That, in view of the steep increase in the costs of labour and building materials, Dáil Éireann is of opinion that measures should be taken at once to increase the amount of the grants at present available for the reconstruction of dwellings.
This is a simple motion that I am sure will call for very little effort on my part to impress the House with the justice of the demand contained in it. I want to say at the outset that I do not wish to minimise or undervalue in any way the assistance which has been given by successive Governments in the way of grants for the reconstruction of dwellings. I know that almost since the foundation of the State, Governments have been fully cognisant of the desirability and the necessity to provide grants for the reconstruction of dwelling-houses. But, notwithstanding all the State assistance which has been given, it is a fact that there are many houses, particularly in rural areas and, indeed, in urban areas too, inhabited in many instances by large families, that are definitely unfit for human habitation.
We may do what we like in legislating in this House on matters of public health—and the health of the people is of paramount importance—but I believe that all our expenditure on attempts to improve public health will be wasted unless each family has a decent home to live in. I think that is the first essential in public health and, while it would be desirable that every family in this country should be provided with a new house, I do not think anybody listening to me will ever see that day dawn. I know that considerable assistance has been given towards the provision of new houses and for that reason I have not covered new houses in this motion, but notwithstanding the number of new houses which have been erected and the number of dwelling-houses which have been reconstructed there is still a very large number of houses that are, as I said, not fit for human habitation.
I am not going to attribute blame to anybody for that. The condition of housing generally when this State was established was deplorable, and it could not be expected that any Government or Governments since the foundation of the State could have solved the problem but I do think that now we must make some greater effort to provide proper homes for our people. It is no secret that building costs have increased, more, I think, than costs in any other sphere. Both labour and materials are very much dearer than they were, 30, 20 or even ten years ago. For that reason, Deputy Beirne and myself felt that it was opportune to direct the attention of the Government, of the Minister for Local Government, and of his Department to the necessity of providing still greater grants for the reconstruction of rural and urban dwellings. I know that both under the 1950 Act and the 1952 Act, an advance has been made in the direction of permitting local authorities to assist in this drive and I know that many householders are availing of the facilities offered by the 1950 Act and the 1952 Act.
There is one matter in connection with the administration of the 1952 Act to which, specifically, I wish to draw the Minister's attention. Under the 1952 Act, local authorities were permitted to make a 100 per cent. grant to the owners of a reconstructed dwelling where the valuation was under £12 10s.; a 66? per cent. grant where the valuation ranged between £20 and £27 10s. and a 33? per cent. grant in cases where the valuation ranged between £27 10s. and £35. My grievance is that the Department's inspectors do not appear to be cognisant of the very high costs of labour and materials in the rural areas. I do believe that, at the present time, labour and materials are practically as dear in rural areas as they are in the urban or city areas. I do not think there is very much difference, but here is the point. When the inspectors estimate the cost of a reconstruction job, they estimate it in such a way that the local authorities cannot provide the assistance which they would like to provide—in other words, they underestimate the cost of the work.
To illustrate my point, I shall take the case of a man who qualifies for the 100 per cent. grant. The inspector comes, inspects the work, and says: "This should cost £150." We will assume that it is a four-roomed house. The regulations provide that the tenant will be responsible for one-third of the cost of the work—that is £50. The Department provides £100 of a grant, which is the maximum grant for a four-roomed house, and then the tenant finds that there is no local authority assistance for him at all, because the Government grant plus his own charge, one-third of the cost, amounts to the estimated cost of the work. That is a matter which has proved a very serious disappointment to people reconstructing their houses. I have no hesitation in saying that a fair estimate has not been put on reconstructed works which have been carried out since the passing of the 1952 Act. I think it is only right to say that many local authorities were rather confused about the operation of the Act. Members of local authorities—I am talking about county councils now— thought that the county councils were permitted to give 100 per cent. grants for the reconstruction of dwellings but they find in actual practice that they are not, and that is one point I think that should be regulated. The whole trouble arises from underestimation by the Department's inspectors. I do not want to be understood as in any way casting any reflection on the people who operate in the country as departmental inspectors, but I have seen estimates which they made and the people in those areas could not possibly find a contractor who would undertake the work for the amount the Department's inspector estimated. I think it would be only fair that the Department's inspectors—while they would not exaggerate any estimate— would take into account the very high cost of labour, skilled or unskilled, at the present time, and I very much fear that they are not doing that. I think some inspectors of the Department are under the impression that tradesmen or labourers are not paid a high standard of wages in the country. But I am sure the Minister will agree with me that there is very little difference—if any—in the wages paid to skilled or unskilled workers in the country and the city. I believe that if an inspector were to estimate for the reconstruction of a dwelling in this city he would put a far higher figure on it than if he were doing it in the country. That is why many local authorities are deprived of an opportunity to provide grants which they are entitled to provide under the 1952 Act.
I think the original grant made available for reconstruction by the first Government that introduced them was £40. That was the maximum then. The maximum grant to-day is £120. I am quite sure that you would get a considerably greater amount of work done for £40 when the grants were originally introduced than you would get done for £120 to-day.
Some people appear to imagine that the cost of building materials has gone down. I do not think in actual fact that that is so. I think they have come to that erroneous conclusion because of the fact that there has been a certain drop in the cost of the standard of timber but the manner in which that is reflected in the amount of timber required for either reconstruction or the erection of a new dwelling is negligible. Whatever the situation may be as regards the cost of building materials to the providers I am quite sure that the people who are providing homes for themselves can see no decrease either in the cost of labour, skilled or unskilled, or in the cost of the materials.
We must remember that a very considerable number of houses have still to be put into proper condition and that notwithstanding how much the State may increase grants for new houses, it will still not be possible for many people in this country to erect new ones. It may be argued that if they were not in a position to erect new houses with the assistance of State grants they have the Small Dwellings (Acquisition) Acts to fall back on. Speaking of country people particularly, very many of them have a very natural aversion to going into debt and I honestly believe we should not dissuade them from that view. The average countryman has a horror of debt. He does not want to mortgage the future of himself or his family and would far prefer to live his life in discomfort and even in want rather than go into debt. There are very good and well-founded reasons for that and I, personally, would not encourage any man notwithstanding any possible assistance available under the Small Dwellings (Acquisition) Acts to erect a new house unless he could very well meet the repayments. People in secure positions with secure incomes can avail of those things.
The poor man with very few assets and very limited resources knows quite well that he must meet his annuities twice a year; he must meet his rates twice a year, and he does not want to saddle himself with additional twice-yearly payments under the Small Dwellings (Acquistion) Act, and notwithstanding any encouragment this or any other Government may hold out at any time by way of assistance many of these people would prefer to remain as they are rather than erect new houses with that type of assistance. You have to admire them for their strength of character, and I think this Government can do nothing better for the people than to put tempting grants for the reconstruction of their homes in their way.
As I said before the Minister came in, in asking this I am not suggesting that the different Governments have not been generous in this respect. I am admitting that, and I am admitting that the sanitation grants made available are a great step forward, but what I want to emphasise is this— that the amount of £120 is not sufficient with the price of labour and materials as it is to induce many of those people to improve their homes.
Everybody knows the very short distance £100 will go to-day. There was a time in this country when £100 was regarded as a fortune; to-day it is little more than a bagatelle. I know that I might be gibed at for criticising the Government on heavy expenditure in some respects, and I will at all times criticise whatever Government may be in existence for what I will describe as unnecessary expenditure, but I consider that the provision of suitable, decent homes is one of the first essentials of a civilised community. I think I would be right in saying that no other factor has contributed more to the blister of emigration in this country than bad housing. I would go further and say that the lack of housing accommodation in this country is emphatically immoral where there is not proper sleeping accommodation for the adults of the family.
The Minister may smile, but it is a very serious problem for parents. As I said on the Valuation Bill, they are not worried at all during the period when the children are in their teens, but when the boys and girls of a family grow up proper living accommodation for them creates a very serious problem for parents. From any point of view, social or economic, there can be no more important demand made on a Government than one for the provision of proper housing. Since it is not likely that new houses will be provided for all the people who require them and if it is accepted that proper housing accommodation is essential and that the present grants are not a sufficient inducement to encourage people to improve their dwellings, then I do not think any responsible Minister or Government can turn down this very simple motion.
I am not in a position to say and neither, perhaps, is the Minister, what would be the financial repercussions of the acceptance of the motion. Knowing the problem as I do, it might reach a fairly staggering figure. It has to be borne in mind, however, that it is not likely that all the people who need to reconstruct their dwellings will do so this year or in any one year. If it were found that the demands which were being made were becoming too heavy, they might be deferred for a year or two.
I do not think it is necessary to labour the point that it is time now to increase the grants for the reconstruction of houses. I think, too, that some change will have to be made in the 1952 Act so that the full benefits, for which that Act made provision, may accrue to applicants. Where, for example, the inspectors go to estimate the cost of reconstructing a house, knowing that the local authority is prepared to co-operate with the Department in providing decent houses, they should suggest improvements of such a kind as to enable the local authorities to give owners the full benefit of the Act. If it should happen that the estimate was such as to permit, in the case of £120 State grant of equal amount, I am sure good work would be done, and that the same would be true if the State grant were £100, and if the local authority were enabled to give an equal sum.
Many cases occurred during the last 12 months where applicants got no benefit whatever from the 1952 Act because of the estimate of the cost of the work which had been made out by the inspector. Of course, the Minister could, if he had wished, although this might be going too far, have dropped the condition imposing a responsibility on the tenant of meeting one-third of the cost of the work. If that were done, it would enable the local authorities to come into practically every case. I am of the opinion myself that the condition of making the tenant responsible for one-third of the cost is a reasonable and a good one. After all, a man is dealing with his own home and should take an interest in it. It is not asking too much of him to provide one-third of the cost. My grievance is that the estimate of the cost does not meet the job, and neither does it allow the benefits which, I think, were in the mind of the Minister when he introduced the 1952 Act, to reach the tenant.
I do not think there is anything more that I have to say. I feel that, knowing the Minister as I do since he came into office, the motion will receive from him sympathetic and favourable consideration.