I move: That the Public Assistance (Acquisition of Land) Bill be read a Second Time. This Bill proposes to give powers to local poor law authorities to acquire for the purposes of their powers and duties, either by agreement with the consent of the Minister, or compulsorily in accordance with provisions proposed to be enacted.
The necessity for the measure at the present time arises in connection with proposals by the local authorities to acquire land for the purposes of sites for new hospitals. There is, as Deputies are aware, great activity in this respect owing to the fact that moneys have become available from sweepstake sources. Most of the local authorities have proposed to erect new hospital buildings. In some places new county hospitals are contemplated; in others smaller district or cottage hospitals are to be erected. Quite a number of county authorities have very ambitious schemes in view to provide their administrative areas with entirely new hospitals, not only hospitals for medical, surgical and maternity cases, but also isolation hospitals for infectious and contagious diseases.
These schemes will involve the expenditure of a considerable amount of money. If the sweepstakes continue, and the income from that source permits, the expenditure by local poor law authorities on hospital improvements will probably run into some millions.
Where the spending of such large sums of money is involved it is highly desirable that it should be expended to the best advantage, and that the hospitals provided as a consequence of that expenditure should be in every way suitable for their purpose. Different circumstances and factors contribute to the suitability and usefulness of a hospital, but not the least is the site. It will be generally agreed that a good site is essential.
Under the existing law the local poor law authorities do not possess any powers to acquire land compulsorily. They may purchase land by agreement. The usual procedure is to invite tenders for sites by advertisement. A local authority may be fortunate to secure a site by these means, but the advertisement is not always successful. In one case that has come to the knowledge of my Department the local authority have failed to secure any suitable site.
Another disadvantage connected with purchase by agreement is that the powers of the local authority to ensure purchase at a reasonable price are limited. A case occurred recently in the south of Ireland where the local authority proposed to replace an existing hospital by a new county hospital. The land in the possession of the local authority was not sufficient for a site for a county hospital, and it was necessary to acquire some additional strips adjoining. One owner asked £175 for a little paddock containing 3 roods and having no road frontage, and after great pressure agreed to give the 3 roods for £110, as a benevolent contribution to the public good. In the same area £250 was asked for 1a. 3r. 38p. on which there was a head rent of £4. This plot was eventually purchased for £180 plus £4 rent. In another county the most suitable plot offered to the local authority was one containing 5a. 2r. 36p., held on lease the unexpired period of which was 61 years, at a rent of £45. The price agreed on by the local authority, but not sanctioned by the Minister, was £1,600 for the tenant's interest. It was calculated that when the landlord's interest would be purchased and other expenses defrayed, the land would cost about £500 per statute acre.
These and similar experiences by the Department convince us that compulsory powers are essential, not only for the purpose of getting the best possible sites but also to ensure reasonable prices and to protect public funds. Local authorities have already got powers to enable them to acquire land compulsorily for housing and other purposes. There seems to be no good reason why they should not have similar powers for such an important service as hospitals.
The procedure for compulsory acquisition contemplated in the Bill which has been introduced is similar to that provided in the Housing Acts. A compulsory purchase order may be made by the local authority and if the owners, lessees or occupiers offer no objection the Minister may, as he thinks proper, either refuse to confirm the purchase order or confirm the order with or without modification. The Minister may, if he thinks fit, hold a public local inquiry before dealing with an application for confirmation of any such order.
If any objection is made to the compulsory acquisition order and not withdrawn, the Minister must cause a public local inquiry to be held, and after consideration if the objection is not withdrawn and after receiving the report of the person holding the inquiry, the Minister may, as he thinks proper, either refuse to confirm the compulsory acquisition order or confirm the order with or without modification. Provision is also made for confirmation of the order without a public inquiry if the Minister is satisfied that the grounds of an objection relate exclusively to matters which can be dealt with by the arbitrator by whom the compensation is to be assessed.
The Bill will also provide for an appeal to the High Court by any person who is affected or whose property is affected by a compulsory acquisition order. The High Court may annul the order in whole or in part if satisfied that the order was in excess of, or otherwise not authorised by, the powers conferred by the Act, or that the person appealing or any other person has been substantially prejudiced by failure to comply, in relation to such order, with the provisions of the Act.
Other provisions of importance are those which will enable a local authority, with the consent of the Minister, to sell any land acquired under the Act which appears to be no longer required for the purpose for which it was acquired and to apply land vested in them to a purpose other than that for which it was acquired.