That a sum not exceeding £201,684,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st day of December, 1978, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for the Environment, including grants to Local Authorities, grants and other expenses in connection with housing, and miscellaneous schemes and grants including a grant-in-aid.
The most striking feature of this Estimate is its sheer size. The net total of the original Estimate of £201.684 million will be further increased by a Supplementary Estimate for £4.2 million, for which I intend to seek the approval of the House at the close of this debate and to which I will refer later. When the Supplementary Estimate is taken into account the net total for the Vote in 1978 is £205.884 million. It represents an increase of just over £120 million—nearly 140 per cent—on the net amount of £85,874,500 voted in 1977. The increase in the Vote is by far the largest increase in any Vote in the 1978 Estimates volume. Only two other Votes—those for Health and Social Welfare—are greater than the 1978 provision for the Environment. One has to go back only to the early 1970's to find the time when the Department's Vote was several million less than 10 per cent of what it is this year.
The biggest single increase in the present Estimate compared with 1977 arises on subhead P.A. grant of £80.75 million is being provided to compensate local authorities for the income they are foregoing through the abolition by the Government of rates on domestic and certain other property. The corresponding provision in 1977 was £17.5 million and allowed for remission of 25 per cent of rates on dwellings and the grant of a waiver of rates in cases of hardship. Another feature of the Estimate is the inclusion of the full amount of grants and other expenses related to roads. In 1977 and previous years the Vote included only a grant to the Road Fund to supplement the income of the fund from motor tax receipts and so forth. I shall presently outline the full details of what is involved in this change. There are also substantial increases this year compared with 1977 on the provisions for housing subsidy, private housing grants and grants for the installation of water supplies and sewerage facilities.
As always the provision in the Vote gives part only of the picture of spending in 1978 on the services of my Department and the local authorities with which the Department are concerned. Money for those services is also provided from the Local Loans Fund and by local authorities from their own resources including rates. When all these moneys are reckoned the Department and the local authorities— county councils, county boroughs and other urban authorities—will it is estimated spend about £560 million in 1978. This amount is nearly 9 per cent of estimated gross national product for the year. Put another way the services are absorbing almost £9 of every £100 of estimated national output for the year. I hope to demonstrate in this review that the community's outlay is spent on services that are indispensable in a modern society and contribute in a major way to national wellbeing.
All but about £30 million of the £560 million will be disbursed through the local authorities. In other words, the local authorities are the ultimate spending agency for about £530 million this year. The authorities, however, will themselves raise only about £155 million of the funds they will handle. Therefore central Government will be making about £375 million available to local authorities by way of grants and capital issues from the Local Loans Fund. The effect of this massive injection of funds by the Government into the local authority sector is twofold. Firstly, local authorities are enabled to provide the services the community needs. Secondly, ratepayers are being cushioned by the State against the burden of meeting the cost of services from which they benefit. I shall be reviewing these and other aspects of the activity of my Department and local authorities later.
Before moving on to the Government's major initiative in relation to rates I should like to briefly mention local government re-organisation. I have under consideration the question of what reforms may be necessary in the structure of local government. This examination involves a study of all earlier proposals for reorganisation in the light of developments which have taken place in recent years and in the context of present day conditions. It is too early yet to give any indication of what the likely outcome of this examination will be.
The biggest single item in the Vote is the grant to local authorities in relief of rates. Subhead P provides £80.75 million for this grant in 1978. This provision is directly consequent on the Government's decision to abolish rates from 1 January 1978 on all domestic property, including any domestic portion of business property and on secondary schools, bona fide community halls and farm buildings not already exempted from rates.
These derating proposals arose from the Government's conviction that rates, as a property tax, did not bear fairly on accommodation like houses, secondary schools and community halls, occupied out of social necessity. General unease had been felt at this situation over the past 15 years or so. Much consideration had been given to ways and means of easing the burden of rates on house-holders and other rated occupiers. The fact is, however, that neither the many palliatives proposed nor the limited reliefs of rates actually granted really contributed fundamentally to remedying the position. For instance, despite the last Government's action between 1973 and 1977 in phasing health and housing charges from the rates, the average rate in the pound still rose in this period from £6.70 to £9.
The initiative we have taken has been bolder and more clearcut. It removes at once the burden of rates from over 850,000 householders and from the other persons benefiting from the new reliefs. There is thus a real addition to the disposable income of the rated occupiers to whom our derating measures give relief.
Validation of the new rating reliefs will be provided, together with a number of other measures, in the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Bill, 1977. The Bill has already been introduced and will be circulated shortly. Pending enactment of the Bill, I have had instructions issued to local authorities so that administrative effect may be given to the reliefs from the beginning of 1978. The forthcoming Bill will afford the House the opportunity of discussing the derating measures in full. However, some general outline of these measures may be appropriate on this occasion also.
Local authorities have been advised to give relief of rates on the domestic and other property concerned. They will do this by making an allowance to the rated occupiers of the properties equal to the whole or, in the case of mixed properties, the relevant part of the rates that would otherwise be payable. Compensation corresponding to the total amount of allowances made will then be paid to local authorities from subhead P of my Department's Vote. This system is basically the same as that used for the agricultural grant under which full or partial relief of rates is given on certain classes of land valuation. The main advantage of this approach is that it allows the Exchequer to take over fairly simply and directly the liability for rates on all property qualifying for the new rating reliefs. The Exchequer, in other words, will step straight into the shoes of former domestic and other relieved ratepayers. It will therefore be clearly seen that the full cost of domestic derating is being met by the State. No part of the burden will be transferred directly or indirectly to local authorities or other ratepayers.
All of this involves, of course, a substantial increase in the proportion of the current income of local authorities being contributed by the Exchequer. In fact this proportion has increased from 40 per cent in 1976 to over 61 per cent in the current year. Some £120 million will be paid by the State to local authorities in 1978 in rate-linked State grants alone. Naturally then there is a need to ensure that the rates finance programme of local authorities continues to be reasonably aligned with other national development programmes. At the same time, we must also have regard to the interests of non-domestic ratepayers as well as to the preservation of a strong and effective local government system.
In relation to 1978 rate poundages I tried to strike a fair balance between all of these factors in the 11 per cent limit which I communicated to local authorities late last year as the maximum amount by which their 1978 rate poundages should exceed those of 1977. I am satisfied that the limit is a fair one. It works by way of addition to a base—the rate in the £—agreed by each local authority as a reasonable provision for maintenance of services in 1977. In addition the limit allows local authorities the full benefit of all new and increased valuations arising in their areas. This means that areas of rapid development where needs are greater will, because of faster growth in their valuations, obtain a proportionately greater increase in rates revenue under the formula.
The 11 per cent limit, then, achieves two things. For 1978 it restricts the addition to the general rates bill of any individual ratepayer for the same effective valuation to 11 per cent over the 1977 level. At the same time, when account is taken of increased valuations, the income of local authorities both directly from rates and from the grants in support of rates will increase by about 14 per cent over 1977. This level of increase will be fully reflected in the State grant to which I already referred. Most importantly of all, the limit which I have imposed does not interfere in any way with the discretion of local authorities to determine priorities within the rate in the £ which they strike. This remains, as before, a matter for local authorities themselves, who must continue to exercise their best judgement on local priorities.
Now to the individual rating reliefs promised by the Government. Domestic property to which full relief of rates applies includes all premises used ordinarily as dwellings. It extends to the residential portion of property used partly as a dwelling and partly for another purpose. The reliefs embrace both owner-occupied and rented property. Both local authority and private rented accommodation will benefit. The vast bulk of the £80.75 million provided in subhead P will be required in 1978 to finance the derating of domestic properties.
It gives me some personal satisfaction that the Government's policy on rates extends reliefs to secondary schools and bona fide community halls. For many years now, secondary school interests had been expressing an understandable grievance at having to bear onerous rates bills on top of their already considerable financial commitments. I would like to take this opportunity to allay a misapprehension, which seems to have been fairly wide-spread, on the scope of the relief to be granted to secondary schools. I wish to make it absolutely clear that full rates relief will apply to the residential portion of secondary boarding schools as well as to the classroom and ancillary portions of the school buildings. Full relief will also be given, up to a limit of £40 land valuation, on any land belonging to and enjoyed with a secondary school.
The Government's undertaking to abolish rates on bona fide community halls also responds to a long-standing aspiration of voluntary groups involved in community work. Our intention to derate such community halls remains firm. The precise scope of this relief will be spelled out in the forthcoming legislation. I will then be able to give firm guidelines to local authorities for the identification of “community halls” for the purposes of the relief. The rates relief for these premises will, of course, operate in relation to the present local financial year.
Relief of rates is also being granted on those farm buildings which, because they were erected before 1 March, 1959, do not already enjoy exemption from rates. This particular relief ends an anomalous situation. Farmers with older non-domestic buildings were discriminated against by having to pay full rates on those buildings. On the other hand, farmers with modern buildings erected since March, 1959 were totally exempt. I am happy to bring that anomaly to an end.
As a further measure of relief to ratepayers I am continuing the schemes for the recoupment to local authorities of expenditure incurred by them on foot of certain malicious injuries. The Exchequer meets the full amount of decrees for damage caused by explosives and attributable to events in Northern Ireland. Amounts in excess of the equivalent of a rate of 20p in the £ of decrees in respect of any other malicious damage claims are also recouped to local authorities. Happily, actual expenditure under these arrangements fell substantially in 1977. The very nature of the expenditure makes it difficult to accurately forecast the requirement in advance. I am, however, hopeful that the improved experience of the past year will continue and that the reduced provision of £1 million in subhead O for 1978 will be adequate.
I shall now move on to the building and construction industry for which I have overall responsibility. The well-being of the industry is important for the economy as a whole. Output increased almost without interruption during the sixties and reached a peak in 1973. It began to decline in 1974. Unemployment in the industry practically doubled during the past four years. When this Government took up office, the industry was still in a sorry state. There was a considerable lack of confidence in the future. Even last October unemployment in general building was running at a level of 25 per cent and unemployment in "other construction" at 18.1 per cent. These percentages compare with an unemployment rate of 9 per cent for other industrial groups and 11 per cent for all industrial groups. Within three weeks of the change of Government there was a very substantial injection of extra capital into housing and infrastructural development such as roads and water supply and sewerage schemes. As a result, an estimated extra 3,170 direct and indirect jobs were created by the end of last year.
The 1978 budget demonstrated in no uncertain terms the Government's commitment to job creation. The public capital programme provided a record £458 million to generate work in the building and construction industry. This amount represents an increase of £86 million or 23 per cent on the corresponding provisions of January 1977. As a result, output in the industry will increase this year by about 7 per cent to 8 per cent. The number of extra jobs to be created directly by job-creation schemes may be as high as 5,000. Both these targets depend on the level of price increases in the industry this year. I need hardly stress the importance of moderating wage increases and the cost of building materials in our efforts to shorten the dole queues.
The housing capital allocation for this year exceeds £140 million, representing an increase of over 37 per cent on the 1977 estimate. In the recent White Paper National Development 1977-1980 the Government indicated that it would ensure that house completions up to 1980 will be maintained at levels between 21,000 and 27,000 houses a year in order to meet ongoing demands and to make inroads into the backlog of accumulated housing needs. Given the large capital injection this year and the likely trend in the availability of mortgage finance from the commercial lending agencies, it is expected that house completions will be about 26,500 in 1978. I shall deal later in somewhat more detail with the two housing sectors—private housing and housing provided by local authorities.
In addition to capital for housing, the Government has provided over £62 million in capital for other services which are the direct responsibility of my Department, such as water supply and sewerage schemes, road works and miscellaneous environmental services. These provisions represent increases of almost 37 per cent over the previous year's estimates for those services.
All in all, 1978 should be a good year for the building and construction industry. The Government's mediumterm proposals for the industry will be set out in the Green Paper which will be published in the first half of this year. These proposals will serve as a basis for discussions with representatives of the industry so that the public and private sectors can look to the future with some degree of confidence and plan accordingly.
Progress is continuing in the change to metric in the building industry. Upwards of 75 per cent of design and construction work is now being carried out in metric units. It is not envisaged that there will be any difficulty in meeting EEC directives which prohibit the use of non-metric sizes generally from 31 December 1979. As part of the programme for change the evolution of standardised building components in metric sizes suitable for integration in a metric modular framework is also continuing. My Department is encouraging local authorities to seek the co-operation of designers in this field.
In recognition of the importance to the economy of an efficient building industry, my Department operates a scheme of technical assistance grants designed to support measures taken by the industry towards increased efficiency. Under the scheme the industry may recoup up to one-third of its outlay on such projects as training programmes, consultancy advice or study visits abroad. The Estimate provides £30,000 for these grants in 1978. Since its inception the building industry has benefited from the scheme to the tune of £225,000. The continuing demand for grants under the scheme is evidence of its usefulness to the industry.
A draft of building regulations which are intended to provide a national code of building standards and to replace any existing local building bye-laws was published in November 1976. Comments were invited from all interested parties. Following a number of requests the latest date for the receipt of such comments was twice deferred. It was finally set at 31 December 1977. The draft regulations are now being re-examined on the basis of the comments received.
I referred earlier to the Supplementary Estimate I would be moving at the conclusion of the debate on the main Estimate. The Supplementary Estimate follows from the Government's action in setting aside £5 million in the budget to finance schemes for youth employment. One of the items in the Supplementary Estimate is £200,000 for the employment of apprentices. The amount is required for grants to local authorities to enable them to recruit approximately 150 first-year construction industry apprentices. This proposal is one of those which has emerged from the Employment Action Team set up by the Government to devise schemes to stimulate youth employment. I hope that local authorities will respond to this initiative by the Government towards alleviating unemployment among young people.
This year's Estimate includes £17 million for private housing grants. Expenditure last year was £4.52 million. The increase of almost £12.5 million is an indication of the action taken by this Government in the private housing field since we assumed office.
It is a basic tenet of the Government's housing policy that as many families as possible should be helped and encouraged to provide their own houses. This policy was enshrined in our election manifesto. My first act as Minister was to introduce the scheme of £1,000 grants to first-time owner-occupiers of new houses. This country has one of the strongest traditions of house ownership in Europe. The new grant scheme aims to stimulate this tradition by enabling people to buy or build their own houses rather than renting dwellings from local authorities. Undoubtedly, the £1,000 grant means that many young couples who previously would not have been able to afford to buy even a modest house can now do so. The scheme has also given a much needed boost to, and increased employment in, the private housebuilding sector. A total provision of £11 million is being made available for new house grants this year. It is anticipated that 10,000 purchasers will benefit during the year from the £1,000 grant. The remaining £1 million is needed to pay off commitments under the old grant scheme.
Between the introduction of the new scheme on 6 July 1977 and the end of the year a total of 7,312 applications was received. In the same period in 1976 when the old grants scheme was in operation only 2,065 applications for grants were received. In the first two months of 1978 a further 2,229 applications were received. The static and ludicrously low income limits introduced by the previous Government had, excepting farmers, the effect of almost confining grant eligibility to social welfare dependants. Farmers received comparatively favourable treatment. The valuation limit of £60 which governed their eligibility could under no circumstances be equated with the income limits of £1,950 to £2,350 per annum applying to other applicants. This type of inequity has been removed under the new scheme. I am satisfied that confining eligibility to first-time owner-occupiers ensures that public funds are being channelled to those most in need. In conjunction with the introduction of the £1,000 grant I extended the controls on house prices to all grant-type houses built for sale and to flats. Previously the controls had applied only to houses in schemes of four or more and did not apply to flats at all. The widening of the price controls had the aims of ensuring that State aid is being provided only for reasonably priced houses or flats and is not being absorbed by unreasonably high profits for builders. All purchasers of grant-type houses and flats are now being afforded the same level of consumer protection.
After the new scheme of grants was introduced, a number of cases came to my attention of people who could not qualify for either grant because they had not applied in time for the old grant and had started building too early to qualify for the new grant. In order to alleviate the hardship caused in such cases, I agreed to accept applications under the old scheme up to 30 December 1977 regardless of the date of commencement of work.
At the time I introduced the £1,000 grants scheme, fears were expressed in some quarters that it might be impossible to administer. I am glad to report that experience to date completely refutes any such fears. It can be said truthfully that the scheme is administratively much less cumbersome than the old income-restricted scheme. However, the unprecedented increase in the volume of applications has given rise to some problems in the processing of cases. I can assure the House that everything possible is being done to overcome these problems. Local authorities no longer pay supplementary grants. The full sum of £1,000 is paid direct to the occupier on satisfactory completion of the house. In other words, the builder does not pocket the grant. The new arrangements obviate the inconvenience of having separate grant applications to two bodies for the one house.
During 1977 almost £170 million was paid out by the principal lending agencies in house purchase loans, compared with £146 million in the previous year. The building societies made the major contribution. They advanced about 70 per cent of the total amount of house loans advanced by all the main lending agencies. The contribution of the Associated Banks, at about £27 million, was also significant. Local authorities and assurance companies provided the balance. It is expected that the overall amount available to advance for house purchase in 1978 will in real terms exceed the 1977 level.
The local authority loans scheme provides mortgage finance for persons who are unable to obtain loans from other lending agencies. The provision in the Public Capital Programme for payment of these loans in 1978 is £39 million. This shows an increase of £22 million on the 1977 provision of £17 million. The increased provision follows from changes made last July in the maximum loan and income limits applicable to the loans.
In pursuance of its election promise, the Government increased the maximum loan and income limits to £7,000 and £3,500, respectively with effect from 26 May 1977. The previous limits, in operation since 1973, had resulted in a steady decline in the demand for loans. In 1975, over 9,500 loans were approved compared with 5,113 in 1976 and only 2,100 in the first half of 1977. This increase in limits has resulted in a substantial upsurge in loan applications. In the half-year to 31 December 1977, 4,470 applications valued at more than £27 million were received by the local authorities. In the corresponding period in 1976 only 2,437 applications valued at just over £10 million were received. A 1 per cent reduction in the mortgage rate on loans currently being advanced was announced in the budget. This should further boost the level of activity under the scheme.
The Government indicated in the recent White Paper that it is intended to review the loan and income limits continually to ensure that, in so far as public sector resources permit, sufficient finance will be provided from all sources to finance the level of housing output needed.
The low-rise mortgage scheme, under which subsidised house purchase loans are made available to certain categories of tenants and prospective tenants of local authority houses, has been in operation for just over a year now. It is small in scale yet compared with the ordinary house purchase loan scheme. The low-rise scheme is being kept under review. In subhead E.1 of the Vote £100,000 is being provided to meet the State's contribution towards the graduated subsidy to persons who have obtained "low-rise" mortgages to purchase their dwellings.
The Building Societies Act, 1976 was brought into operation from the 2 May 1977. The Act provides a comprehensive legal framework for the operation of building societies which are among the most important financial institutions in the State. The Act confers regulatory and supervisory powers on appropriate authorities to ensure that building societies operate in the best interests of the public. I have already referred to the massive contribution to house purchase finance made last year by the societies. It is always difficult to predict the level of building society advances. Nevertheless it is expected that total advances will increase from approximately £120 million in 1977 to some £150 million this year.
A welcome occurrence during 1977 was the fall in the mortgage interest rate of the societies. It fell from 13.95 per cent to its present level of 9.5 per cent. This decline is particularly welcome in view of the fact that mortgage repayments can constitute an onerous burden for many families. It should, however, be borne in mind that the level of the mortgage rate is directly related to the rate offered by societies on investments with them. The rate to investors must remain competitive enough to attract funds if the housing programme is to be adequately financed.
During the period 1969 to 1972, local authorities in the Dublin area guaranteed loans given by certain building societies to about 1,000 applicants. These persons had sought loans from the local authorities but funds were not at the disposal of the authorities to advance the loans directly. A variable rate of interest applied to the guaranteed loans in contrast to the fixed rate which would have applied had the loans come from the local authorities. As the building society mortgage rate increased these borrowers felt aggrieved. That a genuine grievance existed was accepted. To ease the position, a decision was made last year to pay a subsidy to building societies to reduce the mortgage interest rate on these guaranteed loans to 10 per cent from the 1 June 1977. A subsequent decision reduced the rate from 5 July 1977 to 9 per cent which was the rate of interest fixed on local authority loans taken out in the period in question. This subsidy is estimated to cost £65,000 in 1978 and provision is made for it in subhead N.
Last year, the associated banks approved loans totalling £31.6 million. Lending activity by the banks will be of the same general order this year.
The necessity of having some form of structural guarantee for new private dwellings has been long recognised. I am glad that a scheme of structural guarantees was initiated by the Construction Industry Federation on 4 January 1978 with the co-operation of my Department. In the interests of builders and purchasers alike, I hope that the new scheme will receive support from all house builders and that it will be given due recognition by the lending agencies. I shall be reviewing the scheme after two years in order to assess if it is adequately meeting the needs of house purchasers.
Last December I announced a new scheme of house improvement grants. This announcement fulfilled another of the commitments in our election manifesto. The new grants apply to works commenced after 31 October 1977. There was a clear need for a more sophisticated scheme of improvement grants, greater selectivity in the works to be encouraged and a more generous level of grant. Under the new scheme, grants will cover two-thirds of the cost of improvement works up to maxima of £600 for reconstruction works, £200 for individual water supply installations and £150 for individual sewerage facilities. For applicants participating in group schemes, the maximum grants for water and sewerage installations have been increased to £300 and £250, respectively. The valuation limits introduced in January 1977 for reconstruction grants have been dropped. Local authorities will no longer be required to contribute by way of supplementary grants. As in the case of new house grants, this will simplify matters for applicants and eliminate duplication in administration.
The new scheme will aim to ensure that, in so far as possible, dwellings on completion of the work will meet a six-point standard. The limiting period to qualify for a further grant has been reduced from 15 to 10 years. A further grant can be obtained within the ten-year period for certain categories of work such as urgent conservation or extension to relieve overcrowding.
Already there are indications of a high level of interest by the public in the scheme. It will encourage many householders, who might not otherwise carry out necessary repair work and improvements, to do so. It will also assist owners of larger premises to convert them into smaller dwellings. The increased rate of grants demonstrates the Government's commitment to this important feature of housing policy. In subhead E.2 £6 million is provided for the payment of improvement grants in 1978. The new scheme is expected to absorb £4 million leaving £2 million to meet commitments on the old scheme. Grants for the installation of water supply and sewerage facilities are paid from subhead F.2 with which I shall deal later.
A further valuable contribution to the conservation and improvement of the existing housing stock is provided by the loans schemes which local authorities are enabled to operate under section 40 of the Housing Act, 1966. These loans are available to bridge the gap between the amount of the grant and the cost of the work. It has been decided to increase from £200 to £600 the maximum loan which a local authority can advance without formal security. Secured loans are subject to a maximum of £2,500. Both secured and unsecured loans are now subject to the same income limit of £3,500 as applies to the house purchase loan scheme.
The Department recoup local authorities half the grant paid by them for the extension or adaptation of dwellings to meet the needs of occupants suffering from physical handicap or severe mental illness. The maximum amount of such recoupments has now been trebled—from £400 to £1,200. The new limit applies to cases where work commenced on or after 1 November 1977. Otherwise the scheme will continue to operate as previously. Local authorities are free to make grants of up to 100 per cent of the estimated cost of the work in the case of non-vested local authority houses or two-thirds of the cost in the case of other houses or flats. In 1977, 533 recoupments were made costing £184,057. It is anticipated that the higher limit will encourage a greater volume of this type of work this year.
The Housing Act, 1969, which came into force in July 1969, provides that any person wishing to demolish or change the use of a habitable house must obtain permission from the housing authority. There is provision under the Act for appeal to the Minister for the Environment. In the period to 31 December 1977, 640 appeals were received. The Act, a temporary measure, is now due to expire on 31 December 1979, but the question of having permanent legislation for these controls will be considered before then.
In Dáil Éireann on 14 December last I introduced the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1977, by long and short titles. The main purpose of the Bill will be to validate a number of changes made in recent years in the schemes of financial assistance for housing, both local authority and private. Because of the complexity of the Bill, it will take some months before the Second Stage can be taken.
The past year was not a good one for local authority housing completions. The original target for 1977 was 7,500 new dwellings, for which £74.1 million was provided in the Public Capital Programme. The target was subsequently modified early in 1977 to 7,000. It had become clear that the scale of inflation of costs during the year would be higher than had been allowed for in determining the capital allocation for the year. The number of local authority houses completed in 1977 was 6,333. The substantial and disappointing shortfall was due to many factors which were outside the control of my Department, housing authorities and the National Building Agency. Bad weather prevailed in the first quarter of 1977. Contractors experienced difficulties throughout the year in recruiting blocklayers and bricklayers at normal approved wage rates. Delays were encountered in delivery of bricks and in the securing of bonds by contractors. There were uncertainties in the early part of the year about a possible strike in the building industry and about the application to certain contracts of revisions made in the approved prices variation clause.
Notwithstanding the difficulties I have mentioned, the programme recovered substantially in the second half of the year. The capital allocation of £74.1 million was spent in full by the end of the year in spite of the shortfall in completions. The increased expenditure in the second half of the year was reflected in a welcome increase in employment on the programme. This had fallen to 5,039 at the end of August 1976; it recovered in 1977, when average monthly employment over the year rose to 6,295 as compared to an average of 5,634 in 1976. The number of houses at planning stage also increased significantly during the year from 15,833 at the end of December 1976 to 18,563 at the end of December 1977. Houses in progress also increased —from 8,281 at end of December 1976 to 8,962 at the end of December 1977.
The reserve of sites grew from 56,388 at the end of December 1976 to 57,459 at the end of December 1977. In spite of the disappointing level of completions in 1977, the outlook for the programme is quite healthy. With a capital allocation of £80.77 million in 1978, the course is well set to maintain a satisfactory level of activity and employment in 1978.
The high level of current building costs is worrying. The average cost per dwelling unit on the basis of tenders most recently submitted to my Department was about £10,350. In terms of an all-in finished cost the average would then be about £12,500 per unit. This has serious financial implications as it entails public subsidy of roughly £26 a week per unit provided for renting.
Within the average cost figures, prices continue to vary considerably. In traditionally low cost areas tenders of the order of £9,000 or less are still being obtained. In high cost areas, such as Dublin, the average tender price per unit, excluding special central city schemes, is now running at about £11,500.
The bold new measures taken by the Government to increase private housing output will undoubtedly make a big impact on the satisfaction of housing demand, especially in the larger centres of population. The concentration in the Dublin area of a major part of available resources for the local authority housing programme in recent years has helped to lessen the relative degree of urgency of the housing needs of applicants on the approved waiting lists. In very broad figures, about two-thirds of the applications on Dublin Corporation's list are from families of three persons or less. One and two person families account for about one-third. Families of four persons or more account for one-third. The corporation completed 1,640 dwellings last year and had 1,421 casual vacancies in their housing estate. Thus, they are estimated to have rehoused more than 3,000 families in 12 months. On this basis and assuming the operation of normal priorities, it would not be unreasonable to hope that almost all families of four persons or more on the corporation's approved waiting list should be offered accommodation in 1978. I should emphasise that I am not saying that this is an entirely satisfactory position. However, relative to most comparable cities, the outlook for housing in Dublin is good, especially with the current resurgence in the private housing sector.
In explaining that two-thirds of all families now on waiting lists are families of three persons or less, I should not be taken as denigrating the need for housing for the smaller families, including newly weds and old persons. Indeed, I believe that a fair share of local authority housing should go every year to small families who cannot hope to provide themselves with proper accommodation. There is a much greater consciousness at present amongst housing authorities generally of the needs of these families. With the allocation this year of major resources to the housing programme, small families should have real hope of being offered accommodation by authorities in the relatively near future.
I should also make it clear that there are still quite a number of areas where really bad housing conditions persist. It is my intention that special efforts will be made this year to hasten the process of bringing these areas up to the relatively satisfactory position now obtaining elsewhere in the country.
I am happy to say that a high standard of construction and finish of local authority housing is being maintained. Special steps are being taken to ensure that new schemes will provide improved environmental and amenity standards, consistent with our manifesto commitment. I am conscious, in particular, of the need for positive action aimed at securing the provision of adequate community facilities in newly developed areas. The environmental improvement schemes programme, to which I shall refer later, will facilitate the provision in 1978 of a substantial range of local amenities. But the provision of sizeable community halls is a special problem. If substantial public funds were to be devoted to this specific purpose, it could only be at the expense of other objectives such as housing itself. A further problem inhibiting the more widespread provision of community halls is the high cost of maintaining, supervising and caretaking such halls when they are provided. Generally, if these halls are to be run successfully, the local community must be fully involved from the start in their financing, provision, management and maintenance. I am taking a fresh look at all the problems involved in this area to see if a viable basis for more positive action is feasible.
The provision of £45 million for housing subsidy for 1978 represents an increase of 43 per cent on the provision of £31.4 million for 1977. All but £300,000 of the £45 million will be paid to local authorities under the new arrangement whereby the Exchequer generally subsidises in full the loan charges incurred by authorities in providing housing for renting. It is essential that people with low incomes who are not in a position to house themselves should have the benefit of State subsidies in order to keep their rents at a level which they can afford.
Under the new subsidy arrangements, local authorities are themselves responsible for the cost of maintaining and managing their rented houses. For this purpose they may use all the rental income from their houses, certain other miscellaneous incomes and 60 per cent of the proceeds of sales of houses or tenants.
I have referred earlier to the provision of £100,000 in subhead E.1. to meet the State's contribution to the subsidy on "low-rise" mortgages. A further £100,000 goes towards a subsidy to local authorities in respect of sites provided by them for private housing. The remaining £100,000 is required to recoup to local authorities the cost of their refunding portion of the purchase price of certain houses bought outright under tenant purchase schemes made before July 1973. The making of a concession to these purchasers has long been overdue.
Following discussions with local authority officials and representatives of the National Association of Tenants' Organisations, I recently introduced, with the approval of the Government, a new tenant purchase scheme for local authority houses. This new scheme will run until 31 December 1978. Under its terms the price of a house will be based on the original all-in-cost updated to August 1977 money values. A discount of £1,300 will be allowed in lieu of the new house grant payable to first time owner-occupiers of a new house and the rates remission applicable prior to 1 January 1978. The equivalent discounts under earlier schemes amounted to only £900. The new scheme also provides in certain cases related to the length of tenancy for discounts of up to 30 per cent or 45 per cent off the gross price. A reduction in the interest rate to 11½ per cent per annum compared to 12½ per cent per annum for the 1976 schemes also applies. In addition, local authorities have been asked to apply the lower interest rate to all applications to purchase under the November 1976 scheme where the sale was completed after 23 December 1977. A further change from the previous tenant purchase scheme is that all houses will be sold in fee simple subject to certain temporary restrictions.
With the consent of the Government, I introduced a revised national differential rent scheme, details of which were circulated to all local authorities on 30 December 1977. The revised scheme applies uniformly throughout the country with effect from the beginning of February 1978. The allowances in the graded scale were increased by 22 per cent with the exception of the allowance for each dependent child which was increased by 27 per cent. These increased allowances will reduce the rents of tenants on low incomes. Provision was also made for increases of 50p a week in maximum differential rents and increases of up to 25p a week in fixed rents. The terms of the scheme were settled following detailed discussions with local authority officials and representatives of the National Association of Tenants' Organisations. I am satisfied that the scheme has been accepted generally as being fair and reasonable. The removal of rates from domestic dwellings will also benefit tenants and tenant purchasers of local authority dwellings.
Before leaving housing I should like to refer to another sector of our community, namely itinerants, whose welfare should concern us all. The programme for the rehabilitation of itinerants has three main objectives. First, it aims to provide itinerants with a better way of life. Secondly, it promotes their absorption into the general community. Thirdly, pending such absorption it endeavours to reduce to a minimum the disadvantages to themselves and to the settled community resulting from their itinerant way of life.
I know that strenuous efforts have been made by many local authorities and settlement committees to help itinerant families over the years. The available information indicates that to date approximately 1,043 families have been accommodated. The 673 families who have settled in standard houses seem in general to be adapting well to their new surroundings. The number of families living on serviced sites is 253 and the remaining 117 families live in trailers or mobile homes on approved sites. Many more families wishing to settle have not had an opportunity of doing so. A survey carried out in October 1976, shows that 862 families were still on the roadside. I am advised by those in close touch with the problem that about one-third of these do not have ambitions to settle at present. The remaining two-thirds are willing and anxious to do so. Unfortunately in some cases they are not allowed.
Some proposals for the accommodation of travelling people have been actively opposed by the settled community. The championing of the cause of the travelling people has on occasion required great dedication and courage on the part of local authorities and others. I would like to express my appreciation of these efforts, to urge that they be continued and to pledge my own support. Above all, I would appeal to the settled community not just for the tolerance which they owe in a Christian community to their less fortunate brethren but for their sympathy and their assistance in securing the better integration of travelling people into society. We have a responsibility towards these people and we should give them a chance.
Mr. Victor Bewley is special adviser on the programme. I am more than pleased to have available to me the advice and assistance of someone who has an exceptional understanding of the problems of itinerants. His direct association with the local authority and voluntary committees involved has indeed already achieved so much in this area.
I have arranged for another census of itinerant families to be taken in a form which will give a fuller picture of real progress and of the nature and extent of the remaining task. All local authorities have been asked to step up their programmes in regard to travelling people. This involves catering for families ready to settle down. It involves also the provision of halting places for those families who are not disposed to settle but who regularly visit and stay for a time in an area. I hope that major progress will be made in the coming period. The importance of appointing social workers has been stressed to local authorities as they are a tremendous help both in progress with settlement and in assisting the travellers to adapt to new conditions.
In subhead Q of the Department's Estimate provision of £370,200 is made to assist local authorities with their itinerant settlement programmes. There is full recoupment of loan charges incurred on borrowings for the programme. There is grant assistance towards other aspects of the programme including the employment of social workers.
The main emphasis of the programme to provide water supply and sewerage services continues to be catering for new industry and new housing, the improvement and augmentation of existing inadequate services, the provision of water sources for group scheme development and the prevention and abatement of pollution. The provision of adequate services with, where feasible, a significant amount of spare capacity is an essential prerequisite to proper social and economic development of an area. The needs of industry and agriculture along with increasing rate of urbanisation make even greater demands for these services. They are giving rise to the need for more complex and expensive water and sewerage schemes. The treatment to a high standard of effluent from local authority sewerage systems will continue to impose heavy demands on capital.
The capital provided for the programmes in 1978 is £29.235 million. This is an increase of £4.325 million over the estimated out-turn for 1977. Considerable progress has been made with the programmes but much remains to be done. There are still serious deficiencies in the water and sewerage services in many areas. All of these problems cannot be resolved overnight. It is my intention, however, to ensure that the pace of the programme will increase so that all areas will be adequately supplied with these services as early as practicable. Major water supply augmentation schemes are in progress for such centres as Cork, Galway and Kilkenny. Work is either about to commence or will commence later in the year on major water augumentation schemes for Dublin, Limerick, Newcastlewest, Cavan, Castlebar and Wexford. Construction work on the schemes is an important source of employment. As additional schemes get to construction stage the level of employment will be increased. At the same time the country's basic infrastructure for development is being improved.
I am glad to say that significant headway is at last being made with the provision of proper arrangements for the final disposal of local authority sewerage effluents in cases where these were causing serious pollution problems. A number of major schemes for this purpose has been provided and others are in construction. These include such sewerage schemes as Navan, Carrickmacross, Trim and the major Liffey Valley scheme. A further number of sewerage schemes has been approved for commencement and work on them should commence shortly. These include schemes for Bantry, Mallow, Ennis, Portlaoise, Thurles, Ashbourne, Swords, Ballinasloe and Castlebar.
Additional projects of this category are in final planning stages. In fact, I may say that, in every location where the national survey on air and water pollution, carried out by the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards, found that existing arrangements for the final disposal of local authority sewage was giving, or was likely to give rise to serious pollution, positive steps have already been taken towards remedying the position. This is only as it should be since the local authorities have now a key role in the fight against water pollution.
Development of rural areas is heavily dependant on the availability of piped water supplies. Living conditions are much improved and a lot of drudgery is eliminated. Domestic and farm hygiene is improved. The programme to provide piped water in those areas continues to make substantial progress. My Department estimate that the number of houses without piped water has been reduced from about 154,000 houses at the last census in 1971 to about 75,000 at the end of 1976 or by more than 50 per cent. I am determined that the pace of this programme will be maintained until every possible rural dwelling has this basic amenity.
The importance of the rural piped water supply programme for agricultural and social development has been acknowledged by the EEC. Aid totalling over £5.6 million for 174 rural water supply schemes in Ireland has been allocated from the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund. Almost 80 per cent of this aid is for 75 county council schemes and the balance for 99 group schemes. Construction of a number of these schemes has advanced to the stage where it has been possible to apply for an instalment of the EEC aid for 36 of the schemes. The EEC have already made payments totalling £219,000—£163,000 for 13 county council schemes and £56,000 for 12 group schemes—direct to the qualifying local authority or group. Application for further payments will be made as work on schemes progresses.
Group water supply schemes continue to play a vital role in the drive to provide piped water to rural dwellings and associated farms. The number of houses served by group schemes is now nearly 57,000. An estimated 40,000 farms have access to a water supply from a group scheme. The tremendous upsurge in group schemes activity is confirmed by the payment last year of nearly 7,900 group scheme grants—an all-time record. I want to pay a special tribute to the group promoters and committees throughout the country who work so hard, on a voluntary basis, to ensure the success of group schemes. I cannot speak too highly of the dedication of these people.
The drive to instal piped water and sewerage facilities to rural houses should be further stimulated by the Government's decision, to which I referred when speaking of house improvement grants, to increase grants for the installation of these basic amenities. Installations by way of group schemes now qualify for a State grant of two-thirds of the cost, subject to a maximum of £300 per house for a water supply and £250 per house for sewerage facilities. In addition, the grant of up to £200 will continue to be paid for each potential farm supply catered for by a group scheme.
Deputies will have observed that the provision of £4.48 million in subhead F.2 for the payment of grants for water supply and sewerage installations is classified as capital this year. This change to which the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance referred in the budget brings the classification of those grants into line with that in national accounts. The £4.48 million represents an increase of more than £2.7 million on the 1977 provision. The grants to group schemes for facilities provided in houses and for headworks and distribution mains for farm and farmyard supplies will absorb about £3.1 million. The remainder of the provision will go to individual installations of water and sewerage facilities.
Local authorities are paid a subsidy towards the loan charges on borrowings for construction of water supply and sewerage schemes. The rate of contribution ranges from 60 per cent in western areas and small urbans to 40 per cent in Dublin city. In 1978 £8.403 million is provided for the payment of this subsidy. The 1977 provision was £7.3 million. The increase in the subsidy is a reflection of the continued high level of borrowing for those schemes. A small element is included in respect of a similar subsidy on swimming pools and sanitary conveniences.
Deputies will already be aware of the importance the Government attach to increased investment in our roads system. Grants allocated by me for the improvement and maintenance of the public road network in 1978 come to a total of £37.4 millions. This amount represents an increase of £10.8 millions, or more than 40 per cent, over the corresponding amount allocated by my predecessor in February of last year. With total grant allocations set at this level, I am confident that the high level of employment achieved in the roads sector in the last quarter of 1977 can be maintained in the current year. My aim is that an average of 10,800 road workers will be employed throughout the coming year. Such a figure will compare very favourably with average of less than 9,600 for the first half of 1977. There will be a consequential increase in employment in quarrying, plant hire and other support industries.
The block grants supplement the funds at the disposal of local authorities for work on roads other than national roads. This year the block grants have been increased to £11.3 million from £10.1 million in 1977. I have also increased the grants for the maintenance of national roads by 14 per cent to £6 million. I have made specific grants totalling over £20 million for improvement works. This will allow a number of major projects throughout the country to commence. In the Dublin area work can be commenced this year on the construction of a new bridge over the River Liffey adjacent to Sean Heuston Bridge and on a new road in south-west Dublin which will form a link between the national routes to the south and south-west of the country.
In this general context, I might also mention that I recently received the result of the review requested by my predecessor of the recommendations contained in the Dublin Transportation Study for motorways and other major roads in the Dublin region. As the Dublin City and County Manager has indicated that he intends initially to consider this matter with the local authorities concerned, it would not be appropriate for me at this stage to make any further comment beyond indicating that, pending receipt of the views of the local authorities, I am having the report examined in my Department in a preliminary way.
The grants I have made to Donegal County Council include allocations totalling £290,000 for six projects in north Donegal. These projects form part of the programme for the improvement of the national route network in that area and have been confirmed in the report of the Study of Cross Border Communications in the Derry/ Donegal region, which was commissioned and financed jointly by the Government, the United Kingdom Government and the EEC.
The Government recognised that a sound roads system is an essential element for a growing economy. Economic losses due to an inefficient roads system can be much greater than the cost of improvement. Because of the large investments involved, it is essential that the annual works programme be soundly based. Therefore, work on the preparation of a major road development plan designed to meet the needs of the eighties as promised in the Government's election manifesto has been commenced. It is intended that this plan will identify a programme of works of priority in relation to future needs.
We are, I might mention, open to the idea of the construction of suitable road projects, including motorways and river crossings, on a toll basis, and to the involvement of interested private enterprise in the design and construction, financing and operation of such projects by arrangement with the relevant local authority which has statutory responsibility in respect of roads and planning in their area. My Department has in hands the preparation of proposals for enabling legislation on the subject. In the meantime, if any firm or person considers they would be interested in a particular project, it is open to them to develop it and discuss it with the relevant local authority.
A loan to the equivalent of £13.1 million was granted by the European Investment Bank in December last to the Government to help meet the cost of improvement works included in the annual works programmes for 1977 and 1978. Over 200 projects costing about £26 million are involved. These projects are concerned in particular with improvements to the inter-urban national routes to establish better communications with industrial centres, with areas where industrial development is being promoted and with centres of tourism.
The Tánaiste in his budget statement, announced the termination of the Road Fund system of financing public road works and related services. This decision has important implications for the development of roads programming. In conjunction with the general trend in national accounting away from the concept of "assigned revenue" successive Governments have since 1966 been retaining an increasing share of total motor taxation receipts for general Exchequer purposes. The amount so retained under the policy of the previous Government amounted in 1976 to 50 per cent of the receipts. As a consequence, the resources available to the Road Fund in recent years from motor taxation were inadequate to provide for necessary investment in road works and for expenditure on related services. It became necessary to supplement the fund each year by way of annual grants from the Department's Vote. For some time past the need for the rationalisation of the Road Fund system was apparent. The reduction in income to the fund due to the abolition by the Government of road tax on cars up to 16 h.p. and on all motor cycles as from 1 August last provided the immediate case for review of the traditional method of financing roads expenditure. Accordingly, it was decided to terminate the Road Fund system with effect from 1 January of this year, and to provide for the financing of road works and related services in the relevant Public Service Estimates for 1978. The House will acknowledge, I am sure, that the new arrangements are more rational. They will provide a much clearer picture of the Government's annual investment in roads.
In future all motor taxation and so on receipts will accrue to the Exchequer. Payments formerly met from the Road Fund will be made from moneys provided under my Department's Vote and other relevant Votes. For the first time expenditure on road improvement works has been classified as capital and forms part of the Public Capital Programme. Subhead L of the Environment Vote provides £34.339 million, including £22.71 million capital, for grant payments to local authorities in 1978 in respect of the various allocations embracing the construction, improvement, maintenance and management of roads to which I have already referred. Subhead L also provides a further £418,000 to meet the expenses of the 1978 programme of the National Road Safety Association, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety and expenditure to be incurred on the signposting of national roads.
A sum of £1.302 million is provided under Subhead M for the recoupment to licensing authorities of the expenses incurred by them in the registration and licensing of mechanically propelled vehicles and the issue of driving licences. This subhead also includes £150,000 for expenses incurred in connection with the computerisation of vehicle registration on which work is proceeding at a faster pace than had been anticipated two years ago. By the end of next year we should have a complete national file. This will be of great benefit in security matters, in the enforcement of road traffic law and for the assessment of statistical data and so on.
In 1977 and previous years An Foras Forbartha was given, as a supplement to the voted grant-in-aid, a grant from the Road Fund for road research purposes. This year, the grant towards road research forms part of the grant-in-aid under Subhead I of the Vote. Other items of expenditure formerly paid out of the Road Fund are, as I mentioned, now provided for in other votes. For example, certain Garda expenses and the cost of printing of road tax discs are borne on the Garda and Revenue Commissioners Votes respectively.
The number of mechanically propelled vehicles under licence in the State continues to increase. In 1977 the total was 747,670 which represents an increase of 3.1 per cent over the number licensed in 1976. Traffic volumes created by a vehicle population of this size place a heavy burden on our road network particularly in urban areas. While, in the longer term, the problem is being tackled by the provision of new roads, bridges and other major improvement works, appropriate traffic management measures aimed at ensuring the best possible use of our existing road and street networks are being developed particularly in the major urban area. Traffic wardens can play an important role in the traffic management process. The Local Authorities (Traffic Wardens) Act, 1975, is being implemented already in Dundalk, Galway, Limerick, Naas, Ennis, Tullamore, Tralee and by Tipperary (SR) County Council while some other local authorities are considering its adoption.
The cycle of speed limit reviews has continued on a county-by-county basis. Amending regulations have now been made in respect of 12 counties. The criteria used in determining speed limits are being monitored. I propose to have a comprehensive review undertaken on completion of the current cycle. During the year I launched a new system of informative signs. As a first stage a pilot scheme is being carried out on the Dublin-Sligo route. The development of the system on other national routes will continue during 1978.
I would like to take this opportunity to refer to what is commonly known as the breathalyser. I want to correct any wrong impressions there may be following recent events. In common with most countries, Ireland, in the interest of road safety, seeks to prevent persons from driving mechanically-propelled vehicles while their capabilities are impaired following the consumption of alcohol. The dangers of such driving are well established. Our own road accident figures show that alcohol continues to play all too big a part in accidents. Persons suspected of so driving are screened by an apparatus which can show scientifically the presence of alcohol in the breath. A scientific test of their blood alcohol level follows where warranted. If the blood alcohol level exceeds the statutory limit, and our country's limit is a lenient one by international standards, a prosecution follows. The penalty on conviction includes a mandatory disqualification from driving of at least a year. The Director of Public Prosecutions however, found it necessary to suspend proceedings on the present basis, pending a reappraisal of the system. This appraisal gave rise to complex practical and constitutional questions. The basic issue in this whole matter is quite simple—the person who has drunk heavily should not drive because he is a danger to himself and others. I need hardly say that I regret the situation which has compelled the discontinuance for the moment of prosecutions based on blood alcohol level. I trust that it will not be long until this control over driving while under the influence of drink is made fully effective.
As Deputies are already aware there have been substantial increases in the grants to county councils for works under the Local Improvements Scheme. This should have a significant impact on employment in many rural areas. The provision in subhead J this year for the scheme is £1.75 millions compared with the £1 million provided in the 1977 budget.
Progress continues in implementation of the EEC Action Programme on the Environment. The programme which was adopted in November 1973, is now in its second phase. It envisages a range of activity aimed at reduction of pollution and the improvement of the environment, and linking up with environmental action on a world-wide basis. The emphasis so far has been on that part of the programme which relates to reduction of pollution and nuisances. At this stage several Community measures have been adopted. These include measures relating to control of polluting discharges to waters; standards for water quality according to intended use; limits on the sulphur content of certain gasoils; biological standards for lead and provision for lead screening of populations; control of wastes and planning for their disposal and the setting up of a European environmental information system to link up with United Nations arrangements for a worldwide information exchange system.
At a Council meeting which I attended on 12 December 1977 further measures approved in principle included proposals relating to disposal of toxic and dangerous wastes and waste from the titanium dioxide industry.
Viewed overall the Community Action Programme is wide and ambitious. Not all its provisions, nor all the measures coming forward under the programme are as important for Ireland as they are for other member states. This could apply, for example, to measures which are designed to deal with acute pollution conditions, or with particular problems of transfrontier pollution. It is our continuing concern to ensure that Community measures do not have the effect of imposing on development environmental obstacles which would not be warranted in our conditions. On the other hand real benefit is derived from investigation work under the programme. We benefit, too, from the measures which are designed to deal with environmental conditions or problems which we share with the other member states.
More fundamentally, it is important that there should be an environmental dimension to the Community efforts to improve social and economic conditions and that we should be part of that movement. We have been strong supporters of the Community Environment Programme. I envisage that this will continue even if, as I have explained, we sometimes have reservations about particular measures and their implications for us.
The Community work in study and research towards evaluation of pollution hazards and in the development of suitable criteria and objectives as a basis for scientific control measures is one of the most useful aspects of the activity. A European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has been set up to look to less immediate and more fundamental questions affecting the lives and jobs of people in the member states. This foundation is located in Ireland and is now fully operational in Loughlinstown House in Dún Laoghaire.
The environment is increasingly attracting the attention of international organisations. Under the United Nations Environment Programme a wide range of projects and studies of international interest is undertaken relating to environmental preservation, management and development, including the rational use of natural resources and social and economic impact of environmental measures. This programme is financed from a special fund based on voluntary contributions from national Governments. Ireland's contribution to this fund in 1978 will be £12,000. Provision for this is made in subhead Q.
I am pleased to report major progress towards implementation of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act, 1977, which became law on 15 March last. Commencement Orders have been made bringing virtually all sections of the Act into operation. The important sections which govern the licensing of discharges to waters and to sewers come into operation on 1 April 1978. I have already recently made an order fixing 1 October 1978 and 1 January 1979, respectively, as dates after which it will be an offence to make licensable discharges to waters or to sewers other than in accordance with the provisions of the Act.
The stage is now set for the operation of the control systems which have for so long been needed to safeguard and, where necessary, improve the quality of the water in our rivers, lakes and coastal areas. Local authorities, who have the main control functions under the legislation, are in the course of finalising their arrangements for the effective operation of the controls. Publicity aimed at creating a greater public awareness of the need to avoid water pollution will be an essential element in the overall effort. This is an area in which the Water Pollution Advisory Council will, I am sure, be of valuable assistance. The council have a statutory role in advising me on any matter relevant to my functions and responsibility concerning control of water pollution. Its membership is widely representative of industrial, fishery, agricultural, scientific, tourism, conservation and local authority interests as well as of Government Departments and semi-State bodies.
Arrangements by local authorities for air quality monitoring have now been developed to the stage that concentrations of sulphur dioxide and smoke in the ambient air are recorded at some 30 monitoring stations in the main urban areas. Dublin Corporation also operates a number of atmospheric lead stations. It is satisfactory that the concentrations of sulphur and smoke recorded in our cities and towns compare favourably with proposed EEC air quality standards. It is, of course, my aim to keep air pollution level as low as possible. The need for specific measures to supplement existing controls will be kept under review.
We are fortunate that there has been no recent serious spillage of oil affecting our coast. The contingency arrangements made by maritime local authorities and harbour authorities for clearance of oil pollution are kept under constant review and are developed as necessary. My Department ensure that the overall arrangements for clearance of oil pollution from coastal areas by the various bodies concerned, including the Sea Unit in the Department of Defence, are properly co-ordinated. In doing this we have the help of a liaison committee on which the various interests are represented. The £75,000 provided for oil pollution in subhead Q is required to assist maritime local authorities and harbour authorities in dealing with oil spillages, including the purchase of additional equipment and materials.
The collection and disposal of waste poses serious environmental problems. The problems tend to grow with the increase in population and in living standards as well as through industrialisation and the modernisation of agricultural practices. The acquisition of suitable sites for waste disposal within a reasonable distance of the larger urban areas is becoming more difficult and more costly. People have higher environmental expectations now. The insensitive selection of waste disposal sites or their poor management is no longer acceptable. Technical officers from my Department have been visiting local authorities for the purpose of advising on modern tipping standards and site management.
It is necessary to think about a more positive planning provision for waste. Local authorities have been asked to prepare provisional statements indicating the volumes and types of waste arising in their areas and how it is handled. I hope in the near future to circulate additional advice and guidance to local authorities to assist them in preparing local waste disposal plans.
Some industrial wastes, in particular, may be toxic or dangerous. This is an area which requires special attention. A study is being made to get better information on the incidence of industrial waste and on disposal practices. This will improve the basis for planning and help to identify control requirements.
An examination in the light of modern requirements of the existing statutory provisions relating to waste collection and disposal has reached an advanced stage in my Department. I hope to be in a position in the near future to formulate new measures and to introduce any necessary proposals. These include provision for giving effect to a number of EEC directives on waste.
If we have an endemic pollution problem, it is litter and the associated ills of graffiti and defacement of public and private property by slogan writing. Certainly these are the most persisent and widespread forms of pollution. They degrade our surroundings. They do us a lot of harm in the judgment of people who visit this country, whether on holidays or on business.
I know that many local authorities are making strenuous efforts to control these problems. They have had only limited success. Their efforts must be maintained and intensified in many cases. Local authorities can give a strong lead by direct action and by exhortation. I believe that many voluntary bodies and associations are now keenly interested in problems of this kind and willing to help. I would like to see more local authorities maintaining liaison with such interests and encouraging them, as I know some local authorities already do. Local authorities alone cannot solve these problems. The public generally must become more thoughtful. Care to use litter bins and to avoid throwing of cartons, papers, sweet and crisp wrappings, bus tickets and such like on the streets is essential. Better example by parents and encouragement of their children to be more civic minded would bring a big improvement.
As I have already said, I shall be moving a Supplementary Estimate at the conclusion of this debate. The major item in the Supplementary Estimate is the £4 million required for the programme of environmental improvement schemes. The programme is a further one of the proposals for youth employment put forward by the Employment Action Team for which a special allocation of £5 million was provided in the budget. The programme, which will be carried out by local authorities, is expected to provide short-term employment equivalent to 1,000 jobs of one year's duration. Allocations totalling £4 million have been notified to city and county managers for suitable works in local authority areas. These allocations will cover the full cost of the works undertaken.
Works under the programme will have a high employment content. They will be of environmental, recreational or amenity value to the community. Examples of projects which could be carried out include the provision of parks, open spaces, playing fields, playgrounds, other sports facilities, picnic sites, car parks in areas of scenic attraction or recreational utility and operations which would improve environmental standards and cleanliness. Unemployed persons will be engaged on the schemes and three out of every four will be young persons. Participants will be recruited through the National Manpower Service of the Department of Labour.
In addition to giving worthwhile employment mainly to young people, the programme will make a significant contribution to improvement of the quality of life and achievement of a cleaner environment. The programme fits in well with my special interest, as Minister for the Environment, with the promotion of activities and projects of environmental benefit.
Subhead G of the original Estimate makes provision for £305,000 for environmental works and dangerous places. As part of the job-creation package announced by the Government last July, a sum of £500,000 was allocated to local authorities for environmental works in their areas. Payment to local authorities on foot of these allocations has spilled over into 1978.
I should now like to deal briefly with the subject of planning and development. The provision of the infrastructure necessary to meet present and future requirements will make great demands on resources, particularly in the case of priority services such as housing, roads and sanitary services. One of my principal concerns is to secure a fair share of resources for these services. However, the fact is that we do not have, and probably never will have, at our disposal all the resources we would like to meet all demands. This makes it essential that priorities for investment are accurately selected and soundly based on social and economic criteria. Our population is now rising substantially and consistently. There is a continuing decline in the numbers engaged in agriculture. We must look to the industrial and services sectors to provide the many new jobs that will be required to cater for our growing population. Most of the projected increase in population will have to be accommodated in urban areas.
The first five-yearly review of development plans required under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1963 has been completed in most areas. It is expected that the reviews in the remaining areas will be completed in the near future. In fact the majority of development plans are now being reviewed for the second time.
The regional development organisations continue their work. A number of useful projects were completed during the year. An important role for the organisations is that of assisting their relevant local authorities and other bodies in co-ordinating their development plans and investment programmes to deal with the expansion prospects I have referred to earlier. Assistance in working out and deciding priorities is one of the purpose for which the organisations were set up some years ago. My Department will contribute £38,000 towards their running costs in 1978.
An Bord Pleanála was established on 1 January, 1977 and took over responsibility for appeal functions on 15 March, 1977. The board has set about its task with commendable energy and has operated smoothly to date. The operations of the board have been facilitated by the arrangement whereby staffing services have been made available from the resources of my Department. Provision is made in my Department's estimates for the payment in 1978 of a grant of £137,000 to the board. The purpose of this grant is to meet the direct administrative and general expenses of the board including remuneration of the board members.
The amount of the grant-in-aid provided for An Foras Forbartha this year is £1.261 million. This sum represents the total contribution by my Department towards the administration and general expenses of An Foras in 1978. In previous years the expenses of An Foras were financed partly by the voted grant-in-aid and partly by a contribution from the Road Fund. As I have already mentioned the Road Fund has been terminated with effect from 1 January, 1978 and alternative arrangements now operate to meet expenses formerly borne on the fund.
During the past year, An Foras continued its research work in the fields of planning, construction, roads, water resources and general environmental matters. The Foras has a substantial programme for the dissemination of the results of this research work including the publication of reports.
Overall responsibility for the co-ordination and submission of projects for aid from the European Regional Fund lies with the Department of Finance. My Department is, however, involved in relation to suitable projects in the local authority sector. Since the fund was established in 1975, 74 local authority projects have been approved for fund aid. The projects have involved a financial commitment of £9.5 million, representing about 27 per cent of the Irish allocation. Assistance has been given to road improvement schemes, and water supply and sewerage schemes. The funds obtained from these and other schemes have been used to increase the resources available for infrastructural and industrial investment, particularly in the areas of greatest need.
I now come to the fire service. The present fire service goes back to 1940. With the passage of time, important changes affecting the service have taken place. The population is larger and more concentrated. So the risk of fire and fire spread has increased. New problems of a different kind are presented by changes in building styles and by the more complex industrial developments. All this calls for careful planning and provision. We must see to it that the fire fighting implications, no less than the pollution implications, of development in its various forms do not escape our attention.
All local authorities have been asked to conduct a comprehensive review of the operation of their fire services to determine how those services match up to the needs of to-day. Guidelines and advice on the conducting of these reviews were provided by my Department. At local level the reviews provide an opportunity of identifying any weaknesses or defects and of deciding what is to be done about them. They will also be studied in my Department with a view to deciding on any matters that call for central consideration. A number of local authorities have already submitted review reports and they are being examined. I am anxious that all the reviews should be completed as soon as possible. I am sure that local authorities appreciate that these reviews are likely to have a considerable influence on the development of their fire services, and will give the matter the close attention it deserves.
Training is very important in the fire service. Responsibility for it rests basically with the individual local authorities. Over the years however a certain amount of training for retained brigade personnel has been carried out centrally. An examination of the changes that might be made in the short-term in the central training arrangements has been conducted under the aegis of the Local Government Manpower Committee. I expect to receive their report soon. Some measures have been taken in advance of the report. They include a special arrangement for the training of a number of fire service personnel as instructors in the use of breathing apparatus. The question of further central training support will be considered in the light of the committee's report.
Guidelines on fire station design have been issued to local authorities to assíst them in deciding on the type and standard of facilities that should be considered in a modern station. The improvement of the service may of course require considerable investment in stations and appliances.
I believe that it is in the area of fire prevention that the greatest need exists. It offers much potential for reducing suffering and loss of life from fire. It could cut the economic loss, estimated to be in the region of some £15 million a year, which fire causes in terms of destruction, loss of employment and interruption of business life. I would like to avail of this opportunity to appeal to all local authorities to review closely their programmes in fire prevention work and to consider how they match up to the needs of the local situation. I am thinking, in particular, about the need for routine fire safety inspections in institutions, hotels and places of public resort. I include as well flats and converted premises. There is an equal need to be alert to the fire safety aspects of new development projects.
My Department arranged for public distribution before Christmas through local authorities of over 400,000 copies of a leaflet on Fire Dangers in the Home. I am at present considering with the fire insurance interests the possibility of more being done to promote a better awareness of fire hazards. But there is no substitute, to my mind, for routine local inspections, advice and, where necessary, enforcement of fire safety requirements. That is why I appeal, as I do, for an extra effort from local authorities in this area.
The Local Government Computer Services Board was established in October 1975 to co-ordinate the use of computers among local authorities. The decision to set up the board was prompted by a number of factors. It was important to avoid unnecessary expenditure and duplication of effort in this highly specialised field. There was a need to ensure that computer use in the local government sector should develop in a planned and effective way.
The membership of the board consists of a majority of county managers together with officers of my Department and of the Department of the Public Service. Its finances are derived from a levy charged on local authorities and charges made for the services provided for local authorities. At present, the board is engaged in a major project involving the installation of computers by nine county councils. I am particularly gratified that the Board has received the wholehearted co-operation and support of local authorities generally in the work that it is doing. It represents in my view a very good example of what can be achieved by partnership between local authorities themselves and between them and my Department.
Detailed instructions have been issued by my Department to local authorities regarding the implementation of amendments in superannuation conditions of local authority employees as recommended by the Working Party on Local Authority Superannuation. Most of the amendments form part of a package for which each existing pensionable local authority employee may exercise an option by 31 May 1978. The amendments will apply automatically to persons appointed or employed in pensionable capacities on or after 1 June 1978. The general aim is that the superannuation conditions of local authority officers should be brought into line with the superannuation conditions applicable in the civil service and in certain other branches of the public service. Furthermore the superannuation conditions of manual workers should be brought into line as far as possible with those applicable to local authority officers.
A number of improvements in superannuation conditions will accrue to manual workers who opt for the new arrangements. These include the payment of a lump sum on retirement, the right to join a widows' and orphans' pension scheme, the reckonability of certain past service which was ruled out by the superannuation arrangements prevailing at the time and the introduction of added years for workers who are forced to retire early because of permanent infirmity. Both officers and manual workers will be able to benefit from a number of other changes. Among these are the payment of maximum lump sum after 40 years' service, the right to a preserved pension in the case of voluntary retirement before age 60 and the reduction to five years of the qualifying period for pension and lump sum.
Sub-head H provides £255,000 for the recoupment to county councils and county borough corporations of half the cost of compiling and publishing the register of electors. The register is prepared annually. It is published in final form on 1 April each year and comes into force on 15 April following. The register coming into force next April will have the distinction of being the first register of European Assembly electors. Irish citizens and nationals of the other member states ordinarily resident here will have the right to vote in Assembly elections. Such nationals will be distinguished by the letters (LE) on the register.
I would now like to refer briefly to the local authority library service. The provision in subhead Q for payments to An Chomhairle Leabharlanna in 1978 is £250,000. All but £2,500 of this is the subsidy on loan charges incurred on capital expenditure on the public library service and on rent paid on premises leased for library purposes. The balance of £2,500 represents the annual statutory grant towards the administration and general expenses of An Chomhairle.
A total of 68 swimming pools have been provided in recent years by, or with assistance from, local authorities. Two further pools are under construction and a number of proposals are at various stages of planning. Subsidy at the rate of 50 per cent is paid by my Department towards loan charges incurred by local authorities on loans to finance the construction of their own pools or to make contributions to local voluntary groups providing pools. The subsidy is met from subhead F.1 in which £220,000 has been included for swimming pools in 1978. The running costs of swimming pools continue to rise. Despite the generous subsidy considerable annual losses have to be met by local authorities. Swimming is one of the most beneficial recreational activities available. Bearing this in mind it is imperative that every effort be made to encourage the greatest possible use of our pools.
The Irish Water Safety Association has been now in existence for over seven years. I am glad to say that the association continues with its task of making the public aware of the need for water safety and of promoting swimming activities. Subhead Q provides for a grant of £32,000 to the association this year.
Under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1976 local planning authorities may assist bodies or persons providing homes or shelters for stray or unwanted dogs or cats, or the authorities may themselves provide such facilities. Stray dogs and cats have now become a problem in a number of areas. Local authorities have no direct functions in regard to licensing and control of numbers. Nevertheless I would like to see them play an appropriate role in helping to deal with the problem where it has emerged. The provision of £110,000 in subhead Q to enable the provision of homes and shelters to be encouraged and supported is new. I expect to advise local planning authorities in the near future of the introduction of a scheme of grant assistance towards approved costs incurred by them in the exercise of the new powers to which I have referred. I am also in consultation with the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to which my Department will look for advice and assistance in operating the scheme.
The only significant expenditure to which I have not yet specifically referred is that related to the administration and general expenses of my Department. These are provided for in subheads A.1, A.2. B, C and D. The combined amount of these five subheads for 1978 is £4.863 million or £352,000 more than the corresponding provision in 1977. Speaking of departmental administration leads me to the one remaining topic on which I should like to say something before concluding. This is the implications of the change in the name of my Department to which I now turn.
I have already stressed that the change in the name of my Department does not mean that I will be any less concerned than my predecessors with local government affairs. On the contrary it underlines how much the fate of the physical environment and the workings of the local government system are bound up together. Designation of a Department of the Environment is a formal recognition of something more than the fact that clean and healthy surroundings are important for tourism and make the country a more attractive investment location. The maintenance of a good environment is something we want and must ensure, for ourselves and for our families, independently of any other consideration.
As Minister for the Environment, I will have a general responsibility to promote the protection and improvement of the physical environment. I will be undertaking tasks in a number of specific areas on foot of this responsibility. The means already available to me for influencing the environment will be the local government system including physical planning, pollution control and the various programmes for the provision of infrastructure, amenities and community facilities. These activities, with the local authority programmes in housing and roads, have a profound influence on the condition of the physical environment. The capacity of the system to look to the interests of the environment has been improved by recent legislation in such areas as planning and control of water pollution. Additional environmental legislation is under consideration. It is evident, however, that the local government system alone cannot guarantee that the interests of the environment will be properly regarded in all respects.
The threat of damage to the environment is generally seen as being related to expansion in industry and other forms of development, to changes in agriculture and to such circumstances as the increasing use of certain kinds of chemical substances. I do not hold to the view that material progress on the one hand, and environmental quality on the other are incompatible. The basic aim must be to achieve balance and consistency between the goals of economic and social development and the interests of the environment. Both are essential to the quality of life in this country. This means that no form of development can be let loose to prey on our physical resources, whether they be landscapes or resources of water, air or soil and that there must be good quality in planning and design. It means there must be attention to development of community and amenity facilities as well as to the observance of necessary pollution control standards. It also means that the basic objectives of Government policy in regard to economic development and job creation should not be frustrated or impeded by trivial or unreasonable environmental opposition.
There are issues here which touch on the functions of several Ministers and on the work of several Departments. There is need for a national environmental policy which will address itself to the major questions relating to environmental quality in this country. The policy should indicate the aims of Government action in this area and the means to be adopted. It will be my function, in consultation with other Ministers concerned, to prepare such a policy for Government approval and to keep the policy under review. I must stress that it will be no part of my function to duplicate the functions or arrangements of other Ministers. Nor for that matter will it be any part of my role to relieve them of responsibility for the environmental implications of the policies and programmes of their Departments and of related agencies. My function in this area will be one of consultation and co-ordination. The settlement of the objectives of environmental policy will be a matter for Government consideration. The involvement in this area of several Departments and their associated public bodies underlines the importance of having effective liaison and communication between Departments in regard to environmental business. I see it as an important part of my function to promote co-operation in this regard.
I would like to see more and fuller information made available from time to time to show trends in environmental quality, particularly as regards resources likely to be affected by pollution. It is my intention that reports on the state of the environment, or aspects of it, should be made available periodically. These should be a valuable pointer to the success of the pollution control programme and the need for any additional measures.
I will also, as Minister for the Environment, have a special interest in encouraging or promoting activities or projects of environmental benefit as the opportunity arises. In this connection I have already mentioned the environmental improvement works for which a sum of £4 million will be available to local authorities this year from the special provision for the employment of young people under the job creation programme.
It is clear that the question of environmental policy will be of concern to a variety of interests. There will be a variety of points of view as to what is needed and how the needs should be approached. I intend to set up an environment council to advise me in the exercise of the functions which I have described. I envisage that the council will have an active and important role bearing on the new and wider responsibilities which I have outlined. The council will be serviced by a staff unit in my Department.
The arrangements necessary to give effect to the various initiatives to which I have referred will take some time. It will however, be my aim that they should be completed without any avoidable delay. But of course valuable and practical work is going on. For example I have recently received a report on pollution control from an interdepartmental environment committee. The report contains a range of information which is not otherwise available in one piece and should be a useful work of reference and information. It indicates the complexity of the pollution question and the extent of the efforts being made to deal with it— considerations not always appreciated. I am arranging for the report to be published.
The report contains a number of specific recommendations and arrangements are in hands for their consideration in consultation with the Departments concerned. The interdepartmental committee will continue as a means of communication and co-ordination between Departments. It will provide such input as may be needed to the working of the environmental council.