Dáil Éireann - Volume 370 - 04 December, 1986

Adjournment Debate. - County Cavan Housing Scheme.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Wilson has been given permission to raise the subject matter of Question No. 64 on yesterday's Order Paper.

Mr. Wilson: Tá buíochas mór ag dul duitse mar gur thug tú an deis dom an cheist seo a phlé ar Athló na Dála.

The question relates to the amount of money available for the reconditioning of old houses owned by local authorities. I asked for information about the response from the local authorities to the announcement of the fund, the places in Ireland where money from the fund was spent and the provision the Department are making for about 30 local authority houses in Cootehill in County Cavan. The reply I received indicated that a capital allocation of £5 million had been made available for 1986 for funding remedial works to low cost and pre-1940 houses. The reply stated that 55 applications for assistance under this scheme had been received by the Department and 30 proposals had been approved to date. It appears that a total of £937,000 has been drawn to date by local authorities in respect of projects at Oldcourt Estate in Bray and Kindlestown Park in Greystones. I am sure the House realises by now how significant it is that the only places where the money was spent was in County Wicklow. The Minister's reply was to the effect that a proposal from Cootehill Town Commissioners for the refurbishment of 35 houses was being examined in the Department. It was that statement that prompted me to raise this matter on the Adjournment and I am [1650] grateful to the Chair for giving me permission to do so.

After studying what has happened I am of the opinion that Cootehill Town Commissioners have been treated with nothing short of contempt by the Department of the Environment. A circular letter dated 10 January 1986 referred to structural repairs to old houses. On 3 March the contents of the circular were raised by the Cootehill Town Commissioners with the deputy county manager. A claim was submitted to the Department of the Environment on 6 May 1986. The commissioners applied for a grant for Church Street amounting to £154,775 and for New Line amounting to £169,960. The town commissioners and their town clerk were quick to assess what was happening and being aware of the need to expend this money, bearing in mind the employment it would give to skilled people in the town and the need to repair the houses, they did not sit on this. The fact that I am raising this on 4 December gives an edge to what I am saying about this.

On May 16 the town commissioners received a letter from the Department of the Environment requiring details of revenue and capital accounts for the year ended 31 December 1985. I am not an over-suspicious type of person but I read that as a ploy to delay the provision of the money for Cootehill, money that has been allocated to two areas in County Wicklow. The details were forwarded on 10 June, as requested. On 24 June a letter was received from the Department requiring the submission of major technical data, specifications, cost per house of reconstruction, individual house plans to include floor plans, sections and elevations. That was a very strong demand because it necessitated the recruitment of professional staff. The town commissioners, naturally, did not want to buy a pig in a poke and that was not surprising coming from a town like Cootehill, a good traditional market town. They wanted some kind of guarantee that there would be an allocation before they [1651] embarked on that expenditure. By 2 September a Department inspector, Mr. Jeffers, inspected the schemes. In October the town commissioners, through their town clerk, applied again for a grant allocation. As the year was fading the commissioners became more alarmed and they raised the matter again with their town clerk. That official telephoned the Department on 23 October, a follow-up to the letter of 2 October, and he again telephoned on 14 November and 1 December.

Any fair minded person listening to the facts I have outlined would be very suspicious that the application from Cootehill Town Commissioners was not taken as seriously as it should have been by the Department. There was not the usual promptness by the Department in dealing with this application. I should like to know what happened with regard to the Oldcourt scheme in Bray. When was the application for that grant submitted to the Department? When was the expert advice made available? When was the final decision taken?

The House would also like to know vis-à-vis Kindlestown Park, when will all the steps outlined be taken in relation to the Cootehill commissioners? The House will know that the allocations to the two places in Wicklow, £937,000, practically 20 per cent of the total allocation, was sanctioned by the Minister for the Environment at that time. The Minister was a Wicklow man. I do not make any allegations in that respect.

The people of Cootehill who applied to have some consideration given to the application were ignored. It may be a coincidence that the two localities in Wicklow were given the allocation at the time. It may not be so, but I am entitled to get the views of the Minister of State because a considerable head of steam has been building up in Cootehill about it. We are into the final month of the financial year and the suspicion is that there will not be an allocation from the fund for Cootehill.

I urge the Minister of State to tell the House now that there will be a substantial [1652] allocation to Cootehill. Will it be made in 1986 and, if not, will the Minister say that such an allocation will be made in 1987? I understand from the Taoiseach and others that the Book of Estimates is being put together. The gestation periods for the Book of Estimates have been particularly long. I think the elephant has the longest gestation period in the animal world, but the elephant is only in the halfpenny place by comparison with what is going on in regard to the Book of Estimates.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. O'Sullivan): Before I give the official response, there are one or two points I should like to make by way of clarification. The first is the time of the circular letter. The circular was issued on 10 January 1985, not 1986, as Deputy Wilson said. The Deputy repeated that date. I do not know how the Deputy can say, therefore, that there was a quick response from the commissioners. How can he say that a reply after 17 months is a prompt one? That is why the Cootehill Town Commissioners are so far down the list.

Mr. Wilson: Is the Minister sure of that?

Mr. O'Sullivan: It was said that the Department were negligent in their approach. I would like to bring something to the Deputy's attention regarding the Cootehill application. Further information regarding remedial works which came to the Department from the Cootehill commissioners referred to further defects. The reason given for these was deterioration due to old age and neglect. That is clearly an indictment of the commissioners. I suggest the neglect was on the part of the landlord who, in this case, was the commissioners. I am certain of that.

Mr. Wilson: Is it not the county council?

Mr. O'Sullivan: The application is from the commissioners. If the Deputy wishes to examine the application I will [1653] be only too glad to accommodate him. I will not mention the name of the person who signed it on behalf of the commissioners.

I must make it clear that the basic responsibility for the management, maintenance and improvement of their rented dwellings rests on the housing authority who provided the dwellings. To meet their outgoings on this, they have available to them their receipts from rents as well as 40 per cent of the proceeds of sales of local authority dwellings, together with other miscellaneous receipts related to housing. Local authorities may also avail of the Department's improvement grant scheme for works such as the provision of bathroom/bedroom extensions and for the provision of water and sewerage facilities. The after-grant cost of such work can be funded by means of an unsubsidised loan scheme which is also operated by my Department.

In drawing up the national plan, Building on Reality, the Government recognised that the existing financial assistance might not be sufficient in cases where local authorities found themselves faced with outgoings not coming within the category of what might be termed normal maintenance and improvement costs. This arose mainly in connection with the remedying of serious defects which have arisen both in so-called “low cost” housing and in some of the older housing stock. In an effort to help these authorities to meet the higher cost involved, the national plan provided that authorities might assign limited funds from their annual allocation for local authority housing to carry out a major programme of improvement works to “low-cost” housing and certain older stock suffering from serious deterioration. In this case, that was not done. There is no evidence that money was allocated.

Local authorities were notified by the Department on 10 January 1985 of the terms of the new remedial works scheme. Under the scheme, capital up to £14,000 per dwelling, subsidisable at a rate not exceeding 80 per cent may be made available to local authorities to fund major repairs of a structural nature to pre-1940 [1654] houses suffering from serious deterioration as well as to “low-cost” housing. Houses purchased from the local authority may be included in a proposal for assistance under the scheme of where they form part of a scheme of rented houses and their inclusion is necessary to give an acceptable result to the scheme as a whole. There is evidence that some of the Cootehill houses may have been purchased. Essential works of an improvement nature such as the provision of a water supply, sewerage facilities or a bathroom could be included in a proposal, provided other necessary works of reconstruction arising from structural deficiency are sufficient in themselves to bring the houses within the scope of the scheme. Tenant purchasers are expected to contribute half the cost of the works either by means of a lump sum payment, an extended or revised annuity or a combination of both. The scheme is designed to encourage tenant participation as much as possible. To this end, in order to qualify for assistance under the scheme, local authorities where necessary must provide for environmental works to be carried out in co-operation with local residents.

Obviously, those estates which are suffering from major structural defects such as leaking roofs, water penetration, defective walling etc. have to be dealt with more urgently than those whose main defects are of a less urgent character. A degree of priority must be given to the need to remedy the serious defects which have plagued the so-called low cost housing since its provision in the late sixties and early seventies. The remedial works scheme represents the first serious effort to tackle this serious problem. While it was only to be expected that the authorities would be quick to take advantage of this scheme's generous provisions, the reality is that all the applications for financial aid cannot be allowed immediately but must be phased over a number of years.

Applications under the remedial works scheme are running at a high level and to date some 55 applications have been received. As indicated in the reply to [1655] Question No. 64 on 2 December, 30 proposals throughout the country have been approved following technical clearance and in the light of the progress achieved by the authorities in relation to projects and the urgency and extent of the work involved. Each proposal obviously requires careful examination to ensure that the proposed solution will be effective. It is also often necessary to have remedial works carried out on a small number of houses on a pilot basis to establish the best and most effective way of tackling the problem. Twenty of the approved proposals were in respect of houses in the low cost category while the ten pre-1940 schemes were those where the work required was of an urgent nature. All but two of these applications were received in 1985 and the remaining two were received in February 1986.

That answers Deputy Wilson's point as to when the application was received in respect of the two schemes in County Wicklow. It was in 1985. It should be said that they were actually first off the mark, first to avail of the opportunity and, as a representative of Cork where we have over 1,100 houses, I wish we had been a little earlier as well.

The capital allocated for remedial works in 1986 was £5 million. It was anticipated that given reasonable progress by the authorities involved in tendering, carrying out necessary pilot schemes in some of the schemes and so on they would recoup the £5 million allocation this year. Kindlestown Park accounts for the bulk of the expenditure to date because it is at an advanced stage having been the first scheme to get underway and having acted as the pilot scheme [1656] which led to the introduction of the remedial works scheme.

Mr. Wilson: How many houses?

Mr. O'Sullivan: There are 131 houses in Kindlestown and 280 at Oldcourt Estate in Bray.

Mr. Wilson: Roughly what age are they?

Mr. O'Sullivan: They were the low cost schemes. Expenditure this year will be in respect of those priority schemes where local authorities started work in 1985 and early 1986.

The application for financial assistance in respect of New Line and Church Street pre-1940 estates in Cootehill was received in the Department last May, over a year after local authorities were formally notified of the terms of the remedial works scheme. The works proposed include the replacement of defective rendering, dry-lining of external walls, roof repairs, repair of defective wiring and plumbing and the provision of bathrooms. The application was incomplete and Cootehill Town Commissioners were requested immediately to submit additional information in regard to the houses requiring remedial works and the financial situation of the local authority. Following further correspondence a technical officer from my Department carried out an inspection in September and I hope to be in a position to make a decision on the proposal in the near future.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 5 December 1986.