That a sum not exceeding £656,924,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1984, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for the Environment, including grants in lieu of rates on agricultural land and other grants to Local Authorities, grants and other expenses in connection with housing, and miscellaneous schemes, subsidies and grants including certain grants-in-aid.
I welcome this opportunity — my first one as the Minister concerned — to debate the areas of responsibility relating to the Vote of the Department of the Environment.
In addition to the present Estimate of almost £657 million, the Government are providing over £465 million for non-voted capital services in 1984. Apart from the subhead breakdown given in the Estimates volume, it may be helpful to Deputies if I indicate the main classifications of the overall expenditure to which the Vote relates.
1. Grants and recoupments to local authorities — £426,640,000, 62 per cent of the total; 2. subsidies to local authorities for loan charges for specific services — £195,529,000, 29 per cent of the total; 3. grants to voluntary, semi-state and international bodies — £6,724,000, 1 per cent; 4. direct departmental payments —£44,008,000, 6 per cent; 5. Departmental administration — £13,307,000, 2 per cent.
Local authorities make an important and indispensible contribution to national life in various areas of their traditional responsibilities, and the principal purpose of this Vote is to channel resources to them for these purposes. I will be speaking later in more detail about particular programmes. At this stage I want to make the general point that the Government rely heavily on local authorities, as all Governments have done, to give effect to important national policies and objectives in such key areas as housing, roads development, provision of services and infrastructure as well as in a variety of other areas such as planning, environmental protection and fire safety. Much of this tends to be taken for granted and, indeed, local authorities come in for their share of public criticism. Not all the criticism may be groundless, but it is only right to remind ourselves of the extent of Government and public dependence on local authorities for the delivery of services which are necessary supports for everyday living or which constitute essential infrastructure for development.
The scale of local authorities' responsibilities and their development over the years has led to a situation in which they have become very important centres of economic and social activity decentralised throughout the country. In 1983 local authorities were responsible for aggregate spending on current and capital purposes in the region of £1.4 billion and for employment in the region of 35,000 people. Again much of this tends to be taken for granted, but it needs to be stressed that the importance of local authority work relates not just to the provision of housing, the development of infrastructure and administration of services — fundamentally important though all of these are — but also to the benefits derived in all parts of the country from their expenditures and from the employment which they provide.
It is inevitable that the maintenance of services and of employment in the current economic difficulties presents special problems. I can say, even with the benefit of a brief spell in the Department, that I am fully aware of the serious financial difficulties which are facing local authorities. These difficulties relate in the first place to the general financial constraints to which public bodies are necessarily subject at present. The local authority problems are, however, compounded by particular circumstances. These circumstances include the decision to abolish rates on domestic premises in 1978 without introducing a viable and sustainable alternative system of local financing. This was followed by the withholding of rates on agricultural land on a considerable scale and the Supreme Court decision which has the effect of setting aside agricultural rates as at present operated. These developments have caused serious problems in local authority finances and we have to work our way through this, both in immediate terms and in terms of a longer term solution.
As an immediate response the Government put an additional £31.5 million into supporting the local authority rating situation in 1983 as a special measure. This additional provision is maintained for 1984 and a supplement of £2.27 million is added. State grants and subsidies to local authorities for 1984 will be up by 10.3 per cent or £52 million on 1983. Between voted provisions and borrowing authorisation, capital allocations also will be increased by £12.5 million in spite of the curtailments arising from the need to restore overall borrowing to more manageable proportions.
I believe that these provisions, combined with greater competitiveness in tendering for local authority contracts, will enable the authorities to maintain the level of employment and services at or close to existing levels in the short term, provided there is appropriate complementary action at local level. Councils must be willing to make reasonable use of the extended powers which they have been given to raise revenues locally, and they must be diligent in collecting funds due to them. I stress reasonable use; I have no wish to see local rates or charges raised to inordinate levels, but there has to be some correlation between the demand for local services and the readiness to finance them from local sources, and this reality has to be faced. The second requirement for local action is that the best possible return be secured for expenditure in terms of employment and output. This requires programmes at local authority level for eliminating waste and for promoting cost-effective procedures across the board — in administration; in the design and carrying out of works; in the area of standards; in the use of plant and machinery, and so on. I know that a lot of belt-tightening has already been done, but no local authority can afford to rest on this. I appeal to all to redouble their efforts to maintain services and employment within the constraints of the restricted budgets within which they have to operate. This is a considerable challenge, but I have no doubt that local authorities will respond to it positively and successfully by proceeding on the lines which I have outlined.
I mentioned the need, additional to immediate measures, to seek a more satisfactory system for local authority financing for the medium and longer terms. The situation has now been reached in which almost two-thirds of all local authority spending on current account is recouped from the Exchequer compared with less than 40 per cent in 1976. It is evident that from the Exchequer point of view, and given all the other demands which have to be accommodated, this trend cannot be allowed to continue. There is also the prospect that a local government system which fails to retain a substantial degree of financial independence is in danger also of losing drive and vitality. A basic review of local authority financing is therefore in hand as part of a general review of local government. We should have no illusions about the outcome of this in terms of the possibility of finding easy sources of additional local authority finance. There are no easy solutions, but it is essential that we devise a more stable system for local authority financing which will match their needs and support their independence as far as possible. It must also be a fair system in terms of the sharing of the financial burden as between central and local sources and as between the various sectors of society benefiting from the services provided by councils locally.
I have mentioned the question of reorganisation in the local government system. There has been considerable debate on this both in the Seanad and in this House that the Government are fully comdecision that the local elections should be deferred for a year to facilitate the reform work and the debate in this House is continuing. I will confine myself, therefore, on this occasion to assuring the House that the Government is fully committed to reforming the local government system and to improving it not only as regards financing but also in terms of organisation and operation generally. This is partly a question of updating institutions which have stood without major change for a long time while great changes have taken place in their functions and in the environment in which they have to work. There are, however, other major needs. We have to see what changes will help to make the system more responsive to public needs and more effective in the delivery of services. And we have to see how the democratic purpose which is at the heart of the system can be reinforced. There is, for example, an obvious need for closer local government representation in the rapidly developing areas to the west of Dublin. But large scale urban expansion has affected the delivery of services and the democratic representation in many other urban areas, and we have to examine their needs as well. I would like to see much closer working relations between local authorities and the community organisations which are an increasingly prominent feature in modern society.
I will be having discussions in the near future with local government interests regarding reorganisation, and it is my intention that comprehensive proposals for reform will be brought forward at the earliest possible date. I will now deal in more detail with the programmes for which my Department is responsible.
It is common knowledge that building and construction have suffered a significant decline in output and employment in recent years, and I am concerned to see that decline halted and growth resumed as soon as possible. Indeed, I am optimistic that we may see the beginning of renewed growth — the erosion of which was a primary factor in the drying up of private investment at the onset of the recession and contributed to the adverse effects on the building industry over the past three years. The restoration of confidence, therefore, can make a big contribution towards inducing more private investment in the coming year. I believe that the process of renewing confidence is now under way and that there is greater business confidence abroad today than was the case a year ago — both on the general economic outlook, because of this Government's determination to restore the balance of the country's finances, and on the Government's ability to map the road forward to renewed economic growth.
As the fall in activity during the recession occurred in the private sector of the industry, so too must growth come through increased private sector demand and private sector investment. Public capital investment in the industry grew at an exceptional rate right up to 1982 and was maintained at a very high level in 1983. In 1984, investment from public funds will still be high, and particularly so in the areas administered by my Department, namely housing, roads and sanitary services which between them account for about 60 per cent of all building industry output.
In the future there will have to be much greater emphasis on ensuring, in the first place, that capital will be spent on the most necessary and purposeful projects and, secondly, that it will be expended in the most beneficial and cost effective manner. We must get a greater return on the State's investment and aim to secure more output and more employment in the building industry.
Let us briefly look at some of the grounds for optimism for the future. Firstly there has been a very significant fall in the rate of inflation. We are also benefiting from reduced interest rates. The changes introduced in the budget by the Minister for Finance relating to the stock relief concession are of major significance for firms in the building industry. The evidence is that there will again be an adequate supply of funds from the building societies at interest rates which are the lowest for years. Additional funds are also being made available this year both for Housing Finance Agency operations and for SDA loans. The eligibility limits for SDA loans have also been raised as a further incentive. Road improvement grants are up by about 5 per cent and the capital provision for sanitary services will be maintained at the same level as the outturn for 1983. The capital allocation for local authority housing will be the highest ever. Overall housing output which accounts for over 40 per cent of total construction output is holding steady. I am confident that the total moneys available from all sources for housing for 1984 will maintain output at current high levels. In the budget we provided an additional £18.4 million of capital, £14 million of which was for services for which my Department is responsible — £8 million for roads and £6 million for housing. An extra £2 million was provided for the construction of a deepwater berth at Ringaskiddy, a further £2 million was made available for primary school buildings; £300,000 for Galway Airport and £100,000 for harbour improvements to enhance the response capability of the marine rescue services.
The major stimulus to increased activity in building and construction must come from a revival of the private sector, and this will come about in part as a consequence of the responsible, positive financial policies pursued by this Government. In brief the private sector now has a Government pursuing the policies, even though not necessarily always popular ones, in which it can have confidence. I have no doubt that it will respond accordingly.
Of course, I will not be confining myself merely to the year ahead in considering the welfare of the industry. I expect to have available to me very shortly the report on the industry which was commissioned by the Sectoral Development Committee a couple of years ago. I will be very concerned to have its recommendations examined with all speed, including necessary contact and exchange of views with the various representatives of trade unions, employers and professional bodies.
The Building Control Bill, 1984, was circulated on 9 February last and will no doubt be fully debated during its progress through the House. The purpose of the Bill is to provide a new statutory basis for the making of building regulations by extending the purposes for which they can be made to include energy conservation, the needs of the disabled, the efficient use of resources and the encouragement of good building practice. The Bill also provides for a more flexible system of control to administer the regulations.
Housing is one of the four major areas of social expenditure by the Government, ranking after social welfare, health and education. This year, provision has been made for expenditure, capital and current, by my Department on housing totalling over £550 million pounds — some 10 per cent higher than in 1983. This figure of £550 million does not include the further substantial cost to the Exchequer resulting from the various tax concessions applicable to the housing sector.
The vast and varied range of State support for housing is aimed at attaining the central objective of national housing policy, namely, that every household be able to obtain a suitable dwelling at a price or rent they can afford. With a growing population, Ireland will continue to require a high level of house construction over the years ahead. The main thrust of policy will therefore be to maximise new housing output, and, within the resources available, to promote the conservation and improvement of older houses in the existing stock. Results from the 1981 census confirm the continued improvement of housing conditions generally, whether measured in terms of the availability of the basic amenities, overcrowding, heating or the average age of the stock. However, despite this overall improvement in housing standards there are still too many in our community who are inadequately housed — as is evidenced by the 30,000 families on local authority waiting lists or, in the case of the homeless, not housed at all. For these, who are among the more deprived sections of society, we must continue to devote the maximum possible resources towards providing for their needs through the local authority housing programme. For those who can afford to house themselves in the private sector, we must continue to provide the appropriate level of incentive and assistance.
As I have said, Government expenditure on the housing programme is generally classified as being social in character. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is also in its own right an industry of prime economic significance. Housing now accounts for over 40 per cent of total building industry output and it has a relatively high employment content. Apart from the direct and indirect economic benefits which flow from investment in housing it should also be remembered that it gives rise to further induced effects on other sectors of the economy, and can therefore be an effective promoter of growth in the economy generally.
Even allowing for the fact that our rate of population growth demands a relatively high level of house construction by international standards, I think that the performance of the housing sector over the last three years of economic recession has been remarkably good. For example, in 1982 we built 7.7 houses per 1,000 inhabitants compared to 3.2 in the UK and an EEC average of 5.3. In 1983 total housing completions — public and private — were 26,138, just below the 1982 level. While it had been anticipated that the increased capital provision for local authority housing would increase activity in that programme, the resilience of the private side was something that might not have been expected in the prevailing economic conditions.
The record capital provision of £208 million for local authority housing in 1983 showed the Government's strong commitment to this programme. This commitment bore fruit not only in terms of the 6,190 houses that were completed in 1983 but also in terms of houses in progress and employment on the programme. Last year's completions were 500 up on 1982, houses in progress at the end of the year numbered 8,354 compared with 7,460 a year earlier, and average direct employment on the programme was 6,400 — or 500 extra jobs. A sum of £211 million has been provided in the capital budget to finance the local authority house building programme in 1984. I am confident that having regard to the good value currently being obtained in tenders for local authority housing contracts, this level of finance will be adequate to maintain the programme at the existing high levels without any decline in the high standard of the dwellings provided.
My Department are now working on the first stage of allocating this year's total annual provision between the various housing authorities to finance expenditure, and I will be notifying authorities of their initial allocations shortly. Each authority will, shortly, be requested to submit a claim for anticipated expenditure on new house starts in 1984.
The Government have put particular emphasis on the need to obtain the best return on public capital expenditure, and this must also apply to the local authority housing programme. My Department introduced during 1983 a series of measures intended to facilitate additional monitoring of the cost of the programme to pinpoint any instances of wasteful expenditure. The measures were twofold; firstly, steps were taken to ensure at the design stage of each housing scheme that the cost implications of each design decision are thoroughly assessed in order that the most cost effective solution be implemented.
Secondly, certain modifications in the existing procedures for monitoring and controlling expenditure on schemes during the course of construction were introduced with effect from 1 January 1984. With this two-pronged approach, I am confident that we can maximise the return on investment in the local authority housing programme in the years ahead, and that we shall see the first benefits of the new procedures during the course of 1984.
Apart from moneys provided for the construction of local authority houses through the public capital programme, this estimate provides a sum of over £154 million by way of a subsidy to meet in full the loan charges on capital spending on the programme. The increased subsidy provision for this year — up £30 million or 25 per cent on the 1983 expenditure of £124 million — is a reflection of the high level of capital expenditure on local authority housing over recent years and also a measure of the increasing cost to the State of providing decent housing for those who are unable to provide it for themselves.
I have already referred to the creditable performance of private enterprise housing which achieved almost 20,000 completions in 1983. During the past year, the decline in private housing completions that had occurred in 1982 eased off considerably. Furthermore, the usual advance indicators of future prospects began to show more favourable trends. For example, the level of new house loans approved by the building societies and of grants approved by the Department increased by 10 per cent and 13 per cent respectively. These trends, together with the more favourable economic outlook, give me grounds for optimism about the prospects for the private housing sector this year. I am confident that the downward slide that has been evident will be arrested and that perhaps completions will begin to grow again this year. I am glad to say that the provisional figures for all house completions in the month of January show a slight rise on the corresponding month last year.
This year's estimate provides the highest level of financial support ever for private housing. A sum of £11 million is earmarked for £1,000 grant payments and £20 million is being made available to meet demand under the mortgage subsidy scheme. Last year, new house grant approvals totalled 12,364 and mortgage subsidy approvals 11,793. At a time when there is unprecedented pressure to curtail public expenditure, it is a clear measure of the Government's commitment to the national housing programme that it has retained these levels of aids.
The continuance of a satisfactory flow of mortgage finance is of course, also crucial to the wellbeing of the private housing sector. I am glad to say that during 1983 a record total of about £560 million in mortgage finance was provided by lending agencies, both private and public, and I expect that about the same amount will be provided this year.
The building societies are continuing to contribute enormously to the supply of mortgage finance. In 1983, the societies paid out a sum in excess of £400 million on new and second-hand properties. This was the greatest amount ever advanced by the societies and was almost 40 per cent up on 1982. With loan approvals by societies also running at high levels and the inflow of funds holding up well, the outlook is good, and I expect that the societies will again provide in excess of £400 million in mortgage finance in 1984. This should fund about 17,000 loans for both new and existing houses. Also, it is encouraging that the building society mortgage interest rate, which stands generally at 11¾ per cent, is now at its lowest level for six years.
Mortgage finance from the banks and assurance companies declined further in 1983 and together they provided about £22 million, which was only about 4 per cent of total mortgage finance.
The Government are committed to providing a sufficient supply of mortgage finance from public sources to enable those on low and modest incomes, who would not otherwise be able to do so, to purchase homes of their own. They are fulfilling this commitment through the local authority and the Housing Finance Agency loan schemes for which a special additional sum of £6 million was made available in the budget — £3 million is being devoted to the local authority loans scheme bringing this year's capital allocation to £77.5 million which will fund about 5,700 loans. The other £3 million is being given to the Housing Finance Agency, bringing the agency's capital allocation to £63 million which will finance about 3,150 loans. The agency's actual expenditure last year was £55 million. The agency has successfully raised nearly £100 million for house purchase through the issue of index-linked bonds to financial institutions, pension funds, insurance companies, unit trusts, and so on. By so doing it has attracted substantial extra funds to the housing programme and brought house purchase within the reach of many families on modest incomes.
Up to the end of January the agency had paid almost 4,000 loans to a value of £76.5 million. As Deputies will be aware, I recently announced increases in the loan and income limits for local authority house purchase loans with effect from 1 February. The maximum ordinary loan which may be advanced has been increased from £14,000 to £16,000 and the maximum special category loan has been increased from £18,000 to £20,000. The income limit has gone up from £7,000 to £8,000. The new limits will be of particular benefit to housing in rural areas, where there is a much greater dependence on local authority loans.
I have so far been concentrating on the two main arms of the national housing programme since, between them, they are responsible for the vast bulk of house building activity. However, we must not forget the third arm of housing, namely, the voluntary housing movement. Compared to other countries, the scale of voluntary housing activities here has been small. However, where voluntary groups or organisations have undertaken the building of dwellings for the elderly or other special categories such as the handicapped or single parent families, they have been particularly successful both in terms of the costs and of the suitability of the accommodation provided. However, it has to be acknowledged that the earlier package of financial assistance available for voluntary housing projects has not worked satisfactorily.
Following a review of its operation in my Department and consultations with representatives of the voluntary housing movement, I was glad to be able to announce details of a new scheme of assistance for voluntary housing groups on 29 February. The new scheme will apply to accommodation provided for the elderly, the homeless and other special categories such as the handicapped, deserted wives, single parents and families on approved waiting lists. A housing authority will now be able to make loans to meet 80 per cent of the costs of an eligible project, subject to a maximum loan equivalent to £16,000 for each unit of accommodation provided, and the loan charges payable by the voluntary groups on foot of these loans will be recouped in full to local authorities by my Department. I expect this scheme, which is far better tailored to the requirements of the voluntary groups, to provide a considerable stimulus to voluntary housing, with resultant benefits to the elderly and other deprived groups for which they cater.
Another important development in housing policy took place last year with the setting up of the Rent Tribunal. The tribunal, which to date has heard nearly 100 cases, has the responsibility for fixing the rent and other terms of tenancy of dwellings which were formerly controlled under the Rent Restrictions Acts. The establishment of the Rent Tribunal was an important commitment in our Programme for Government in providing a new framework in which disputes between landlords and tenants can be determined without recourse to the courts. The estimate makes available £400,000 for the operation of the Rent Tribunal in 1984.
Over the past two years when house prices were falling in real terms it had become increasingly obvious that the circumstances under which the price control mechanism of the certificate of reasonable value system was introduced had changed radically and that the system was no longer serving an adequate purpose in terms of benefit to purchasers to offset disadvantages to builders. For these reasons, the Government decided to suspend the system and remove the requirement that a CRV or equivalent certificate be obtained for new house grants and loans, mortgage subsidy and exemption from stamp duty. The CRV system will, however, continue to be used for tax relief on new private rental dwellings under sections 23 and 24 of the Finance Act, 1981, as amended. I should stress that the controls are being suspended and not abolished. If it is found that house prices are once again rising out of line with genuine building costs, then consideration will be given to reintroucing the CRV or some other means of control.
I have already informed the House, during the debate on the Housing Bill, 1983, that I was undertaking a review of the provisions of Part III of the Housing Act, 1966 which governs the provision and management of local authority houses. In this review, particular attention is being given to the need for a better legislative framework within which the problem of homelessness and other forms of acute housing need can be effectively tackled. The new legislation being formulated will be incorporated in a miscellaneous Housing Bill which I intend to present to the Dáil later in the year.
The provision of reasonable accommodation for travelling people can be viewed as a special sub-programme within the housing area. Much has been achieved in this area over the past 20 years, but the work which remains to be done is still very substantial indeed. The report of the Travelling People Review Group was presented last May. A task force consisting of six Ministers of State, under the chairmanship of the Minister of State at my Department, has been considering the recommendations and how they might be implemented. This task force is in the process of finalising its report to the Government. Pending consideration of the whole issue by the Government, I do not propose to use this occasion to set out possible new policy initiatives or, indeed, to go over existing policy and programmes in detail. There are, however, a few points which I should like to place on record.
As things stand, my role in relation to the settlement of travelling families is to encourage and assist local authorities to meet their obligations towards this deprived section of our people and to provide the necessary finance to enable local authorities to implement their settlement proposals. A sum of £1.25 million of non-voted capital is being provided in 1984 to finance special schemes to accommodate travelling families, compared with an expenditure of almost £750,000 last year. I should point out, of course, that most travelling families are accommodated in standard housing which is financed as part of local authorities' normal housing programmes. Capital expenditure on special accommodation schemes, whether group housing or serviced sites, is subsidised in full by the State and provision for an expenditure of £1.734 million is made in the Vote for this purpose and to meet 90 per cent of the cost of social workers employed to assist in the settlement programme.
The full figures for the 1983 annual count of travelling families which was carried out by local authorities last November have not yet been made available to me. However, provisional figures indicate a reduction of about 100 in the total number of families on the roadside, including some reduction in the Dublin area. This is a welcome development although the number of families on the roadside is still far too high by any standards. The only solution is an accelerated programme to provide the necessary accommodation for these families, whether in normal housing, special group housing or on halting sites. When the full census results are available, and the policy aspects have been reviewed by the Government, I can assure the House that an appropriate programme of this kind will be mounted.
There has been much publicity in the media recently about the difficult situation in the Dublin area. While there is no denying the seriousness of this problem, it should be remembered that the local authorities concerned have accommodated over 400 families in houses, chalets and halting sites. My Minister of State met the Dublin city and county manager recently to discuss the situation and was fully briefed on the local authorities' progress to date in accommodating families and on their proposals for the future. The county council will be returning to their consideration of the issue at the end of March and I am hopeful that they will be able to authorise the commencement of work on a significant number of additional serviced sites and special group housing schemes. My Minister of State and I will continue to monitor developments in the Dublin area very closely.
Roads are by far our most important means of inland transport, conveying as they do over 90 per cent of all travel. Vehicle numbers now stand at three times their 1960 level and they are expected to double by the end of the century. The proper administration of the road system involves two broad elements: a programme of construction, maintenance and improvement to preserve and improve road condition and capacity, and sensible traffic management measures and controls to allow the safe and efficient use of our roads. Action on both fronts is being developed to a satisfactory degree.
Of the total Vote provision of £123.5 million, an increase of 5 per cent compared with 1983, £98 million will be spent on road improvement works — £6 million more than last year. Priority is being given to the improvement of the national routes and selected major works on other important routes. The benefits flowing from this rolling programme of major road investment include improved communications between the major population centres, easier access to the principal ports and harbours, improved travelling times on the major inter-urban routes and less traffic congestion in the larger cities and towns.
Major projects being continued this year include further work on the Cork-Mallow road; Redmond Bridge in Waterford; the ring road in Kilkenny; the Bandon Line road and bridges in Cork; the new Corrib Bridge and approaches in Galway; by-passes of Leighlinbridge, Midleton, Navan and Athlone; and in the Dublin area, by-passes of Swords, Palmerstown-Ballydowd and Cabinteely. Schemes due to commence in 1984 include stage 2 of the Santry by-pass; the Wexford by-pass; works from Dunkettle towards Carrigtwohill in County Cork and at Slieverue in County Kilkenny. These major works will be supplemented by a programme of improvements on other roads in the national road network as well as essential works on a number of other important major roads.
The accelerated rate of State investment in road works in recent years has allowed substantial progress to be made in implementing the Road Development Plan for the 1980's. A major review of the plan has now been completed in my Department and it will be considered by the Government over the next few months in the context of the preparation of the medium-term plan for the economy.
As well as providing for major capital investment in road construction and improvement, we must also preserve the investment of previous decades by an adequate programme of road maintenance. The Vote provision for road maintenance this year is £25.5 million and I am satisfied that it will permit a reasonable standard of maintenance on the national and other major routes. The block grant is at the same level as last year and the same conditions will apply.
A provision of £2.15 million is being made for the local improvement scheme in 1984. The scheme is being confined to farm road projects eligible for EEC aid in the western counties. This rationalisation of the local improvement scheme is consistent with the general aim of getting value for money and making the best use of our limited resources in the present difficult economic situation. The scheme will absorb the maximum EEC aid of £800,000.
Turning to the other aspect of roads administration, that of safety and the efficient management of road traffic, the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, 1983, has already passed Second Stage in the Dáil. It proposes to increase and update the level of penalties for a wide range of road traffic offences provided for under the Road Traffic Acts, 1961 to 1978. The road traffic offences covered range from dangerous, drunk and uninsured driving, to non-wearing of seat belts and parking violations.
In the area of road safety, some encouragement can be taken from the fact that since 1978 road fatalities have shown a downward trend, from 628 in that year to an estimated 523 in 1983, while the number of reported injuries has dropped from 9,313 to an estimated 7,515. This downturn trend reflects partly at least the efforts of the several public bodies concerned with improving road safety. An important feature of the ongoing roads programmes of local authorities has been the elimination of accident blackspots. Garda enforcement and the activities of the National Road Safety Association have also, I believe, contributed significantly to reducing accidents. The annual analysis by An Foras Forbartha of accident trends suggests that in recent years Garda enforcement of the drink driving laws in particular as well as the associated publicity campaigns by the National Road Safety Association have made a real impact. An Foras estimate that the operation of the drink driving provisions of the 1978 Road Traffic Act has resulted in 20 per cent fewer fatal accidents in the critical 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. period than might have occurred otherwise. In furtherance of the Government commitment last October in their announcement on the Motor Insurance Inquiry, I am reviewing the present legal limit of 100 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood with a view to its possible reduction.
Notwithstanding recent encouraging accident trends, there remains considerable scope for improvement in road safety. A greater level of individual awareness by the public could bring about a dramatic reduction, particularly in fatal and serious injury accidents, in a relatively short period. One example would be the greater use of safety belts by car drivers and passengers. It is worth repeating that the scientific evidence indicating the effectiveness of safety belts when properly worn in reducing the severity of injuries is incontrovertible. It is estimated that in this country as many as 50 lives could be saved every year if safety belt wearing rates went up to 90 per cent.
The development of a vehicle testing scheme for commercial vehicles has been an important contribution to road safety. This scheme was introduced to give effect to the terms of an EEC directive and became fully operational on 1 January 1983. Some 90 testing stations — generally private garages — have been appointed by local authorities throughout the country and are now testing over 3,000 vehicles each month. As a result a substantial improvement in vehicle maintenance standards is expected which, in turn, should result in a decrease in defect-related accidents, a reduction in the incidence of costly breakdowns and an increase in the life of vehicles. Better maintained vehicles will also consume less imported petroleum products.
The administration of the vehicle testing scheme is now being reviewed in light of the experience of it so far. We need some further experience of this scheme before we can consider the feasibility of a scheme for testing private cars.
The 1984 Public Capital Programme provision for sanitary services is £98.6 million. Non-voted loan capital accounts for £89.3 million of this amount and it will be utilised in the provision of water and sewerage schemes and contributions to private group water schemes by local authorities throughout the country. The balance of £9.3 million will be used for grants for private group water and sewerage schemes and for public water schemes designated for grant assistance under the Western Package of aid from the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund. Public water and sewerage systems have an important economic role in providing an adequate supply of serviced land for industry, housing, and so on. They also have roles in the maintenance of public health and in the protection of the aquatic environment. The average direct employment on construction of sanitary services schemes in 1984 is estimated at 1,930 compared to 1,900 in 1983. Additional indirect employment is generated with firms supplying materials and in the operation and maintenance of treatment works and distribution and collection systems.
The major public schemes being financed this year include Cork main drainage scheme; Blarney Road reservoir; Rathmichael water supply scheme, County Dublin; Improvements of Dublin water supply treatment works at Ballymore Eustace, Leixlip and Roundwood; Galway city west environs water scheme; Kilkenny main drainage scheme — Stage 2; Central Kerry water scheme (Killarney and Tralee); Listowel water scheme — Stage 2 (Ballybunion); Limerick city west water scheme; East Meath supply scheme and Castlebar water supply distribution scheme.
The major schemes which I have mentioned as being financed in the current year are just some of those schemes which have already been released. The capital provision for 1984, in addition to funding these and other schemes already under construction or at tender stage, will enable me to release further public schemes to a total value of the order of £40 million which will get to construction later this year and help to maintain the overall programme into 1985 at the high level it has now reached.
Aid continues to be paid under the Western Package of FEOGA to the public water supply schemes originally designated in 1981. I expect that the £3.3 million allocated for this purpose will be fully issued in 1984. The additional regional water supply schemes selected in 1983 were at Ballinamore, County Leitrim; Adrigole, County Cork; Castlemaine, County Kerry; and Mount Talbot, County Roscommon.
The subsidy to be paid by my Department in 1984 on loan charges incurred by local authorities on the approved cost of public water and sewerage schemes is estimated at over £36 million. This is an increase of about £6.6 million on the 1983 provision and reflects the continuing commitment to supporting sanitary authorities in financing the substantial annual loan charges generated by sanitary services investment.
The amount provided for grants for group water and sewerage schemes in 1984 is £6 million. Since the group scheme concept was developed in the late 1950s over 3,600 schemes have been completed and water piped to more than 112,000 houses and 84,000 farms. I expect that over 200 schemes will be completed this year. The scheme of FEOGA assistance for group schemes in the western region originally applied only to schemes started by the end of 1983. This programme has now been extended to cover schemes which start in the western region before 30 June 1985. The EEC recoups 50 per cent of the grants paid in these cases and this enables my Department to pay higher grants to eligible schemes in the region.
I now want to speak briefly about fire matters. The Government share the concern of all sections of the community to ensure the development of the fire service and the improvement of fire safety. That concern is clearly demonstrated by the increased financial provision contained in my Department's Estimates — a 25 per cent increase in capital and a 30 per cent increase in revenue expenditure — and by the recent establishment of the Fire Services Council.
The £7.5 million provision in the 1984 Public Capital Programme is 25 per cent more than last year's provision and three times the amount provided in 1981. This increase will finance the continuation of the expanded programme of fire station construction and of investment in fire fighting, communications, rescue and other emergency equipment. It is an indication of the level of activity that work is in progress on fire stations at 11 different locations. Work will commence this year at a further eight centres.
The Estimates of my Department include provision for a grant of £150,000 to the Fire Services Council which was established last June. In addition my Department are also providing staffing and accommodation for the council. This broadly-based council have been asked to take on a number of very important tasks, including the provision of central training courses and the preparation of a code of practice for fire safety in places of public assembly. They have been asked to carry out an urgent assessment of overall training needs including the need for a national training centre, a review of fire education needs for both the fire service and the architectural and engineering professions, and a review of the need for and the relative priority to be afforded to the preparation of guidelines and codes of practice dealing with fire fighting and fire safety. The council have made good progress in a short time particularly in the area of training. This year, they have a programme of 15 training courses which are being provided here, in the UK and in Denmark. This represents a substantial advance and will make a significant contribution to the development of the fire service.
I have encouraged the council to make speedy progress on the other areas of its work also and, in particular, I have asked that a draft code of practice for fire safety in places of public assembly should be prepared as soon as possible. A discussion document on this matter, which was prepared by my Department in consultation with the council, was widely circulated last August to interested persons and organisations. The document outlined the proposed approach to the preparation of fire safety regulations and associated code of practice for places of public assembly and gave an indication of the standards which it is proposed to adopt. The document was favourably received and comments on the proposals are being taken into account by the Fire Services Council in the preparation of the draft code of practice.
There is a provision of £1.46 million to provide a 50 per cent subsidy to fire authorities on loan charges for capital investment, which enables them to make progress on fire station projects and the purchase of equipment as well as releasing funds to help develop other aspects of the service.
A grant of £100,000, which is being matched by the Federation of Insurers, will enable the Fire Prevention Council to continue their very useful work on increasing awareness of fire dangers through publicity, advertising, leaflets and posters, conferences and seminars and a national Fire Safety Week, which last year for the first time incorporated a major national conference. This year the council is paying special attention to fire safety in hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, licensed premises, flats and small offices. I wish to thank the council for their valuable work and the Federation of Insurers for their continuing interest and support.
A sum of £15,000 for improving arrangements for mountain and cave rescue is provided for the first time this year. This provision is a well deserved recognition of the valuable public service being provided by the voluntary rescue groups. My Department chairs and provides the secretariat for the National Mountain Rescue Co-ordinating Committee which includes membership from and provides liaison between mountain and cave rescue organisations and public agencies.
Before leaving this topic, I want to pay tribute to the work of the fire service and to encourage everybody — proprietors, public authorities and the general public — to pay special attention to fire safety.
Development of various kinds can bring with it an increased risk of environmental degradation. Housing and industrial development can have a significant impact on landscape, countryside, water resources and air quality. So too can agricultural development with its new practices and intensified production methods. Population growth and increased urbanisation create their own demands on the environment. We need, therefore, to review our existing policies, programmes and legislation in all relevant areas so as to ensure that we can protect and improve the physical environment side by side with economic and social progress and with a view to ensuring that there will be a better quality of life for everybody now and in the future. This approach is fundamental to all of the activities of my Department.
The provision in the Vote for pollution control includes £16,000 for payment of a reduced level of State subsidy on the cost of transporting pig slurry from the Lough Sheelin area during 1984. There has been a major improvement in the water quality of the lake since the introduction of the transport scheme in 1980, clearly showing the direct relationship which had existed between the spreading of slurry when ground or weather conditions were unfavourable and the decline in water quality. State subsidy was provided as a purely temporary measure to ensure the success of the transport arrangements. These arrangements are now well established and from 1985 the full costs will be met by the pig producers. I welcome the commitment given by the Sheelin Farmers' Association in this regard and the undertaking to continue to remove the excess slurry, estimated at 16 million gallons a year, from the area. I hope that this responsible approach by the producers will secure even further improvements in water quality.
The recent water pollution problem in Ballyshannon highlights the need for greater care in the protection of our water resources generally. There is cause for concern at the deterioration in water quality which has taken place over the past ten years in a number of areas. The Water Pollution Advisory Council has submitted a comprehensive analysis of the situation with various recommendations for action. These are now being examined in my Department and it is my intention to plan a programme of restoration for all polluted waters as soon as possible.
Following a request from my Department, local authorities have been reviewing and updating their plans for dealing with emergencies of all kinds. These plans should contain procedures for ensuring that major pollution incidents can be dealt with effectively and I would urge local authorities to give special attention to this aspect, including the identification of potential pollution hazards. This should mean examining areas upstream of water abstraction points and visiting local farmers or industrialists to secure proper waste management practices. Very often pollution occurs through carelessness or ignorance and a continuing effort is needed to impress on those concerned the need for greater vigilance.
I am undertaking a special examination of the planning laws in relation to agricultural development with a view to tightening up on the exemption from the requirement to obtain planning permission which applies to certain development which has a major polluting potential. I also intend to circulate specific guidelines to local authorities on dealing with pollution incidents generally.
In the case of oil pollution, the Government have approved arrangements which are designed to ensure that we can launch an immediate and co-ordinated response to any major oil spillage which affects or threatens our shores. In such situations, the arrangements provide for overall control and direction of anti-pollution measures by a small operations group under the guidance of a senior technical officer of my Department. Local and harbour authorities will continue to deal with smaller incidents in accordance with their contingency plans. These authorities will, of course, also have an active role in responding to major spillages under the direction of the operations group.
The Estimate includes a provision of £400,000 which is intended to finance in part the development and construction of a central waste facility at Baldonnel to which limited quantities and types of toxic and dangerous wastes can be taken, bulked up and stored prior to their export to approved disposal facilities abroad. Planning of the facility is going ahead and full information about the proposals will be made available at the appropriate stage. However, I would like to take this opportunity to allay the fears of people living in the general area. No dumping of any kind is going to take place either at the proposed site or in its environs. International expertise has been engaged to advise on all aspects of the design and management of the facility. The highest attainable safety standards will be imposed and special training on the safety precautions to be observed will be given to the personnel operating the facility. The whole development will be subject to the normal planning control process and all concerned will have every opportunity to express their views.
A non-voted capital provision is included in the Public Capital Programme to enable local authorities to press ahead with the provision of environmentally acceptable and properly managed landfill disposal sites. The severe shortage of such sites has in recent years posed difficulties for industrial development and, at a time when industrial jobs are very badly needed, the country just cannot afford to ignore this problem. My Department has asked local authorities to give top priority to locating and developing co-disposal sites capable of handling the ever-increasing volumes of industrial waste now arising. Together with the Geological Survey Office and the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards, it has compiled a manual on the selection, design and management of waste disposal sites and every effort has been made to bring home to local authorities the need to demonstrate their good intentions in this area if local opposition, based on experience of badly run tip-heads, is to be overcome. I am hopeful that local authorities will respond positively and constructively to the advice given to them.
Atmospheric pollution has in recent times been attracting a good deal of attention in the media and from environmentalists and others concerned as to the possible damage to human health and the environment. Two of the more significant atmospheric pollutants are smoke and sulphur dioxide and these are the subject of an EEC Directive adopted in 1980. It is against the limits set down in this directive that the Irish air pollution levels must be considered. In recent years levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide have generally been such as to meet the requirements of the directive even in the Dublin area. Indeed, in each of the years after the commencement of records the returns showed a gradual improvement in the quality of the air. This trend was reversed in the winter of 1981-1982 when a number of breaches of the limits were recorded in the Dublin area. These breaches were attributable in the main to meteorlogical factors and the particularly severe winter, but a significant factor in the deterioration was the movement towards greater use of solid fuels in the domestic sector. While the 1982-83 results represented a considerable improvement, the overall situation must be carefully monitored. This is an area where environmental policy and energy will have to be co-ordinated and I intend that the practical steps required to achieve this will be given more attention in the coming year.
On the international front, Ireland is a party to the Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution which requires us to limit and, as far as possible, gradually to reduce emissions of polluting substances and to engage in research and the collection of data on the causes and levels of acidity in rainfall. Ireland participates fully in this exercise and monitoring carried out at the meteorlogical station in Valentia, the most westerly in Europe, forms part of the European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme. Arrangements are also being considered, in conjunction with other Departments and interested agencies, to extend and improve the scope of monitoring arrangements under this programme.
The general question of acid rain is giving cause for serious concern in Scandinavia, Central Europe and North America. Insofar as Ireland is concerned, existing monitoring suggests that there has been a gradual, though irregular, increase in the acidity of rainfall due to increased atmospheric pollution from sources in this country and abroad. However, levels of acidity recorded here are still very satisfactory when compared with more industrialised countries and do not give cause for serious concern at present. The environmental damage caused by acid rain to lakes, forests, monuments, and buildings in other countries is well documented and I am determined, therefore, that we should do all that can be reasonably required of us to combat this phenomenon.
At an EEC Council of Environment Ministers meeting, which I attended on 1 March, agreement was reached on a directive on air emissions from industrial plants. The directive will require new procedures for the control of emissions from plants which could cause significant air pollution — for example, power stations and chemical plant. It proposes an authorisation or licensing system which would oblige new plant to use the best available technology, which does not entail excessive costs, for preventing or reducing emissions. It also proposes that existing plant would be brought within the controls on a phased basis, with best available technology being applied, taking into account the technical characteristics of the plant and the costs involved. Implementation of the terms of the directive will require the enactment of an entirely new legislative framework for the control of air pollution. Already, preliminary work on a new code has been carried out and I now intend that work on this should be pressed ahead as quickly as possible taking account of the provisions of the new directive and of our own national needs.
Some £2.5 million of the funds allocated to local authorities for environmental improvement works in 1983 remains to be spent this year. In addition, a sum of £4 million is being provided through the Labour Vote to enable local authorities to continue the special projects which were approved in 1983. I have allocated a grant of £1.6 million from my own Department's Vote to Dublin Corporation to assist them to carry on environment improvements while making arrangements to absorb certain temporary workers into other work areas of the corporation. This provision is a grant towards the labour costs arising in 1984 from the continued employment of workers who were taken on in a temporary capacity in 1979 and 1982 and who were retained in employment by the corporation since then. The grant is being made on the understanding that the corporation will continue the policy of absorbing the workers into other areas of the corporation's work force.
Deputies will be aware that £84 million has been provided in the Labour Vote this year for youth employment and training compared with an expenditure of £73.5 million approximately last year. It will continue to be open to local authorities to involve themselves in the other grant-aided youth employment and training schemes under the aegis of the Department of Labour, the Youth Employment Agency and AnCO. I understand that a number of authorities are already involved directly in some such schemes and I will shortly be outlining the relevant schemes to all local authorities.
The operation of the physical planning system must be made more effective in encouraging and supporting necessary development. In order to help to improve the quality of urban development plans, my Department issued guidelines on the preparation of these statutory plans in October last. A seminar on the guidelines organised by An Foras Forbartha was held last January as part of a series of seminars on the subject. I hope that the guidelines will be found helpful to local authorities in the preparation of urban plans so that these can become a more effective tool in aiding the necessary development and renewal of urban areas.
On the regional level, a worthwhile programme of regional strategy studies is under way under the aegis of the regional development organisations. A strategy for the midlands region was launched in October 1981 and the first review of this strategy study was completed in 1983. Similar strategic studies, covering a period of 20 years or so, have been completed for the North-East and Galway/Mayo regions. A strategic study of the eastern region is also being undertaken and is expected to be completed later this year. The availability of such studies creates an excellent framework for the co-ordination of the development plans and investment programmes of the local authorities and other development agencies in each region.
I am most anxious that there should be no avoidable delays in the planning appeals process in view of the impact which such delays can have on construction costs and on job creation. The upward trend in the number of appeals before An Bord Pleanála during 1982 and the early part of 1983 was a matter of much concern. I am pleased that considerable progress has been made since then in reducing the number of appeals on hands. This improvement was due, in part, to revised procedures adopted by the board and additional staff temporarily made available by my Department also helped. Moreover, there was a big fall in the intake of appeals in the latter part of 1983. If this trend continues we can anticipate further reductions in the number of appeals on hands in 1984. In this connection I should draw attention to the fact that the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1983, as well as providing for the reconstitution of the board, also made various changes in appeals law designed to speed up the processing of certain categories of appeals. These changes came into operation last October. A new board, selected in accordance with the statutory selection process provided for in 1983 Act, will take up office on 20 March next.
In March 1983 a system of planning fees was introduced. The system has worked quite well but, as with any new scheme, various anomalies have come to light as a result of experience in its day-to-day operation. At the end of 1983 a review of the system was initiated and, as a first step, it was decided to exempt from fees applications by voluntary organisations for community-type development and also to abolish the £10 fee payable to the local planning authorities by persons making submissions. A review of other aspects of the system is now well advanced. In the light of this I will be considering what might be done to deal with some anomalies which have come to light and to deal with aspects which might be regarded as a disincentive to development.
Three hundred thousand pounds has been provided in the Estimate to continue the Inner City Group's operations in 1984. In the past five years, a total of more than £2 million has been made available from the fund to aid various Dublin inner city projects in the economic, social, recreational and educational fields. I consider that the use of the money in this way has been very worth while, particularly as it lends a hand to many community groups and others who are interested in solving their problems mainly through their own efforts. I intend, however, to take a closer look at the group's role and structure to see whether it is the most effective way of proceeding with this very worth while work programme.
While the existing programmes of local authorities and other public agencies have already done much, and will do more to bring about the renewal of urban areas, other possibilities for promoting urban renewal and regeneration must be considered. This is a matter to which increased attention must be paid in the next few years.
However, I believe that it will be difficult to deal with many of the problems of urbanisation in an effective manner unless we can find a solution to the problem of the supply and cost of land for development. The Joint Committee on Building Land is at present considering possible legislative and other measures to deal with this question. The committee was originally required to report before 31 December 1983 but requested an extension of their reporting period to 31 March, 1984. I hope that the report and recommendations of the committee will provide a basis for an agreed approach to the building land problem.
In the meantime the whole area of compulsory purchase legislation is under active consideration in my Department with a view to deciding what action can be taken to speed up the process. There are, however, serious legal and constitutional considerations involved in this area and the Attorney General has been consulted in the matter. The question of compensation for land compulsorily acquired is, of course, also tied up with the general question of the supply and cost of building land, and the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Building Land will, therefore, have to be taken into account in dealing with compulsory purchase legislation.
A sum of £3,195,000 has been provided for An Foras Forbartha in 1984 to enable them to continue their research work in the fields of planning, construction, roads, water resources and environment matters. The work done by An Foras for various agencies, including my Department and local authorities, in promoting greater efficiency in investment in building and construction and in support of physical planning and protection of the environment is of considerable importance at present. The moneys provided will enable An Foras to proceed with this valuable work in 1984.
I realise that many Deputies will wish to participate in the discussions on this important Vote. I have therefore dealt only with the major and more important matters in order to conserve as much time as possible for Deputies who wish to speak. I will certainly be very interested and alert to what Deputies have to say. In so far as possible I will give Deputies whatever additional information they may require on any of the matters covered by this Vote. I am confident that the responsible policies being pursued by us as a Government are beginning to pay off and that in the coming year we can expect an upturn in the state of the economy. In the meantime, I am glad to have been able to make such substantial provisions for 1984 for such key areas as roads, housing, fire services and sanitary services. The fact that we can do this in difficult times is a reflection of the Government's commitment to the local government system and to the public services which it provides.