Coming as I do from a western county where the acquisition and distribution of land over the past 50 years has been a feature of farming, I welcome the opportunity of saying a few words on this Bill. The purpose of the Bill, as the Minister has told us, is to increase the amount of bonds that can be created by the Land Commission by £25 million. Elsewhere, he has indicated that he hopes this will be adequate to deal with the situation which the Land Commission has to cope with over the next two years.
I recall that on the last occasion in this House when we debated the creation of land bonds, which I think was the end of June 1978, it was indicated that the Government had looked at the question of land policy and that they were not committed to the continuance of the land policy that had prevailed up to then. The decision had been made in principle to have a land development authority. They accepted the necessity for the restructuring of land and definite proposals would be before the Government by the end of that year. The £20 million extra bonds we were creating on that occasion were simply a stop-gap measure to tide us over the situation until the new land development authority came into effect. Now, two years later, apparently there is very little progress with regard to the creation of the land development authority.
However, to deal with the present Bill and its proposal to get an extra £25 million worth of land bonds, I would like to quantify, to measure as I see it, the effect that £25 million is likely to have on the whole question of land restructuring. We are talking about viable acres. A reasonable valuation on them at the present time is £2,500 each. The amount of bonds we are creating in this Bill would be sufficient to acquire about 10,000 acres. When we are talking about a viable farm we are talking about 100 adjusted acres. We are, in effect, saying, therefore, that we can measure the effect of this Bill as having the capacity to create about 100 viable farm units.
This represents a very small dent on a vast problem, the question of land restructuring. There are statistics to show that there are about 41,000 farms or holdings between five and 15 acres and a further 57,000 holdings between 15 and 30 acres. Therefore we are talking almost of 100,000 holdings which are, by any standards of normal farming activity, uneconomic holdings and which require, if people are to obtain a satisfactory livelihood from them, adjustment upwards in their size. There are a further 56,000 holdings between 30 and 50 acres. Some of these are uneconomic and there is a necessity to provide additional acreage for these holdings if they are to provide a satisfactory livelihood to a family solely dependent on them for their livelihood.
I want to suggest that this Bill does not go any satisfactory distance along the road to providing solutions to that problem. On the last occasion when we discussed the creation of land bonds there was general acceptance that the Land Commission was not suited in its present structure to meet the challenge of the years before us. There was one significant difference between the conditions that prevailed then and those that prevail today. Two years ago, the economic climate in agriculture was positive and progressive. It was such as would encourage a man on limited acreage to purchase, and indeed to borrow to purchase, additional acres to provide him with a better living. The situation has changed today for the type of people who are farming on the size of farms that I have mentioned. I doubt if the circumstances that prevail in agriculture today would be sufficient to encourage them to depend on their own resources entirely to acquire additional land for their holdings. Therefore, the necessity of a State agency, be it the Land Commission or the proposed land development authority, to fill the vacuum in this situation. It is only through a State agency that additional land can be provided for the holdings that require it.
I regard the £25 million extra land bonds that we are creating as having only the capacity to create an extra 100 viable farm units. We are talking in terms of 100,000 holdings that are uneconomic unless more land is provided for them. In fact then we are talking of servicing just one person out of every 1,000 worthy applicants.
Land restructuring had a social aspect also. There is the need to arrest rural decline. There is the need to deal with a situation, something that is rapidly taking place over the years in farming, and that is where the economic number of acres tends to rise steadily as time goes on. More and more farms which a few years ago could be regarded as being of an economic size are now decidedly gone into the uneconomic bracket. There is also a need to assist the progressive farmer on limited acreage. Persons who have shown that they have the capacity, the motivation and the management ability to make a satisfactory job of the holdings that they have should be provided with additional acreage to assist them in the very worthwhile job they are doing.
Many Senators referred to the unacceptability of land bonds and I share totally the views that have been expressed. Land bonds do not appeal to prospective sellers of land and they are no encouragement to land owners to dispose of their holdings for the purpose of distribution in the areas concerned. No single issue of land bonds has retained its value. The Minister stated that in January 1980 the last issue of land bonds was created at an interest rate of 16.5 per cent. An interest rate of 16.5 per cent in May 1980, five months later, will not prove universally attractive to people whose land would be useful and necessary to assist a land restructuring programme in any area. The only way that the Land Commission can get land satisfactorily and readily is by paying cash for it. Perhaps there are difficulties there. When we realise the grave necessity that there is to deal urgently with the question of land restructuring, then we have to face squarely the issue that cash, and cash alone, is the method by which land owners can be best induced to dispose of land which is needed for distribution. I pay tribute to the work of the Land Commission over the years. Perhaps we have from time to time criticised them, but in general they have done a satisfactory job. Since 1923 they have acquired and distributed something like 1,350,000 acres and that is an indication of the contribution they have made to the land restructuring problem of the country. However, I am disappointed at the lack of urgency with which land that they have acquired is distributed. Other Senators have referred to this. There is a decided slowness to dispose of land with the inevitable result that the property in question usually deteriorates in value, particularly in the case ot a dwellinghouse and farm buildings on land acquired by the Land Commission. I hope the Land Commission will be influenced by the criticisms that have been made on that aspect and will ensure, in as far as they can, that the distribution of land and the re-allocation of dwellinghouses and farmyards on land acquired will be dealt with in a more expeditious fashion.
I hope the Minister when replying to the debate will give us a firm indication of the future land policy of the Government. I hope that that policy will recognise that the land of Ireland is our greatest natural resource, that it is far too valuable an asset to be mismanaged, as some of it has been over the years and that steps will be taken to ensure that its management and control will come into the hands of people who have the interest, motivation and ability to manage it properly and productively.
One thing that has always concerned me is what I describe as the dormant acres, the substantial area of land in this country that is under-utilised and badly farmed. There is no sight more depressing when driving through rural Ireland than a landscape that is neglected and under-utilised, particularly when it may well surround the productive acres of progressive small farmer. There are a number of reasons why we have this unproductive land. It may be due in part to the subject we are talking about, land structure. More of it probably is due to absentee ownership and perhaps more still to a lack of interest on the part of the people who own it. It is a delicate subject but land is far too valuable an asset to be allowed to remain in an unproductive and neglected condition.
One other aspect of land management or land restructuring that was discussed frequently a few years ago and then apparently pushed into the background is the question of long-term leasing. The long-term leasing of land, perhaps even by a State agency, has merit. If it is not possible for the Land Commission or a State agency to provide the additional acreage that a progressive farmer requires, and if it is not possible for him from his own resources to purchase that additional land, then the value of long-term leasing for that man is the only option remaining. Therefore, I hope that the question of long-term leasing will not be pushed into the background. It is a viable option and it should be pursued.
I conclude by saying that, limited though its scope is, I welcome the Bill to the extent that it will help some limited number of farmers to acquire additional land. I look forward in the near future to seeing a positive land policy and perhaps a State agency committed to a more dynamic and progressive approach to the restructuring of land in Ireland.