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.