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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 24 Apr 1991

Vol. 407 No. 4

Adjournment Debate. - Construction of Rural Cottages.

I am indebted to the Cheann Comhairle for allowing me raise this matter on the Adjournment. At the outset, I should like to thank the Minister for the Environment for attending the House for the debate. I hope he will respond to my remarks in a positive manner. I had mistakenly anticipated that he would instruct his junior Minister, my constituency colleague, to reply to my comments on a problem with which I am sure he is only too familiar.

I raise this matter having read with some interest and in some detail the document produced by the Minister entitled A Plan for Social Housing. It is a glossy document which runs to 42 pages. However, there is no mention in any of those 42 pages of the humble rural cottage. At a time when topics such as integrated rural development and the preservation of the rural way of life are emblazoned across our newspapers on an almost daily basis it is sad that the response of the Government has been to exclude the isolated rural cottage from their plan for social housing. I hope that prior to the introduction of the housing Bill consideration will be given to preparing a plan of action to build more rural cottages.

I make these remarks as a Deputy who represents a rural constituency. People in County Laois now have to wait for periods of up to ten years to have rural cottages constructed on their sites. The programme of works to be carried out by Laois County Council this year will include the building of six rural cottages and a total of two rural cottages will be built in the neighbouring county of Offaly.

I wonder if there is merit in the Minister's Department considering changes to the rules and regulations which apply to such housing. My information suggests that an isolated rural cottage is designed to house a small farmer or agricultural worker. Under a memorandum from the Department entitled H.1 of 1964, such a farmer must have a land valuation of £5 or less. As we all know, less than 16 per cent of Irish people are directly engaged in agriculture. Nevertheless, many people wish to live in rural areas. Housing policy must be geared towards the provision of houses in rural areas. Reference is made in almost every local authority county development plan to the aspiration that the local authority will promote the rural way of life and the building of rural cottages where there is such a need.

Villages in County Laois such as Camross, Coolrain and Ballyfin do not have any local authority housing of any degree or description. It is incumbent on people-who seek housing in these areas to go on the housing lists in the larger towns of Portlaoise and Mountrath. I am not here to condemn the Minister's housing programme — that record speaks for itself; it is disastrous — but if people from rural areas have to migrate distances of ten or 15 miles before they can gain consideration for a local authority house this will denude vast areas of rural Ireland of inhabitants. A townland in my constitutency, the Glendine Valley in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, does not have any inhabitants.

The Government should consider putting life back into such areas by building a cluster of rural cottages where there is a church, a school and, dare I say it, a post office. Bungalow bliss need not necessarily be the result if we plan our cottages carefully so that they tone in with the surrounding environment. The economic cost of providing rural cottages must be considered in the context of the social problems being experienced in housing estates not alone in cities but in many rural towns. We must review the entire concept of building blocks of 70, 80 or 100 houses in an estate. This point was mentioned in the Minister's document.

The Deputy must now bring his remarks to a close.

I will conclude by requesting the Minister to state clearly his plans, hopes and policies for rural housing in anticipation of the housing Bill. The building of two rural cottages in County Offaly and five in County Laois will not meet the justifiable demand which exists.

Having regard to the wording of the item put down by Deputy Flanagan I should like to make it clear that rural cottages are built to the same high standard as the normal type of local authority housing schemes. I want to see that high standard continue and it will be my policy to see that that is done.

The position in relation the procedures to be followed and the standards to be applied in providing local authority housing are set out in the memoranda and circular letters issued by my Department. What we are trying to do is eliminate the inefficiencies and high costs which have arisen in the past, for example, inadequate site selection, uneconomic layouts, over-use of expensive materials and the frills and unnecessary alterations in specifications during the course of construction.

We have to be satisfied of the need for an isolated rural cottage and that there will be a continuing need for the dwelling during its useful life. Subject to this, and the cost control procedures, local authorities are not prevented from providing rural cottages within the limits of their approved overall programme for new housing. The cost control procedures at present in place involve the use of specialised techniques of cost planning and cost analysis and are an effective means of controlling the cost of construction projects from the earliest stage through to the final accounts.

The controls in operation at present by my Department for the provision of local authority housing are the minimum necessary to ensure that, consistent with appropriate standards, the maximum output is achieved from the State's massive investment in this capital programme down thorugh the years.

It is obvious, however, that it would not be practical to have the same stringent procedural measures applying to the innumerable small schemes of less than six dwellings that have been built or are in planning throughout the country and, in particular, single rural cottages, as apply to the larger local authority schemes. I am, therefore, surprised at the Deputy's comments on this matter.

Subject to certain conditions housing authorities are not required to seek my approval at any stage for the provision of individual rural cottages. These conditions are that where a housing authority include a rural cottage or a number of such cottages as part of their approved programme or new work in any particular year, use house plans that have previously been approved by my Department and keeps within its approved unit cost ceiling for such a dwelling, then it is not necessary for the authority to seek my Department's approval for that cottage. Some authorities may choose, for their own reasons, not to obtain a unit cost ceiling approval from my Department or, if they do, may fail to have it revised at regular intervals. That choice is solely a matter for the individual local authorities.

I would point out, however, that the most recent memorandum, No. N 2/90, issued by my Department on 26 April 1990, in relation to the procedures for providing local authority housing, again reminded housing authorities that in the case of single rural dwellings it was still open to them to continue the existing practice of obtaining annual approval to unit cost ceilings for such dwellings as an alternative to submitting tenders in individual cases.

I am pleased that the Deputy recognises the great advance in the plan for social housing. I gave some details of the programme on this night last week, following a debate here with Deputy Allen as to the situation regarding the guidelines and the regulations dealing with the aspects outlined in that programme. For the benefit of all the Deputies I will be happy to reiterate that tomorrow, if they wish, I would be happy to give an update of the position to anybody who wishes to have it. Some of the guidelines have been provided. Some of the regulations are in place and they will all be issued by the end of next week.

There is legislation to deal specifically with the shared ownership and the improvement in lieu of social housing. We are attempting, as an interim measure, to get a clearance to enable us to deal with that in advance of the legislation. If we can achieve that, all that plan goes ahead. Most of the guidelines have issued and most of the circulars too. If we cannot achieve that, we have a little difficulty with the shared ownership, but apart from that the plan goes ahead in its entirety.

There goes the rural cottage.