The general approach to the Derelict Sites Bill here tonight seems to show the keen appreciation by members of the need for such a measure and I think it can be said that the Bill was quite warmly welcomed. That, I think, was the mind expressed in the other House before it came here and this can be regarded as a very good omen for the advances which we hope the Bill will make on this ever present and pressing problem of unsightly and derelict sites throughout the country.
Many and varied matters have been raised in connection with the Bill. Some of them—in fact, quite a few of them—might indeed well be dealt with more appropriately on the next stage. However, as Senators have raised them on the Second Stage, I presume it would be rather churlish of me if I did not advert in some way to them so that the House may have the official view before discussing them in greater detail on Committee Stage, as Senators undoubtedly will.
Senator McGuire mentioned a point which I think I should clear right away about the maximum grant of £100 being, generally speaking, too low. I should say here and now that the grants, or the grants scheme as such, are not a part of this Bill in any way. That scheme is not subject to the passage of this enactment and while the lack of this enactment would undoubtedly be a grave discouragement to the usefulness of the scheme, nevertheless, the scheme is a separate and distinct operation. For that reason, while it does not come within the Bill, I would say to those Senators who have raised points about the inadequacy or otherwise of these grants that we will not be tied to the scheme as such. The scheme is pretty generous and, in my opinion, it will be found to be so when it is applied, but if we find from experience that changes in the limits, minimum or maximum, are called for, then we will consider it. We will not need legislation to change it.
I can assure the House that if the intentions of the House prove difficult to achieve without some change in the scheme, then, subject to the good graces of the Minister for Finance and the Government in general, I shall have no hesitation in looking for such changes as may show themselves necessary from experience. I am satisfied at this stage, however, that the scheme, as outlined, is certainly a big advance and should make a big impression, with the full cooperation of all concerned, in the near future.
Senator McGuire also mentioned that voluntary clearance was being encouraged in this Bill by the terms of the scheme of grants. Voluntary effort is without doubt the primary object of this Derelict Sites Bill. I think it would be well that it should be regarded in this context rather than in the compulsory context in which it was discussed by some speakers here to-night. Compulsion is not the primary method of operating under this Bill. Rather is it relegated to a secondary position and, indeed, compulsion in regard to acquisition will arise only in some rare cases and will operate, in the main, only as a last resort. The whole emphasis is on the voluntary removal of these unsightly or unhealthy sites which abound throughout the countryside, in towns and cities. Voluntary effort is further encouraged by the scheme of grants which has already been introduced.
Senator Barry mentioned buildings which, through fire or some such hazard, have suddenly become "semi-derelict." We are talking about derelict sites and if it is a question of semi-derelict, I do not think the site can be said to be derelict. If such a condition as semi-derelict were to arise, I think it would not be properly dealt with under the Derelict Sites Bill at all. Possibly he had something further in mind.
He may have had in mind the type of problem to which Senator Burke referred, the broken-down house with windows built up. The line to be drawn as to what is or what is not, or what constitutes or what does not constitute, a derelict site is difficult to define. Each case will have to be looked at individually. All the surrounding circumstances will have to be brought into consideration. If we try to define too closely what is a derelict site, there are dangers.
The fears expressed by two Senators that some eyesores would escape attention are not justified. There were those who expressed the fear that we might, indeed, have made the definition too wide. We must use our commonsense and must adopt a reasonable approach to these matters. It is all too easy, no matter what stand you make on a measure like this, to pick holes in it which are not so readily filled by counter-arguments.
Senator Burke also mentioned that the definition in Section 1 was not strong enough. The definition was chosen in its present form with great care. It was revised on several occasions before it finally emerged as the House sees it in this Bill. I believe we got a definition which was pretty all-embracing and that there will not be the obvious escape routes which existed to the detriment of the 1940 Act, which fell practically into disuse, due to the lack of an all-embracing definition. I can assure Senator Burke that there is no lack of strength in the definition.
A point was made about the building of houses on sites which will come to be cleared under the operations of this Bill. Senator Burke made the point that no effort was made because of the uncooperative approach of the Department in their adherence to certain standards. There may be a certain grain of truth in that, but, on the other hand, there is very little point in spending public money on a scheme such as this to clear up derelict sites, if in their place we are to build in a manner contrary to good building practice and to the general standards the Department apply throughout the country. It is against that background that we must look at the difficulties which seem to have been made by the Department of Local Government for local authorities who may have wished to build houses on certain sites. If there are such individual cases in the future, there should be no hesitation on the part of the local authority in making the case that in a particular set of circumstances, it would serve the common weal in a more advantageous way, if the regulations of the Department were departed from. I can only say it will be examined sympathetically. We have to have a common line somewhere but that does not say that circumstances cannot alter the line for the benefit of the common good.
Senator Sheehy Skeffington raised— I was going to say he raised the roof but it is in fact a case of no roof— the question of "no roof, no rates" and said that we were helping to create these unsightly buildings without roofs. I agree with him in the main that they can scarcely be said to enhance the appearance of any locality, town or village.
The question of removing the roof has been dealt with to some degree by Senator Walsh who explained the situation in regard to the procedure which must be followed in order to relieve oneself of rates in respect of such buildings. It is not sufficient to take the roof off. The rates will not automatically disappear. There is a further procedure to be gone through. The hereditament must be removed from the valuation lists and become non-rateable. If we were to have some change in that direction, I would not go so far as to say that was the immediate benefit. No such remedy would be readily available under any heading for a roofless building. Nevertheless, if that point is worth following, it would have to be followed through the Valuation Office, through the Minister for Finance and the Valuation code rather than by way of any action which I could take as Minister for Local Government.
Fears have been expressed by several Senators, and indeed by a few Deputies, that the measure now before the House may not in fact be utilised fully by the local authorities. In so far as that is concerned, a circular has been sent to the local authorities and we have asked them to make an effort to encourage the use of the grants and in every way to try to make the whole scheme general throughout the country so that we can have a uniform approach rather than have isolated efforts in one place and no efforts at all in another.
We shall be writing further to the local authorities, if and when this measure becomes law. We have already issued a circular relating to the grants scheme to national voluntary organisations such as the N.F.A., the I.C.A., Macra na Feirme and Bord Fáilte. Bord Fáilte have been asked to get in touch with local development committees to encourage them to participate as organisations to get the clearance work done and to give them every encouragement.
I have appealed and will appeal again to the county councils and to the various local authorities and in so far as getting it across to them is concerned, I have not been remiss in that respect. A further circular will be sent to the local authorities and I might say it will wind up with a special appeal to them to look after an item that has been mentioned here also, that is, that they themselves should clean up their own houses, where necessary. If there are any of these unsightly or injurious buildings in their functional areas, I will ask them to pay particular attention to cleaning them up as well as getting after the private owner in their areas.
In the main, I think there will be no difficulty whatsoever in that direction. Generally speaking, the local authorities will welcome this measure and particularly will they welcome the fact that grants are now available which will to some degree in their case, as in the case of a private owner, go part of the way, at any rate, to meet the costs which may be incurred in doing this useful work. I have not only written asking them to push on with this clearance work but I have also specially reminded them to set a good example themselves in regard to their own property. That would be a very good first step and would certainly bear much fruit.
Senator Sheehy Skeffington also raised a question which came under review in Section 11. He wished to know the manner in which the value of the site would be computed. He thought it might be computed in an unduly advantageous way to the neglectful owner in a case where land or a site had to be acquired from him because of his neglect. In fact the compensation will be the market value of the cleared site, less the cost of clearance which falls on the council. It is true that may, in some cases, be over-generous, but, on the other hand, no one stands to lose. It is true that the neglectful owner may stand to gain, by virtue of having the site acquired and cleared and the value less the cost of clearance handed to him more or less as a present.
We must have regard even in its neglected state to the potential market value of that land. Before the clearance, the site must have been worth approximately the entire total value less the cost of clearance. The owner of the neglected site will get no more as a result of the operations under this Bill than the cleared site would be worth, less clearance. If we were to regard it at its value before it was cleared, we might create hardship and it might not be in the compass of the owner to do anything about it, due to economic circumstances.
As I say, in the last analysis, no one will lose by this provision. The neglectful owner may in fact get some money from it which he otherwise might not because it might be some considerable time until a buyer came along to buy it. It is better that we should be fair and that we should err on the generous side, rather than that there should be the off-chance we might inflict an injury or loss on some unsuspecting individual who may have let the site become neglected through no fault of his own.
Senator Miss Davidson, in very generous and general terms, welcomed the Bill and hoped that it would work and that it would clear up all the various unsightly buildings and unsightly and injurious sites throughout the country. She went on to develop a very sound idea which, indeed, we have not neglected, that where these small and, from a commercial point of view, useless sites are cleared, mere clearance alone may relieve them only of their ill-appearance for a short time, and that it would be far better that there should be some way of getting them planted and beautified by flowers, shrubs, or merely by grassing.
This scheme of grants is not appropriate to the Bill, but I must crave the indulgence of the House to answer the Senator. It is possible under this scheme to get a grant for the clearance of a particular site and, if necessary, to do just what Senator Miss Davidson, has asked. It was with that in mind that we were looking to the voluntary development associations throughout the country who might find themselves in a position to acquire practically useless but derelict sites in their towns and villages, and having acquired them to clear and develop them, with, possibly, their own labour and their own money, so that they will not just fall back into the state from which they had taken them.
I hope that those organisations throughout the country will take this to heart and will be very active in regard to these small and commercially useless sites which should beautify rather than disfigure, as they now do, our towns and villages and our countryside in general. I believe that very much can be done and I hope that it will be done under the grants scheme by the grassing down of these sites and the planting of shrubs and flowers on them.
Senator Miss Davidson also mentioned the transfer of half the valuation of the building on to the actual site. This again comes into the same category as the point raised by Senator Sheehy Skeffington in that it is rather outside my jurisdiction, and one which could be referred to the Department of Finance and the Valuation Office.
Senator O'Quigley had quite an amount to say on this matter. In general, he welcomed the idea behind the Bill, but he took exception to a few things in it. I am not quite happy as to whether, because of their detailed nature, I should deal with them in the detailed Committee manner which would be necessary, if I were to deal with them adequately. I am rather inclined to leave them over for Committee stage, and deal with them there when they can be more appropriately dealt with.
He did make a few points which are not new in so far as certain objections to this Bill are concerned. A few such objections and similar ones were made in the other House. It is better to follow the argument here and now rather than to let it die a natural death between now and the next Stage.
I shall deal with the question raised by him when he took exception to the intention to have appeals under Section 5 to the Minister for Local Government, and his very pointed question as to why they should not be to the courts. He likened a local authority appealing to the Minister for Local Government, metaphorically, to going to court with the Devil. That is Senator O'Quigley's view, no doubt, and I appreciate his expression of it in such clear and concise terms, but equally I would disagree with his whole approach to this matter. I do not agree at all that appeals would be more appropriate to the courts under Section 5, because if the Senator has a look at Section 5, he will realise that this appeal is the least objectionable from his point of view, in that it deals only with the question of whether or not a requirement made on an owner of property is excessive, or whether or not the time within which he is asked to carry out the requirement is too restricted.
I would say that, by and large, that is a matter which does require the intimate knowledge of a trained man, and that intimate knowledge is available in the trained men in my Department, in considering possibly a specification as to how something should be done, even to the last detail of how the job is to be done. In other words, the examination of a specification would in fact be a quite appropriate and likely type of appeal to come up under this section. Surely the people in Local Government are well versed in these matters, and without undue reflection on the general body of people who have knowledge such as this, I would say that, by their training and knowledge, they would be in a better position to vet these proposals and to advise me on whether or not such a proposal was excessive or not, and also be better qualified to advise me on an appeal as to whether or not the time specified was too short for the operation called for from the owner. Again, I emphatically say that they are well and truly qualified, and better qualified than most, to advise on such a matter.
That brings us to the question of vicarious decisions which the Senator developed as a natural follow-on to these appeals to the Minister for Local Government. Such decisions are arrived at after a careful examination by competent people who have no axe to grind either with the owner or the local authority, and who, in turn, submit their findings and recommendations to the Minister. It is not a question of delegating power; it is a question of the Minister finally taking a decision against or with the advice he sees, from the reading of both sides of the case. He is responsible for that decision taken by him, and he cannot in any way fob it off on some person to whom it would have been said that he delegated that power.
Senator O'Quigley suggested that the deciding officers would appear to be more appropriate because in fact that is what is going on. I want to tell him that that is not what is going on, and it is not what is contemplated under this or any other sections of the Bill. When it says that an appeal to the Minister shall lie, that appeal will in fact be to the Minister, and decided by the Minister, but he will have the evidence and advice of those competent to advise on matters such as this before he gives his decision.
The idea, again, that these types of decisions which are really, according to the Senator, passed on to somebody else are going to create more public staffs and more costs on the public in general is rather begging the question. We get a clear picture of what he regards a Minister for Local Government to be—a mere extension of the local authority. He alleges that this system of appeals to the Minister would increase the work of the Department. He wants to know why we should increase the work of the Department of Local Government while other Departments of State are lying idle.
If Senator O'Quigley knows of Departments of State which are lying idle, he should raise the matter where it is worth talking about it and try to have them given something useful to do. There is no reason to ask me to give them work because they are idle. They are not of my creation. I have no jurisdiction over them. The matter here is appropriate to be dealt with by my Department in the manner proposed rather than by handing it over to other Departments of State which the Senator alleges are lying idle at the moment.