The motion is similar to one that came before the House in December, 1972. The Minister's words in introducing it are almost identical with the words I used myself on that occasion. It does not leave me very much room to find some ground on which I can differ from the Minister. I should be happy to see that he is continuing something, in the introduction of which I was involved on another occasion, as was my predecessor, who introduced the 1969 Housing Act.
The Minister points out that most of the activities taking place under this order are in Dublin and Cork, and those two authorities refused permission under the 1969 Act in 306 cases. This seems a very small number when one considers the total housing stock and the amount of building activity which took place until recent months. Perhaps the application of the 1969 Act is not as rigid as the House desired originally.
The Minister opened a conference at the Royal Marine Hotel this Tuesday under the title, "Our Architectural Heritage, The Case for Caring". I was a delegate to that conference from Galway County Council. I was in full agreement with many of the views expressed at one of the lectures I attended, where the subjects were streetscapes and the part that history has played in our heritage. Some of the speakers there very strongly made the point that many of the older houses in parts of towns throughout the country might be retained and reconstructed and possibly the Government and local authorities should be encouraged to do more of this work.
The lecturers demonstrated the points they were making through slides and photographs of works carried out in other countries, particularly in Scotland. One gentleman showed slides of what one might decide on casual observation of the photographs, were very derelict and old buildings but had some quaint character. They may not have had any great architectural value but the fact they added character to a town must also be taken into consideration when deciding if houses should be demolished. It could be said this is more expensive than building new houses, but in many cases it could be a cheaper form of providing houses than building new ones.
The 1969 Act was introduced to ensure that habitable houses were not demolished without permission and that those seeking demolition would be obliged either to make some compensation or to provide alternative accommodation. One could see the spirit of that Act being complied with where a developer, anxious to demolish an old house, promised to provide alternative accommodation. This, however, was probably destroying something of great character which formed part of our architectural heritage. This would have some meaning for the people.
I am afraid most modern architecture is very stereotyped. Most of the architects in this country must come in for some very heavy criticism. There seems to be very few architects responsible for housing and public building here who have contributed anything of architectural merit. They put up very functional buildings but they are lacking in the design and the ideas which the old architects had throughout the centuries. One has to look back to find good buildings worth viewing, buildings which have had great thought and design put into them and which are beautiful structures today. If one was to spend an afternoon in appreciation of good architectural works in this country—this is also common throughout the world—one would not look at modern buildings. Architects are becoming very functional in outlook and are allowing their clients' limited financial resources to determine the extent of the contribution they will make and the monuments they will leave behind them. We seem to be left with monuments of glasshouses in the office blocks and public buildings erected in our large towns and cities.
I should like the Minister to consider advising local authorities to take into consideration the character of towns. They should prohibit the demolition of old buildings which could be reconstructed. It is very easy for a health inspector to go in and say a building is inhabitable because of the dilapidated interior condition. However if a structural engineer looked at it he could decide, that with modern construction methods, it would be possible to retain that building. This would not interfere with the streetscape or change it in any way but add to it.
The Housing Act might perhaps be applied in this area. We have tended to use it merely as an instrument to block any reduction in the overall housing stock. It states that if alternative accommodation is provided by the developer in a particular case he can be deemed to be making a good case for demolition. That seems to emphasise that the sole purpose of the Act is to maintain the housing stock. I believe we should raise our sights a little above that and see if we could retain the structure of our existing towns, our streets and the individualism which different areas have. Many people find this very attractive. The people of Galway regard it as an old town, rather quaint, with beautiful old buildings, although much of its quaintness and attractiveness does not come from the beautiful buildings but from the character created by the old streets and old forms of construction. Some of these are not beautiful but when they are combined together they present a pleasant visual image to those who pass by. This Act is the instrument under which the local authorities can ensure that such buildings are not demolished in the future.
A fine of £100 or £10 a day can be imposed under this Act. The Minister should have a look at these fines we had in the Planning Act, 1963. He has seen some of the amendments I put down where I raised the figure to £1,000. In many cases such a fine might not prove a deterrent. These fines would apply only where a person has deliberately contravened the Act. A much heavier fine should be imposed on such people as it would act as a greater deterrent.
Many people who want to demolish houses may have in mind a development costing up to £6 million or more. The cost of the development outside the gates of Leinster House will probably run to £6 million. Many of those large developers are involved in huge financial outlay. They have their own pressures bearing down on them. They have to pay high interest rates and their bank managers are calling for their money. The mere threat of a fine of £500 is merely a joke, to use the Minister's words on the previous Bill we discussed tonight. I ask the Minister to give some thought to all of these fines. It would probably involve a small Bill to amend the 1969 Act and he may think that is too much bother. We would let such a Bill through very quickly. I certainly hope he will accept our amendment on the Planning Bill because these fines were unrealistic from the day they were decided on.
The Minister may say I had an opportunity, when bringing this Order before the House to mention this fact. I agreed with those who made the argument and have been of that mind since then. The judge who decides these cases has the discretion, since the Act allows him to go to £1,000 or even £50,000, to decide what level of fine he will impose. The maximum in the Act will not always be the maximum fine he imposes. A high maximum could be put in those Bills. It would probably require another Bill. We can only debate the matter now and oppose it if we do not agree with it. I will not go that far tonight. I accept the order but I ask the Minister to bear in mind the point I made about fines.
People who do not agree with the decision of local authorities in relation to their application for demolition orders under the Housing Act, 1969, can appeal that decision to the Minister. We have had agreement in the House with regard to an independent board deciding planning appeals under the 1963 Act. The Minister knows we have been in agreement on this for a number of years now that he has studied the files in the Department.