I agree with the sentiments expressed by the Minister in his speech. The objectives of those remarks are very worthy and I hope they will be carried through. I am not certain that the Bill is an adequate vehicle in all respects for fulfilling the aspirations outlined by the Minister in his speech but I want to commend him in at least one respect. Some of us have had the pleasure of, as it were, working in this forum on a variety of issues and I have always found the Minister to be extremely approachable and conciliatory in taking on board the ideas, suggestions and comments of the spokespersons from all parties. That is commendable and the Minister should be thanked for doing so. I hope he will not think it churlish of me to say in passing that it conflicts fairly sharply with the attitude of a colleague Minister who in recent days seems to believe that an idea is perhaps deficient if it comes from a party who are not as big as his own. I suggest that that Minister should have a word with the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Flynn, on how things should be done and how to deal with people at the same time without having to be bellicose, belligerent and downright arrogant. I do not find any of that in the Minister for the Environment's approach to matters and hence I believe that if one did an assessment of the amount of legislation going through the Dáil one would find that the track records of both the parties involved reflect very favourably on the Minister here today, as opposed to the more noisy and empty comments of the Minister who seems to believe that threatening people will solve everything.
The Minister in his speech set out many of the objectives which all of us concerned about derelict sites, urban decay and urban blight would wish to see achieved. However, I think a somewhat closer scrutiny of the Bill will show that there are very many escape clauses and escape hatches in it and that unfortunately it will not succeed.
There are many positive steps in the legislation before us and in due course I hope to tease out how some of these may not be successful unless they are amended. The essence of the issue is whether we are genuinely serious about taking on the question of dereliction. If we are to do this we have got to have in place reasonable incentives for people who want to develop land and perhaps, equally important, if not more so, severe and meaningful sanction for those who believe that there is an economic advantage at present in acquiring property or land and letting it become derelict. That is where the balance lies now and unless it is changed nothing else will change. Certainly an indicator of a lack of desire or commitment on the part of the Government in that respect could seriously be said to be the derisory fine now proposed in the Bill, a maximum of £1,000, which in today's property market could represent as little as one or two days increase in the value of a site which is left to one side by an owner. I am convinced that if we look again at the whole approach to sanctions — I do not believe they are the best way of making progress but ultimately they have to be the final safeguard — the Bill is porous in that respect and if we are relying on a carrot and stick approach, certainly there is no stick in this Bill.
An enterprising speculator who is anti-social, and not all speculators are, will have no problem whatsoever in side stepping the main thrust of what the Minister is trying to do in this Bill, despite the fact that we would share common ground with him on the general aspirations of it.
Dereliction is a serious problem. As the Minister said in his speech according to a recent survey in the city centre of Dublin, and I am conscious that Dublin is not the only urban conurbation in this country, there are 160 acres of land within the canal ring, which boils down to about 600 sites. I do not think it is unreasonable to extrapolate from that that there are probably the best part of 2,000 acres of derelict sites in the greater Dublin area and depending on one's definition of "derelict" that could be greater or less because the interpretation of derelict by various local authorities is arbitrary and subjective and does not always accord to what would be legally necessary to, as it were, fall to be used in such a description.
There is a large repository of unused land in this city and if we look at the reasons for that I think we will find it is because those who are engaged in the deliberate creation of dereliction find they are financially better off if they allow that to happen. It is no more complex than that. There are a number of interested owners in that general area who for one reason or another find it impossible to develop a piece of property or who can do very little with land which they have inherited. I do not think we should use a sledge hammer to crack a nut in those cases but the majority of the sites we are speaking about are owned by people who have standing in the community, who have reasonable access to resources, who own property apart from these derelict sites and in respect of whom there is no reasonable excuse for allowing them to continue to ride a coach and four through this city. I believe that in principle what they are doing to the city is no different from what we continually berate young people for doing in other parts of the city. We do not have any problem in ascribing various names and derogatory terms to these young people and handing out sentences before the courts to them but if it is the area of property speculation it has a slight aura of respectability about it. It is about time we called it what it is no more than a form of social vandalism by the majority of these people, and it should be treated as such.
A fine of £1,000 is not the answer, no more than is the proposal in the Bill that local authorities in certain cases may decide to waive the need to pay a levy and so on — a hardship clause. I am interested in a political environment which legislates for creating a facility to evade on the basis of hardship for those who own property but which does not do so for many people who do not own any property and who nevertheless have to pay their bills and debts, even people on social welfare who do not find there is any escape from paying, for example, a tax on a pension, even if it happens to be an old age pension. I am interested in that kind of juxtaposition because I believe it needs to be explained and defended. I do not accept this position because people who have property have obligations.
During the past decade all we ever heard when one talked about derelict sites in this city was the rights of private property. It is about time that the Minister and the Government said that there are obligations attaching to property, that these obligations should be carried out and that if they are not carried out within a reasonable time the State will move in to take over that responsibility, acquire the sites in question at values which are minimal and develop them and that if they cannot be developed immediately they will be handed over to local community interests who can use them in the interim and do so without apology to anyone, just as we would apprehend anybody who abused a person or property in the city. It is no more than a shade on the same continuum. People who fail to fulfil their obligations in regard to these sites are guilty of anti-social action.
At any given time the local authority in Dublin city, which is only one of many and not even the biggest in the country, would deal with something of the order of 300 sites which are deemed to be derelict. I suspect that is a minority of the sites which are truly derelict because those are sites which for one reason or another have come to the attention of the local authority, perhaps arising out of repeated complaints from public representatives, local communities or whatever. This is a serious problem and I am not convinced that the Bill goes far enough. I believe the ultimate sanction has to be available, and that the ultimate sanction is the twin combination of a sufficient financial fine or sanction which says that at last it is now no longer profitable to let a site sit, that one had better develop it or get rid of it. Up to now many owners believed that if they let a site sit it would be worth more at the end of the year. This has to stop. It means that the Bill has to be changed so that the fines provided for are in some way indexed to the appreciating value of the site, or perhaps a multiple of that. Above all, people should know that for the first time the State is serious about this problem and that there is no longer a percentage in abusing one's neighbours and city by allowing sites to become derelict.
As well as that — and I have some experience in this respect — the compulsory purchase acquisition procedure needs to be addressed. It would be wrong to imply, for example, that all of the problem is being created by, as it were, unknown suspect private individuals who own parcels of land. A significant contribution to the problem of dereliction in this city and country is being made by Government Departments, semi-State bodies, health boards and local authorities who own between them very substantial land banks, much of which is allowed to become derelict in effect over many years, perhaps as long as ten, 15 or 20 years. They are a huge part of the problem. As Shakespeare asked one time "Who will whip the whippers?" We are placing the onus on the local authorities to chase the people who are abusing the rest of us. I admit that the Minister has an ultimate sanction here. The reality, however, is that in the normal course of events, the local authority will deem what is derelict, who pays the levy, and will exercise discretion as to whether a site is derelict. With the best will in the world towards those local authorities, there is a conflict of interest here. Naturally enough, their desire will be to keep that list to a minimum because they have to have regard to the implications, they have to call on people, send out notices, engage in all the bureaucracy and so on attached to it. If the average hard pressed local authority clerical officer must make a choice, he will simply say that on balance it might be as well if they gave that property the benefit of the doubt.
In terms of compulsory purchase order procedure, local authorities have serious problems. I cannot understand why we did not long ago try to compress the whole compulsory purchase order procedure so that there is not, in effect, a scale of development in terms, say, of housing. My colleague, Deputy Quinn, will be very familiar with that from his time as Minister and as city councillor. It can take as long as two decades to put together a site of 30 or 40 houses because of the ridiculous, outdated, antediluvian procedure of acquiring sites. There is a particular site on the North Circular Road which is dear, or at least near to my heart, which I remember passing for something like 14 years when going to school and I think it is in the same condition as it was before I started going to school. I was told that it was in the ownership of a local authority. Some progress was made in the past few years but it is still only at a certain stage of development because of an open-ended appeal by each individual owner to the highest courts, not just in this country but abroad. I am not necessarily against that, but I am against the fact that that can take years.
If there is a particular problem about the arbitration mechanism for adjudging values or acquiring property, perhaps it is time we decided to set up some sort of subsystem within the court environment where property would be dealt with independently, where all compulsory purchase orders would be decided on expeditiously, where the work would be done, not by circumscribing or whittling away people's rights but by dealing with the matter in a speedy fashion over a limited period of time. It is quite preposterous that a significant contribution to urban blight has been caused by people who are elected, appointed to look after the public interest, but that is how it is right now. This refers not only to local authorities but to Government Departments and health boards.
I do not subscribe to the comment in the Minister's speech, or indeed in the Bill, which says apparently that there will be one rule for the State and another for the ordinary citizen. The thinking of my party is to the opposite. It is that the State should give a lead, if anything, and that certainly there should be no exemptions for the State in this regard. The State, by definition, will always be a major component in the property market and in the whole area of public policy, in the creation of certain infrastructural provisions, housing, hospitals and so on, and, therefore, they are involved in the land business and the acquisition business. If the environment in which they do that is seen to be one where people are subsconsciously encouraged to be slow or lethargic, then they will be, but they should not be. A citizen should be able to believe that the property up the road owned by a private speculator who has decided to long finger it and the property owned by a health board that have decided to long finger it, perhaps for very laudable reasons in both cases in terms of making some profit, will be treated the same in terms of the law.
If we are serious about the Derelict Sites Bill we must also address the question of ownership. One of the problems that local authorities have had is that of finding out who actually owns the land. Quite honestly, there is not at present any even-handed approach to registration of ownership. In some local authority areas there is no compulsory, mandatory obligation on anybody to register ownership. It is not uncommon for somebody to sell a site to a company or an individual and for that new owner not to register that ownership. How then can we be serious about derelict sites and the pursuing of such owners, about levying them, if we do not even oblige them to register that interest? That is minimal. If we are going to tackle this problem we must at least have the resourses in terms of information on hand to be able to pursue people.
The question of a levy is important in this respect. If there are people out there who are recalcitrant and obstructive in terms of public policy, who do not want to play ball, who have avoided existing legislation, dodged and ducked, perhaps gone through the courts and resubmitted proposals, made planning applications at the last moment so that the local authority back off and then change the planning application, the matter will go on for ever. The Minister knows more about that than I do. If people have behaved like that up to now with their present status, they will do the same with the levy. There is no way of enforcing the levy. I do not know how you can get from somebody actual hard cash if you cannot already get from them compliance in improving their property. It boils down to the same thing; that is, co-operation with public policy in this respect.
Unless you seriously improve the sanctions — from the point of view of the Legislature, that is — I cannot see how you will get that compliance. Those people will simply run a coach and four through the levy, also. They will change addresses, dodge and duck, delay payment. You will not be able to find them, in the first place, because there is no registration of ownership on a mandatory basis. Instead of trying to get people to improve or develop their property, you will be chasing them for a levy, which would be at all times only a tiny fraction of the value by which the land has appreciated during the time when you have been pursuing the matter. If we are to be serious about this, we should take it on four square and tell people that from now on we believe that the obligations of those who own land and property is at least as important as their rights, that those obligations are to the whole community and will be treated seriously. If these people continue to obstruct public policy beyond reasonable limits, they are deeming themselves no longer fit to retain ownership and the State, acting for the common good, will do it for them.
That is an essential part of public policy in this respect. I know that some would say that it is going too far, or is not adequate, but it is essential. The strange thing is that if you decide to go down that road the likelihood is that you will never have to use that power. It means for the first time that you are serious and once you are serious then the boys and girls who have these properties and are in the business of riding a coach and four through existing law will decide it is time for them to begin to perform instead of sitting on property and land, as they are at present.
In passing, I would be interested in finding out if the Minister has checked out the constitutionality of the levy. I certainly hope it is constitutional, but have one or two small reservations at the back of my mind in that regard.