and incidental expenses and [691] postal and telecommunications. If we look at these items we will see that almost every increase is a direct result of the Government's economic and monetary policies over the last few years. They have increased to a great extent the excise duty on petrol and diesel, postal and telecommunications charges and ESB charges. These areas should be closely examined.

Last year £2.15 million was allocated to the local improvements scheme and a similar figure is allocated this year. We are getting the same amount every year despite the fact that we get substantial sums from the EC. My grievance is that the Minister does not have a fair and equitable system of allocating this money. Let us examine the figures we were given in reply to parliamentary questions. In reply to a question in 1975 the then Minister for Local Government, a Labour Minister, said the amount allocated related to the number of outstanding applications on the list. Three counties, Monaghan, Mayo and Donegal, have a backlog of applications and are not getting as much money by way of allocation as other counties. The allocation was not related to the need or to the numbers of bona fide applications on the waiting list. I ask the Minister to rectify this and to give fair play to each county in these allocations.

Housing has been mentioned and I appeal to the Minister, as I have done before, to provide serviced sites. We seem to be obsessed with providing local authority housing at very high subsidised rents. A serviced site would cost about £3,000 but I would prefer to offer a site like that to someone who was prepared to build his own house instead of, as is happening in many counties, offering a site for £6,000 which is not accepted and then the person goes into a local authority house.

I should like to speak about repairs to houses but, as so many other Members wish to speak, I will not detain the House.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I should like to indicate to the House that the [692] Minister must come in at 4.45 p.m. Deputy Joe Cosgrave is offering now. Deputy De Rossa is next. It will then go back to the Government benches and, after that, to the Fianna Fáil benches. I am trying to allow as many Members as possible to speak and I hope that my appeal will be heard and that Deputy De Rossa and Deputy Cosgrave will heed my plea.

Mr. M. Cosgrave: I shall endeavour to be very brief. I support the grant announced today by the Minister. It highlights the Government's ongoing commitment to ensure that the needs of the public are met as far as possible.

We as legislators and I, as a Member of this House and of a local authority, are chiefly concerned to see that the money is spent as effectively as possible and that the public benefit from it. This is particularly important when money is scarce and highlights the need and urgency for this overdue local government reform. The proposed reform is most welcome and will bring local authorities nearer to the people they serve. My own constituency will see a major change. Areas such as Howth, Baldoyle, Sutton and Kilbarrack will move into the third administrative county council area proposed in the reform. This area has seen vast changes over the years and is in need of special attention. Howth, Baldoyle and Sutton, which were villages 15 years ago, are now well developed modern communities with definite ideas as to how their areas should develop.

Recent decisions by An Bord Pleanála regarding the proposed development at Baldoyle racecourse were welcome. End-camp proposed to erect 2,300 houses in the area but were refused permission. Cavern Systems proposed to erect underground caverns in Dublin Bay to store dangerous gases but permission to do so was also refused. A proposal to erect houses at Redrock, Howth, was also refused. These proposals were successfully opposed by the residents' associations in the area and they monitored the applications through the local authorities and then through An Bord Pleanála. I [693] mention this because I believe that the residents' associations have a major role to play in the running and success of local authorities, especially in the success of local government reforms. Residents' associations are very keen to play an active part in local government and they are specially interested in this proposed local government reform.

My constituency has a residents' association in most areas and I suggest that they should be taken into account in this reform and an effort should be made to give them more power and a say in what is happening in their communities. I should like to see council officials and public representatives meeting the residents' associations in a different area each week or month to enable the associations to have their say in planning and other matters which affect their lives. In my own area I visualise a headquarters for the local authority in Malahide or Swords with local offices in Howth, Baldoyle and Sutton where meetings could take place. Residents would be very satisfied with this development.

The Minister mentioned this morning that local authorities could act as agents for other Government bodies in the areas of education and social welfare. I propose an extension to this in that local authorities could also play a role in the development of tourism. I say this because Howth is in my constituency and it has developed very well over the last few years especially with the development of the fishery harbour and Howth Head. There are many scenic walks there. Local authorities could have an input to promote tourism, thus bringing in much needed money to the area. Other matters in my constituency need urgent attention. Howth Harbour has developed well. However, part of the roadways servicing the west pier have been left unsurfaced and they are now an eyesore. I ask the Minister to take this into account. I put down a question in the Dáil regarding this matter some time ago and I was informed that tenders would be sought. I ask him to speed up this work so that it is carried out at the earliest possible date.

I should also like to bring the Hill of [694] Howth drainage scheme to the attention of the Minister. People there have been complaining over the years, especially in the summer, that when fires start the fire brigade do not have enough water to fight them. The poor quality of water and poor pressure have also been mentioned. I asked the Minister about this some time ago and he informed me that the contract for these works would be placed very soon. I ask him to ensure that this scheme is started at the earliest possible date.

I should also like to mention the disposal of raw sewage in the Dublin Bay area. It particularly affects my area as there are beaches in Sutton, Portmarnock, Baldoyle and Dollymount. Last summer raw sewage was washed on to the beaches and people were afraid to use them because they rightly felt that they were unsafe. I attribute this to the north Dublin drainage scheme which is disposing of its sewage through the Nose of Howth and is then being washed back on the beaches. Dublin Corporation have carried out excellent works lately to ensure that the quality of water in the bay improves but the sewerage system is preventing the quality of water from being what it should. I ask the Minister to consider water treatment works to cater for this area which would be an excellent addition for the protection of water quality.

Baldoyle estuary has come under threat this year. Two groups wish to take over part of the estuary by filling it in, thus doing away with a great amenity. The residents objected to this and I support their objections and will continue to do so. Dublin Corporation passed a motion supporting their objections and I ask the Minister if his Department will also support our objections to any filling in of the estuary. The Department of Communications would also be involved as they would grant a licence.

I welcome the £5,000 offered to local authority tenants. This is the single most outstanding aid offered to persons who wish to own their own homes or to improve their living standards. Dublin Corporation have a housing list of approximately 8,000 people who are [695] seeking housing. People who avail of this scheme will be mainly those on the transfer list who will now buy their own homes. People are availing of this in my constituency and it is very welcome.

I note the Minister's concern regarding air pollution. I am particularly worried about this in Dublin city. Other speakers mentioned it this morning, particularly Deputy Doyle who gave some figures. The Minister has agreed to bring forward a clean air Bill. A similar Bill was introduced in England and cities like Sheffield were cleaned up in a short time. Smokeless zones were created and smokeless fuels had to be used. We must do something similar as soon as possible.

We should also address ourselves to the problem of water pollution. I have mentioned the north Dublin drainage scheme which is polluting Dublin Bay but I congratulate Dublin Corporation on the efforts they are making to clean it up. We must have treatment works provided for the north Dublin drainage scheme.

People are worried about the dangerous substances stored in Dublin Port. Cavern Systems were refused permission to store dangerous substances in the port. The storage of petroleum and petroleum products in the port is also a worry. Acrylonitrile is stored there for a factory in County Mayo. I suggest that the Department should get together with the people who import these substances, that is the oil companies, and make arrangements with them to put the storage tanks under ground. The port would look better if that was done and tragedies such as those which occurred in Mexico and India would be avoided. As far as Acrylonitrile is concerned, the Minister should insist that this be taken out of the port and imported through a small port on the west coast or somewhere else in order to avoid a disaster in the Dublin area.

Mr. Power: Do not kill the Dublin people.

Proinsias De Rossa: Local government can be looked at in a number of different [696] ways. It is an important part of our democratic process. For that reason the whole question of its funding, powers, structures and so on are extremely important for everyone in this State. It can also be seen as a very important service industry in that, as the Minister pointed out, it employs 35,000 people directly. Clearly it is important from a number of different viewpoints.

The Minister raised a number of different issues which would require hours to deal with in any detail. It is not possible to do that now, so I propose to concentrate on two areas. They are the proposed reforms which the Minister intends to bring in in relation to the greater Dublin area and the question of local charges.

As regards air pollution, I am surprised at the Minister's proposed solution which is to encourage people to move away from using solid fuels and oil and to use natural gas. I wonder on what he bases this policy and how he proposes to encourage people to do this. There is obviously a need for a greater use of smokeless fuels but would it not be equally valid to make it possible for people to transfer to the use of electricity since the ESB is a semi-State organisation and provides a countrywide service? Why is he urging people to transfer to natural gas in the Dublin area? It is odd, to say the least. It raises the question of Government policy which seems to be to burn natural gas at all costs as quickly as possible. It is a criminal waste of a very valuable natural resource to burn it in that way.

As regards housing, the Minister was very keen to push the idea of joint venture housing. Anyone I spoke to in the building industry told me that joint venture housing is a recipe for shabby housing. Today the Minister said he would make available funding at special rates to local authorities to improve the structure of low cost housing built in the late sixties and early seventies. Surely there is a contradiction in the Government pushing for joint venture housing and at the same time admitting they have to provide extra funds now, 14 years later, for houses built under a low cost scheme which were [697] shabby and always will be shabby and will have a short life span?

What is going on behind closed doors in the professional organisations about the Building Control Bill? I would be very interested to find that out. Why is the Minister keeping so quiet about local authority rents? Many promises were made in relation to the travelling people and the need to remedy the total squalour in which they are condemned to live. All we hear about are promises that something will happen in the future. Not one single halting site or unit of accommodation has been provided in the county area since the row which erupted last year.

As regards the fire services, emergency plans and so on, we have been warned by the chairman of the Chief Fire Officers' Association that there is a disaster imminent unless something is done about how we plan to deal with emergencies in relation to chemical transport and so on.

As regards postal voting, we have been told something will be done about this in the future. We have been promised it for so long that one begins to wonder about how serious the Government are in relation to it. The Minister did not say what he proposed to do about postal voting in the local elections. Will he, as he promised he would, ensure that the disabled will have a right to postal voting in the coming local elections?

It is clear from the national plan that the Government have a particular strategy in relation to taxation and the funding of services both at national and local level. There is a clear shift from the central funding of all kinds of services to the private sector. It is privatisation by stealth. We hear denials from the Government that there are any moves towards privatisation, but the whole strategy in the national plan is towards privatisation.

There is also a shift from direct to indirect taxation. Local charges are part of that shift. The so-called farm tax is a bit of a joke. Someone called it a land-related income tax. I do not understand how anyone can call it that. It is a recipe to get the Labour Party and Fine Gael off the hook with the farmers. It is taking [698] 100,000 farmers out of the tax net and allowing them to pay a land tax that will not be introduced until 1986. It is all a bit of a joke. The emphasis is that it is shifting taxation from paying on the basis of income to charges on services and so on. It is a policy of this Government that for every £1 levied in local charges by local authorities and also in farm tax, they will deduct £1 at the central government end. The local authorities will not end up with any more money. It is just a shift from the money being provided through central taxation to indirect taxation at the local level.

The Minister's speech was remarkable for the fact that local charges as such were not referred to, apart from one brief mention. When the Minister was talking about efficiency he made the following comment:

I know that local authorities have been taking action to maintain services and employment at a consistent level by eliminating waste and by making reasonable use of their powers to levy and collect rates and charges efficiently.

That is the only time charges have been mentioned in the statement. Surely the Minister must know of the widespread outrage in relation to local charges and the difficulties of the local authorities in collecting them. He must also know that some local authorities are using unreasonable powers and unreasonable methods to try to collect the charges. I will mention three examples.

In Cork they are threatening to withhold third level grants from students whose parents have not paid the local charges. The Kildare County Council are threatening and are using section 18 of the Offences Against the State Act not against people who have not paid the local charges but who are protesting about the imposition of local charges. In the Ashbourne area, when a man protested against the imposition of local charges and the disconnection of a water supply his employer was visited by the Garda to find out if the employer knew what his employee was up to. All of these [699] are unreasonable methods; in fact, I would go so far as to say they are illegal methods.

The withholding of local charges is not illegal. No law is broken by withholding them. It is a debt and it can be pursued through the courts as a debt. The only conflict there might be in court in relation to local charges is when a person refuses to comply with a court order, not because of the debt. The debtors' prison was done away with years ago. The withholding of local charges is not illegal and anyone who claims differently should examine the facts. It is a legitimate method of making known one's objection to the existence and the continuation of these charges.

I should like to ask the Labour Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil if they support these unreasonable and illegal methods that local authorities are using in this connection. Will they make a categoric statement without qualification that they either support the charges or do not support them? We get all kinds of qualifications from Fianna Fáil such as, “We do not support these charges in their present form”. In what form do they support them? In what form do the Labour Party support them? We know that Fine Gael support them although Fine Gael Deputies and councillors are going around saying they do not support these local charges, that they are a disgrace and so on. We should get a little honesty about this matter in this House at least.

The working class people are not objecting to paying for local services. What they are saying is that they have already paid for them through PAYE and VAT. They are paying 85 per cent of all income tax in the State and they are paying the vast bulk of all VAT collected. They have already paid for these services and it is entirely unreasonable, unfair and inequitable to demand that they pay further for them through these local charges, without in most cases any reference to whether they are able to pay. It is a question of fair taxation, that everyone pays their fair share on the basis of ability to pay. That is the only kind of taxation [700] system that will be acceptable to the working class and that is what is involved in the local charges campaign, the implementation of a fair tax system. We will see how much of that we will get next Wednesday when the budget is announced, although I am practically certain there will be very little fairness in that regard.

With regard to the structure proposed for the greater Dublin area, I will quote from the Minister's statement. He said:

Outside Dublin, the Government have taken action to bring about more equal representation of different electoral areas within counties and county boroughs. In a number of instances county electoral areas have over twice the number of representatives in relation to population as others in the same county. It is clearly desirable that this undemocratic situation be remedied and that this should be done with the minimum disturbance of electoral boundaries.

That is good principle but what is the Minister doing in relation to the greater Dublin area? I will tell the House what he is doing. Under the old system Dublin city had a ratio of one representative to 11,500 of the population. Under the new system with 52 seats and the additional population being brought in there will be one representative for 10,500 population. In the county under the old system it was one representative for 13,000 population and under the new system it will be one representative for 5,900 of the population.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy has been speaking for 15 minutes although I did make an appeal. I am trying to allow Deputy Durkan and Deputy Nolan to speak before the Minister is called.

Proinsias De Rossa: I wish to make this one point. The Minister is introducing undemocratic, unequal representation in the greater Dublin area. A population of 5,900 will elect one representative in the county under the new system but it will [701] take a population of 10,500 to elect a representative in the city. That is unfair and undemocratic and the Minister should change it. I am not saying the county should have fewer seats: I am saying that Dublin city seats should be increased pro rata. The number of seats required to provide equality in the Dublin area would be 93 seats. If the Minister really believes what he said in his speech about unequal representation being undemocratic that is what he should do in relation to the greater Dublin area. The matter of the municipal council is another issue that I do not have time to deal with now. As far as I am concerned any municipal authority in this city should be elected by popular vote by the people.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I am calling Deputy Durkan and I should like to call Deputy Nolan to speak before 4.45 p.m.

Mr. Durkan: I welcome the introduction of this Estimate and I wish to reiterate what I have said on a number of occasions before. Services provided by the Department of the Environment and the whole local government structure are among those most visible, whose effect is most constantly felt by members of the public. Consequently, this is one of the most important Estimates one could discuss in the House with the possible exception of finance and health. A number of speakers throughout the morning mentioned a number of changes.

One could be forgiven for being lulled into a false sense of security until one considers that it is a local election year and perhaps that is the reason for the proposals coming forward from various speakers on the opposite side which effectively would mean spending by central government of more money through the local authorities and the spending by the local authorities of more money. At the same time some of the same speakers say that it is part of their policy to abolish local charges and replace them with a reorganisation of the financial structures of local government. It is a lovely, round phrase and within it is something that we [702] still have not found, but no doubt the electorate will find it in due course. In relation to the general thrust of argument, it is about time that we got away from the kind of politics that the people no longer want, that of people being enlightened suddenly about the ways and means of doing the impossible while in Opposition whereas the same people when faced with these problems were totally unable to cope with them while in Government. Classic examples were the removal in 1980 of the home improvement grants and the reconstruction grants. Likewise a number of other grants faltered for lack of funds. At least the present Government, despite attention and criticism from many people, have managed to produce something positive for the people, such as the Housing Finance Agency loan scheme which, as the Minister indicated rightly, has given the opportunity to every young couple who have made any attempt at saving money to provide a home for themselves. That is positive. They have also restored the home improvement grants which were abolished by the previous administration and they have introduced a new policy whereby local authorities can now purchase housing in the private sector for allocation to appropriate and approved applicants in certain circumstances. All that is positive. It had to be catered for and paid for by way of careful financial control, and it was done without fuss or fanfare.

More recently in the national plan there is a proposal which again is most constructive, that of allocating £5,000 to each tenant or tenant purchaser of a local authority house who is prepared to hand it over to the local authority and buy a house in the private sector. There are dual benefits in that both for the construction industry and in that is gives a greater sense of pride and well-being to the individual who rightly feels that he has contributed to providing himself and his family with their own home. That is the kind of thing that this Government have done in very difficult circumstances very effectively, and the Minister is to be congratulated on this.

[703] The most important question that could arise in this debate is local government reform. To some people that means a change of boundaries, which is important and must be done. It may mean a change of emphasis, a devolution of powers of one type or another, or the removal of powers, but one thing fundamental to the whole structure of local government is finance, and that has been a problem for the last five or six years. If the diminution of the financial powers and structures of the local authority continues for the next five or six years as it has done in last five or six years, then they will no longer exist and the local authority could not possibly function. It behoves us to consider the implications of that and why people on the opposite side of the House in this debate criticise the fact that Government were not giving what they considered sufficient support in lieu of rate grants and so on. Any money that comes from Government comes from the taxpayer's pocket. The structures in which the local authority system is working at present are about 100 years old, some of them even older. They served well in their time but they are now well out of date. If there is one thing I would hope for sincerely in the course of this reorganisation which is taking place now it is that it be absolute and fundamental in the whole structure that it will be completely overhauled and that a structure be laid down whereby the requirements of the present can be met. In doing that, whether we like it or not, finance will have to be provided one way or another, either out of the Exchequer in which case it comes from the taxpayer's pocket or out of the local exchequer in which case it also comes from the taxpayer's pocket by way of direct or indirect taxes. We must make up our minds.

In some local authorities during the past year a difficult decision had to be taken, and the authority of which I am a member is among that number We had to let go temporarily a number of workers. Unfortunately, it appeared that they were among the lowest paid in the local authority system. They were put on [704] short time and that caused a great deal of hardship. I would not like to see it happen in the future and I do not think that it would be to the advantage of the public or the local authority system to allow a recurrence. The means must be found to ensure that we can pay our local authority workers. There are those who criticise them every time they are seen allegedly standing not entirely active by the roadside. Like politicians and other categories they are criticised mainly because they are visible and can be seen regularly. Very few people recognise that very many of them are poorly paid. They do a job which is there for everybody else to do but nobody is too concerned about doing it. There is a great deal of work which they can do which is absolutely important, provided the finance is available, such as roadside drainage, clearing of open spaces and other work in that area which can be done only by manual labour. It is essential that we keep our local authority workforce to do that work. If it means that we must have local charges in order to do that, then the choice is ours. If we do not want the people to do that work, by all means let us forget about local charges but let us get away from trying to con the public into believing on the one hand that we can have a local authority structure with local control in the hands of local people through elected local politicians and at the same time have finance without making sacrifices. Those two views are incompatible. As I have said, in my almost eight years as member of a local authority I can recall with pride when I first became a member and I saw around me the signs of doing the kind of things that I was elected to do. It was easy then to be able to say to one's electorate, “There is no finance available” or “Provision has been made in the Estimates” and we can or cannot do it. That is not now the case. The local authority system has become almost a farce. Now we can tell our electorate that we are very sorry, we can do absolutely nothing. Looking back over the last five or six years I find that I have less to show for my time in the local authority than I had previously.

[705] That is a sad development in our society which has so many demands on us.

Before I conclude, I remind the people opposite that during their term of office up to 1981, each year at Estimate time when every local authority had to meet and discuss where they were going to spend their funds it was found that there was a shortfall of approximately 30 per cent for each of three years when inflation and interest rates were high. That is where the chasm was created. The huge bulk of the shortfall we are talking about was created during their term of office. Therefore, there is no use in them coming up to another local election trying to tell us that there are magical ways of providing people with the wherewithal to run the local authority services. It is not necessary for me to outline the vast number of services provided by local authorities. If those services must be curtailed or in some cases withdrawn, the public will recognise quickly that politicians who know the system must take full responsibility for any such action.

Mr. Nolan: It is regrettable that for such an important Estimate as this we are allowed only four and a half hours debating time. The Estimate before us is for a sum of £731 million. This represents 40 per cent of the total amount collected in PAYE tax.

There has been reference during the debate to such matters as roads, car insurance, halting sites and buildings. It is not necessary for me to remind anyone here of the deplorable condition of our roads. The Minister has told us that there is to be a 30 per cent increase in grants for primary roads. He fobbed us off with the statement that, as up to now, county councils will have to provide money for the maintenance of main and secondary roads in the various counties. I consider that statement despicable especially since I know from living in the constitutency next to the Minister's that the roads in County Wicklow are in a deplorable condition. It was very shortsighted of the Minister not to have made some positive response to the plea that is being made [706] by every local authority and county engineer in the country. It is not merely a question of providing some finance next year or the year after for the maintenace of country roads because the roads are in such a state of deterioration that to put them right would necessitate digging out the foundations and replacing them. I agree totally with the proposal to introduce the compulsory display of insurance discs on cars but if we do not improve the conditions of our roads it may well be that insurance companies will not insure cars to travel on such surfaces.

Most of the expenditure on roads comes from the EC Regional Fund. I submit that large savings could be effected in respect of local authorities if a format were devised whereby they could go direct to the EC headquarters to seek funding for this work. I am not suggesting that money coming from the Regional fund is laundered to any great extent by the Department but local authorities must lose some percentage of their funding as a result of administrative costs incurred by the Department of the Environment.

Regarding the itinerant problem, which is common to most counties, I am confident that local authorities are seriously trying to alleviate the plight of travelling families, some of whom are in very poor conditions. However, I do not consider the Department to be doing enough to help local authorities to provide halting sites. The Department may be providing the money to a large extent but much more is needed. There is a need for more people who are experienced in the matter of dealing with the problems of travelling people.

Another matter that must be tackled is the problem of housing as it relates to local authorities. I welcome recent move regarding the purchase of private houses by county councils. This movement is to be encouraged, not only in terms of the provision of accommodation but also from a social viewpoint, because it is important socially that people in local authority accommodation are intermingled with those who are in the happy [707] position of being able to purchase houses for themselves.

The Minister referred also to the cost of local authority housing, to the fact that this has reduced in recent years and that so many more houses are being built. The reason for that is that the building industry is on its knees. There is no point in builders building private houses because people are not in a position to raise the finance to buy them. Deputy Durkan talks of young people buying houses for themselves. Statistics indicate that more young people than ever before are applying for local authority housing and the only reason for that is that so many of these people cannot get jobs.

Some time ago my colleague, Deputy Gerard Brady, played a prominent part in putting through both Houses the Litter Act, but I am disappointed that only few local authorities seem to be implementing the provisions of that Act. The Act provides for the prosecution of offenders within the terms of the Act but we can see from the state of the countryside and of urban areas too that offenders are not being pursued. The fast food takeaway areas are among the worst examples of breaches of the law. One need only go to an area early on a Saturday or Sunday morning in which one of those shops is to be found to realise the extent of the litter problem there. I am appealing to the Minister to direct local authorities to implement the provisions of the Act. Not only would this result in a countryside that looks much better but it would save local authorities a good deal of money in terms of what they must spend in employing people to sweep up the streets. In some areas it is necessary to have the streets cleaned even on Sundays.

Urgent attention should be paid to the area of the repair of local authority houses. The situation in this regard has deteriorated to such an extent in recent years that one finds that the housing stock has fallen into a very bad state of repair. Local authorities are only carrying out essential repairs such as structural work. In some cases they are not prepared to repair windows or front doors. Some of [708] the housing schemes built in the mid nineteen seventies have major faults with windows and chimneys, and many people are unable to do repairs work due to financial constraints. The Minister should seriously consider this problem.

We welcomed the announcement of the £5,000 grant but we are not clear on some of the details. I would ask the Minister to broaden the scope of this scheme to include houses built by semi-State bodies such as Bord na Móna and SFADCo. SFADCo have found that the residents of some of their houses wish to move out and make the housing stock available for other people on the housing list but they have found that they are not entitled to the £5,000 grant. I would ask the Minister to look at that and see what he can do.

Another thing that concerns me are the rumours of building contracts being put out in Border areas for local authority housing schemes, where tenders are accepted by builders in those areas and they are subletting parts of the contract to builders in the Six Counties. Our aim should always be to employ local labour.

Local authority financing has been raised by every speaker and I too am concerned about it. Fianna Fáil are at the moment studying the problems of restructuring local government and local government finances. We should ensure that local authorities have direct access to Europe to get money from the EC. The finance offices in most county councils would have to be magicians to balance the books at the moment. Every county council is in debt. To pay the interest that is accumulating is a serious problem for most local authorities. It is a problem that will have to be solved fast. The Government will have to come up with a real solution as the situation cannot continue.

Deputy De Rossa said that Fianna Fáil were fudgy in their attitude towards service charges. Our attitude is that it is up to each local authority to make their own decisions on whether or not they want to introduce service charges. We oppose the fact that it was made an executive function by Deputy Spring as Minister for [709] the Environment. County councillors are close to the ground and they are the people to decide whether or not service charges should be introduced. When we return to power we hope to give this power back to local authorities. A service charge that worries me is the charge for fire brigade services. If a chimney fire started in a chimney in a group of houses, a tenant might be afraid to call the fire brigade because of the charge and a disaster could occur. I would like the Minister to consider that.

I hope that in the restructuring of local government, county councils, urban district councils and town commissions will not remain as a rubber stamp. I would ask the Minister to give the powers back to the county councils.

Minister for the Environment (Mr. Kavanagh): I thank Deputies who contributed to the debate on this Estimate and I appreciate that the Deputies ensured that the debate was on the whole constructive. In the time available to me it would be impossible to deal adequately with all the points made by Deputies. The Minister of State has already dealt with some of the points. In the time available I will try to answer the major issues raised. The other points have been noted and will be borne in mind.

Deputy Molloy referred to local government reform. I was very glad to hear from Deputy Molloy that his party is in general agreement with the measures on local government reform which I announced on the eleventh of this month. I look forward to the co-operation of the Opposition in the legislative programme which will have to be advanced urgently to give effect to the first phase of the reform programme in the light of the recommendations of the two commissions to which I referred. I agree with the Deputy about the need to develop the local government system in the smaller towns. This was referred to in my announcement and will be taken on board as part of the general review of town boundaries and status. As I have said already, I will be bringing forward [710] legislative proposals to get this general review under way.

In regard to the proposed European Charter on local Government, we support the principles of the draft and I made this clear at the Conference of Ministers which the Council of Europe arranged in November last to consider the matter. The only real issue is whether the charter should take the form of a convention or of a recommendation. Ireland was one of a number of countries which favoured a recommendation. This was unresolved and I understand that it will be considered further at a forthcoming meeting of the Committee of Ministers.

Deputy De Rossa questioned the number of councillors assigned to the Dublin City Council as compared with the number for the county areas. He said a city council of 93 members was needed to maintain quality of representation. The Government view was that a council of this size would be too unwieldly. Moreover equality of representation within a local authority is of more importance than equality of representation as between local authorities.

Proinsias De Rossa: What about the municipal bodies.

Mr. Kavanagh: I would like to give as many replies as possible. I have given my reply on this issue to Deputy De Rossa and he can take it up with me again some other time. I am aware of the Deputy's point of view but feel that a city council of 93 members would be unwieldly and would afford members involved in it less chance to highlight the problems in their areas. We have allowed a big increase in the country areas because of the three different councils and a sufficient increase in the city area. It has operated very well with a lower number but we think this extra number will allow them to operate just as well.

Deputies Molloy and De Rossa referred to the question of postal voting. As regards the Postal Voting Bill, it is the aim to introduce the Bill before the summer recess. It will not become effective until the 1986 registers are being [711] prepared and there will be no difficulty about being in time for that. I can assure the Deputies that there will not be a general election in the meantime. As regards the local elections next June I can confirm that postal voting will apply.

I was interested to hear Deputy Molloy elaborating on his party's policies in regard to local authority finance and I would like to offer some comment on his contribution.

If I understood him correctly, he sees additional finance being provided for local authorities through a fixed, and presumably, bigger, share of national taxation. There are some general comments I would like to make on this. In the first place, it seems obvious to me that additional grants for local authorities can only be provided through increased taxation. I would greatly fear that Deputy Molloy's suggestion would as Deputy Durkan has already said, have to result in higher central taxes, presumably for the PAYE sector, if it were to have any advantage over the present general grants. Secondly, the idea of fixed funds in the form of assigned revenues is outmoded. In this country, Fianna Fáil themselves abolished the Road Fund and the evidence of countries which have such systems, for example, the Netherlands, is that local authority share of taxation is the subject of annual negotiation. I can see no advantage in that arrangement over the present system.

Deputy Molloy also sees merit in allocating most of all of the grants to local authorities as block grants, thus replacing the present mixtures of block and specific grants. I am sure that he would agree with the need to ensure an adequate road between Dublin and Galway and I am also sure he would agree with the need to ensure adequate provision for housing in such areas. These are matters in respect of which the Government must ensure adequate provision and must, therefore, be able to influence the direction of public expenditure.

Finally on finance, I must set the record straight on some points which Deputy Molloy made during his contribution. Let [712] us be clear that when Fianna Fáil abolished domestic rates in 1978 and substantially increased reliefs to farmers during the period 1978-82, they failed to make adequate finances available to local authorities to replace revenues lost to them by these decisions. The rates limits imposed by Fianna Fáil Ministers from 1978 to 1981 were substantially below the level of inflation. When we came back into office in 1983 we had to make an additional £31.5 million available through the rates support grants so as to avert a crisis for services and employment in that year. The grants have been made available in the past two years and have enabled local authorities to maintain a reasonable level of service in extremely difficult economic circumstances.

Deputy De Rossa criticised some local authorities for their methods in collecting charges. I do not support unreasonable or illegal methods and I do not think that acting outside the law by some of those promoting opposition to the payment of charges should be condoned by anybody.

Deputy Molloy referred to the local improvements scheme. I wish to clarify the position about local contributions. On the aggregate, contributions under EC requirements meet at least 10 per cent of the cost of a project. The amount to be paid by an individual beneficiary is a matter for arrangement between the beneficiaries themselves. In effect, it is open to the beneficiaries of the scheme to agree the apportionment of the contribution among them so as to avoid hardship to any individual involved.

Turning to road grants, I am sure Deputy Molloy and his colleagues opposite remember only too well that in the first year of the operation of their 1979 road plan the provision of road improvement grants in 1980 represented a cut of 43 per cent on the level of grants projected by that plan that was only decided the year before. May I remind this House that a total provision of £125 million for these grants for 1985 represents an increase of 23 per cent, or 17 per cent in real terms, relative to 1984. In this, the first year of the Government's national plan, Building on Reality, we have fully [713] honoured the commitment made in our plan last year about State investment in road improvements.

Mr. Nolan: It is mainly county roads that we are concerned about.

Mr. Kavanagh: I have given the Deputy full details in my speech about the aspect of it. Perhaps he might like to go back and look at it again.

Mr. Nolan: I saw it.

Mr. Kavanagh: Several Deputies referred to the question of county road maintenance. As I indicated in my opening speech, there is to be no change in the long established policy under successive Governments in this regard. Local authorities will continue to be responsible for funding maintenance works on county roads — that is the same as it has always been — and from their own resources. For example, in the case of Galway County Council, the overall road grant allocated by my Department to the council in 1985 at £5.2 million represents an increase of 20 per cent on the grant of £4.3 million paid to the council in 1984. The council may, at their discretion, apply the block grant to the improvement of county roads, as opposed to maintenance. The council's block grant this year amounts to £887,000 compared with £818,000 in 1984.

Over and above the block grant, special grants have also been provided for local authorities for strengthening works on non-national main roads. In 1985 a special grant of £265,000 is being provided for strengthening works on the Galway-Spiddal-Carna roads, part of which serve the Gaeltacht area.

A reference was made during this debate to the level of unemployment in the building industry as being approximately 50,000. I should like to point out that the unemployed in the industry was 44,273 last November. In January of last year it was 44,774. I do not think that people should just pick figures out of the air like 50,000. I believe there is a very significant difference. Something in the [714] region of 5,700 fewer unemployed, according to the statistics, is the accurate figure and that is the one that should be brought forward by Deputies rather than misleading people not only in the House but outside it.

Reference was also made to the widespread redundancies in local authorities. The actual position is that because of the need to introduce short time working in local authorities about 156 man years were lost in 1984. Much as I regret that, I would not describe this as widespread redundancy over the whole area of local authorities.

The point was made that the rate of decline in the building industry is accelerating and that the decline in output last year was higher than projected and that the PCP investment in the industry will be down by 4 per cent in 1985. This is not true on all counts. The rate of decline in the industry is decelerating and the decline last year was not higher than that projected. Also the PCP investment in the industry in 1985 is £1,227 million in comparison with £1,188 million in 1984. Indeed, over the period of the national plan, 1985 to 1987, construction will account for an increased share of the total capital public programme expenditure.

I have already told local authorities that all persons to whom contracts must be given must be able to produce a C2 certificate for the Revenue Commissioners. I have also recently directed local authorities to use the powers available to them under Government conditions of contract, to ensure that PAYE, PRSI and pension contributions in respect of each person employed by contractors working for them are paid, and that a rate of pay not less than that agreed by the Joint Industrial Council for the Building Industry is paid to each person. I am satisfied that these measures will have the desired effect and I am sure Deputy Nolan was concerned about that point.

Finally, the Opposition's cure for the ills of the building industry is to inject a further £200 million of taxpayers' money into it. As usual, no thought is given to the economy's ability to sustain this type [715] of extra borrowing, its effect on the taxpayer or on the industry. Given past experience on the effects of such borrowing, I think people would expect a more thoughtful contribution from the main Opposition Party. That is all I wish to say on these aspects of the building industry.

A number of contributions have been made and we have taken note of them. I should like to take this opportunity to thank my Minister of State for his contribution and his work in the Department and to assure Deputies on all sides of the House that the programme which I have brought forward in the Estimate today is an adequate one for my Department and will be carried through over the year to the benefit of people, particularly those who depend on local authorities for services and for housing, etc. I am satisfied that the figures involved in the Estimate represent a considerable improvement on the previous year and will show an improved result, not only for those within local authority areas but for the economy of the country as a whole. I thank the House for its reception of the Estimate.

An Ceann Comhairle: Is Vote 29 agreed?

Question 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 made today, until 8.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 6 February 1985.