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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 7 Apr 1925

Vol. 4 No. 19


Question proposed—"That this Bill be now read a second time."

While not actively opposing the Second Reading of this Bill, I must say that I cannot give it the whole-hearted support I should like. This Bill differs in some respects from last year's measure, under which, unfortunately, the number of houses built in urban areas was very few. This Bill is different from that of last year inasmuch as it proposes to wipe out the restrictions placed on the selling and letting prices of houses built under it. It is probable that under this Bill a large number of houses will be built, but the question as to who will occupy those houses is another matter. From my knowledge of the building industry, I feel certain that if a large number of houses are not built in the urban areas under this Bill they never will be built. Under this Bill the private or speculative builder can get a subsidy of £150 from the State and the local authority towards the building of every house. In addition, the houses, if let or sold, will carry reduced rates for a period of twenty years. I am afraid if we do not get houses built in sufficient numbers under this Bill, with all those advantages, that we shall never get them built. I am also satisfied that the people who are most in need of houses will not be housed under this Bill. However, so long as anybody who is in need of a house is being housed, good work is being done, and every house built, no matter under what conditions, will in some small way help to solve the housing problem. We can only hope that when all the people who can afford to pay the rents which will be demanded, or to buy the houses which will be built under this Bill are provided for, the unfortunate people living in the slums will then be attended to.

It may be said that it will be mostly artisans and people of that class who will inhabit those houses. I feel satisfied that not five per cent. of the artisans in any of our cities will ever be in a position out of their own earnings to pay the rents which will be demanded, or to purchase one of these houses under present conditions. During the debate in the Dáil on this Bill, Deputy Wilson said that ten per cent. of a man's earnings or wages was a fair figure to put down for rent. I would be prepared to accept that, or a little less or more. From one-sixth to one-eighth of a man's wages is the amount generally allowed for rent. I doubt if any artisan will ever have sufficient wages to pay the rents of one of the houses that will be built under this Bill. Some people may say that the subsidy is being given for the purpose of providing houses for the working classes. Other people complain that an economic rent is not being paid. I maintain that so long as wages are kept at their present level and rents are as high as at present, the State is really subsidising the employers. If the workers have to pay an economic rent, the wages will have to be very much increased in order to enable them to pay the rents that will be charged for these houses.

A particular section that was in last year's Act has been left out of this Bill. That was a section dealing with powers that were taken regarding the purchase price of materials and the acquisition of materials. On the second reading of this Bill in the Dáil the President stated that there was no necessity for that section nor for using the powers that it conferred, and stated that he did not think it necessary to insert it in this Bill. I hope there will not be necessity to regret the step that has been taken regarding the question of price or the supply of materials.

I support this Bill for two reasons. In the first place, I want to see houses put up—I do not care under what conditions—and in the second place, because the effect of the Bill will be to provide much-needed employment in the building industry. For some years I have been listening to theoretical experts—I do not know whether that is the correct term or not, but it strikes me that it is the correct one to apply to people who have been talking about houses within the last few years— preaching from the house-tops that it was want of skilled labour that was responsible for the small building output in this country. I want to say— and I defy contradiction in this—that there is sufficient skilled and unskilled labour available in Dublin to build more houses than were ever built in any year in this country. At the moment there are between 500 and 600 carpenters and joiners unemployed in the city, as well as thousands of unskilled labourers. If these men were at work they could produce houses. We are always being told by the theoretical experts that it was want of skilled labour during the last twelve months that held back the building industry, when, as a matter of fact, skilled labour was not fully employed. The one redeeming feature that I see about this Bill is that there is great hope that in the coming year all the available skilled labour, and I hope most of the unskilled labour, will be employed in the erection of houses. In some way that will help to solve the problem of unemployment. I sincerely hope, when the people who will get houses under this Bill have been catered for, that a serious effort will be made to house the poor people in the slums, who can never hope to be able to inhabit the houses that will be built under this Bill, owing to the rents that will be charged.

I am glad that the Senator has given this Bill his mitigated blessing. We are all interested in the question of building. Whether this Bill carries out all the intentions of the framers remains to be seen. At all events, we can send the Bill on with our best wishes and in the hope that it may achieve its object. If it does not succeed in all its objects, it will be time enough to bring in another Bill later on when conditions, as far as building is concerned, have improved. I was very glad to hear Senator Farren say that there was no lack of skilled labour. I am quite certain we have plenty of such labour, and the only trouble is to find occupation for it. If this Bill does nothing else but give employment throughout the country, I think the Seanad will welcome it. Here as well as in England and in other countries we are suffering from a dearth of houses, so that the sooner we set to work and build houses, no matter what kind of houses they are, the better.

At the outset the Senator stated that there was very little possibility of artisans buying houses that would be built under this Bill, but we do not know that that will be so. While deferring to Senator Farren's greater experience, we may hope that some of the houses will be bought by the artisan occupiers. I think that through the operation of thrift societies or through some method of that kind, artisans might be in a position to buy their houses. At all events we can wish this Bill well, and we will watch its operations with interest. When times improve, if it is found that this Bill does not do enough, another Bill may be brought in.

A possibility that should not be overlooked is that of interesting foreign capital in the building in Ireland. I have had quite a number of important inquiries from other countries as to the prospects of building in Dublin. We should welcome such inquiries. This Bill will be something to which we can point as one that offers certain facilities for building, and it might encourage foreign capitalists to invest their money here. As to the remission of rates, I think it is a good proposal. Our present rating system is peculiar, inasmuch as the more a man improves his property the more he is taxed. I suppose under the present system there is no way out of that, but I think the remission of rates in this Bill will remove certain obstacles in the way of building for some years. I see that it takes 20 years before full rates have to be paid on houses built under the Bill. For that reason, amongst others, I hope the Bill will be availed of.

Arising out of some remarks made by Senator Farren, I should like to ask the President whether under the Bill it will be possible for a builder, speculative or otherwise, who has put up one or more houses, to exact or obtain a rack rent? I gather from what Senator Farren has stated that there is no restriction whatever on the rent that can be levied for these houses.

The answer to the question raised by Senator Guinness is that if last year's Act were not repealed, as it will be repealed by the passing of the Bill now before the Seanad, a house could not be let beyond a certain figure. That figure is repealed by this Bill both as regards selling and letting value. The reason for the change in this year's Bill is that out of something like 3,000 houses built under last year's Act only 200 were built for letting or for sale. I may say that last year's Act might be regarded as an experimental Act. This year's Bill is a further experiment in the light of the experience that we gained from last year's Act. The first thing that was evident from last year's Act was that there was much greater building activity in rural districts than in towns. The case put up to us, as a reason why houses were not built in towns, was that we were limiting the market as regards letting and selling price, and that it would be better not to limit that market. Although most theorists would say that it would not be good business to limit the market, but that we should be entitled to demand that the houses should be either sold at a cheap price or let at a cheap price, the real aim of last year's measure was not achieved. The real aim was that a much larger number of houses should be built in urban areas. Strictly from the point of view of urban areas, last year's Act did not fulfil expectations. It is more than possible that the re-introduction of last year's measure might have better results this year, but we would not have been satisfied with such results. We came definitely to the conclusion that two things would have to be attempted in this year's measure: that local authorities should be induced, as far as possible within their resources, to extend their activities during the year to the provision of houses which would meet those that we had, as it were, barred out under the limitations of last year's Act, as regards sale and letting, and, at the same time, that a great effort should be made to stimulate private enterprise in the provision of houses and the sale of those houses at whatever price the market would command.

At some interviews I had last year with builders, amongst others with one gentleman who, I think, had an auctioneer's business, I inquired whether if there were in Dublin one thousand houses such as would be built under the Act, would there be sale for them at the price we had stipulated, and he informed me that there would. At the same time, I endeavoured to enlist the assistance of builders and some philanthropic organisations with a view to having houses provided. However, the Act was not a success in such places as Dublin city. Cork city or Limerick, but I think there was a considerable amount of activity in Waterford. About last autumn a number of members of local authorities met here in Dublin under the auspices of the Municipal Authorities Association and put it to me that it was very desirable last year's Act should be amended with a view to allowing local authorities to build under the Act.

It may be within the recollection of Senators that one of the principal arguments put forward in favour of last year's Act was that we intended to resuscitate, as far as reasonably possible, private enterprise in the building of houses. With the sums which were provided under the Act, in the first place by the Government, and in the second place at the will of the local authority, with the considerable reduction there was in rates, it was thought that it would be possible to bring out again what is called the speculative builder. We believe the first real problem in connection with housing, that is, how to supply the immense demand for houses, ought to be our principal aim. It is with a view to a fairly considerable provision of a number of new houses that this particular measure before the Seanad this evening has been conceived.

As regards the activity of the local authorities, it will be observed that local authorities get £100 per house as against £75 given to an individual. Grouped with the local authorities are organisations called public utility societies. The activities of organisations which might be classed under that particular heading have been much more successful and helpful in the matter of providing houses for artisans or for those who properly should be housed under what are called the Housing of the Working Classes Acts. Their activities were more strenuous and pronounced than the activities of the local authorities. Here in Dublin, where a claim might be made of good work on the part of those who are protagonists of the Corporation, one particular local company, established as far back as 1878, and ceasing its operations fourteen or fifteen years ago, has up to date even a greater number of houses to its credit than the Corporation of Dublin. It is with a hope of reviving interest on the part of such organisations that public utility societies are grouped with and given the same advantages as local authorities under this Bill, and while Senator Farren may be quite correct in saying that the Bill falls short of his anticipations, I think if he gives a little more consideration to it, he will find, compared with last year's Act, that it is certainly an advance even from his standpoint. What was complained about in last year's measure was that the local authorities were eliminated. We have now put them in and given them all the advantages they would have if they were in last year's Act. In anticipation of this measure passing, I understand that the Commissioners of the City of Dublin have at present under consideration the construction of something like 1,200 houses. I cannot express any opinion on the possibilities of activity by public utility societies or kindred organisations, but I do believe that no matter how you compare this measure with last year's one, that it is a marked advance on last year's Act. It should have better results, and it should stimulate the speculative builder, because there is no complaint for him now. He can operate on the market to the fullest possible extent. There is no limitation whatever on the provision of houses. He can take whatever price he can get, and the ultimate reduction in the price of houses can only be achieved when the supply is greater than the demand.

Question put and agreed to.