The timetable is similar to that which operated in previous years. Is the timetable agreed? Agreed. On conclusion of consideration of the Revised Estimates, the select committee must consider other business, namely, motion re Espoo Convention, European Charter of Local Self-Government and Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. Documentation relating to these matters has been circulated. I call on the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, to make his opening remarks.
Estimates for Public Services, 2002.
Vote 25 - Environment and Local Government (Revised).
I am pleased to be here today to present my Department's Revised Estimate for 2002 to the Select Committee on Environment and Local Government. I look forward to a constructive discussion and exchange of information. I am very conscious that we have a good deal of work to get through this afternoon and that the estimate is not the only item on the agenda. For this reason, I propose to keep my introductory statement reasonably brief.
Total investment under the national development plan is estimated at €30 billion, of which €24 billion, or 80%, comes within the remit of my Department. The principal beneficiaries of this investment include the national and non-national roads programmes, water and waste water services, social housing, waste management and urban and village regeneration.
Satisfactory progress is being made on implementation. Expenditure on these programmes in 2000 was in line with NDP targets. Provisional figures indicate that combined expenditure to the end of 2001 on national roads, housing and water services amounted to 106% of projected NDP expenditure for the year. The 9% increase in my Department's Estimate will allow past progress to be maintained and built on.
An Exchequer allocation of more than €1 billion to the National Roads Authority will ensure an unprecedented level of road construction activity throughout the country in 2002. Work on major schemes under way or to commence shortly accounts for 201 kilometres, including almost 130 kilometres of motorway or dual carriageway. This represents a significant addition to the 106 kilometres of new or improved road completed in 2001 in respect of 14 schemes. The total 2002 provision for national roads improvements is €958 million, an increase of €50 million on last year's outturn and €170 million on last year's initial allocation. This level of investment is over three times the 1997 level and twice that for 1999. All in all, we have provided nearly €2.5 billion for national roads improvements over the first three years of the NDP, 10% ahead of the plan projection.
By far the greater part of expenditure on non-national roads is now sourced in the local government fund rather than my Department's Vote. This year €394 million will be provided for this purpose from the fund. This is in addition to the €54 million provided through the Vote principally for work on non-national roads to support housing and other development. Taken together, this will bring investment in this network to almost €440 million this year, that is €38 million, or 9%, above last year's outturn. Over €221 million is being provided for the restoration programme. This means that more than 60% of the deficient network as set out in the 1997 study will have been restored by the end of the year.
This year €487 million will be provided for investment in water and sewerage services. Much of this expenditure will be incurred on the completion of a number of major schemes required under the EU urban wastewater treatment directive. Other expenditure will underpin a major water conservation programme, as well as continuing progress in the implementation of the serviced land initiative which is expected to deliver over 170,000 sites.
For the fifth year in a row I am making record funds available for urgent upgrading of private group water schemes that currently lack effective water disinfection or treatment. I have increased the annual capital allocation for rural water to €70 million and I am allocating most of this spending towards the elimination of organic pollution in group schemes with private sources. Some 40% of these schemes, which serve a total of about 50,000 rural householders, do not meet the required standard at present.
The Government has a strong record on housing. Last year was the fifth successive year of record housing output under the present Government with over 52,600 houses completed. In the greater Dublin area, where demand for housing is greatest, we achieved the highest level of output ever at almost 16,500 units. In our term in office, over 216,000 new houses have been built, representing approximately 18% of our housing stock.
In 2001, local authorities completed 5,000 units and commenced more than 7,000 units, the highest level of starts for over 15 years. After two years of the multi-annual programme, local authorities have delivered almost half the increased level of 25,000 housing starts provided over the period of the programme. The Government's commitment to the local authority housing programme is reflected in the record level of capital funding of over €755 million available this year. This is an increase of over €186 million, or 33%, on the original provision last year. The Government's commitment to developing the voluntary housing sector is borne out also by the level of funding which is being provided this year. Taking both the Exchequer and non-Exchequer provisions together the provision of almost €157 million is up almost 21% on the original provision last year.
Deputies will not be surprised when I say this is the last Estimate I will present to a committee of the 28th Dáil. Looking back over my time as Minister for the Environment and Local Government, I am happy to note the improvements in infrastructure which have occurred since I was appointed to this office. The road network continues to be enhanced, very significant capacity is being added to the water and waste water services and record levels of housing have been, and continue to be, delivered. In addition, despite the heavy pressures of economic growth, we can point to improvement in water quality, a steady roll-out of waste management plans and infrastructure as well as increased levels of recycling. We have transformed the local government system, modernised the planning code and laid the foundations for similar reform in the areas of water services and rating law. I commend the Department's Revised Estimates to the select committee.
I thank the Minister and welcome to the meeting the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy. I wish to point out that there are apologies from Deputy Ó Caoláin.
I thank the Minister for coming here to present the Revised Estimates. However, I do not think everything is as rosy as was portrayed in his last paragraph. On the national development plan, I met the IEI and the National Roads Authority today. We constantly hear that investment under the plan matches expectations. While the money is being spent we do not have the infrastructure or any tangible measure in place. The figures quoted in the plan are in 1999 prices and there is much fudging and juggling with figures. The announcement by the National Roads Authority last week indicates it is behind target and that there is no measurable progress. While money is being spent, much of it is being soaked up in construction inflation, wage inflation and insurance costs.
There is very little transparent monitoring of the progress of the national development plan. I would like more accountability in this regard. We should be able to get a definitive statement as to the original targets and where they now stand. There will be a review next year but I believe that is much too late because we will have gone a long way down the road with a plan which does not match expectations in many spheres. I know a lot of planning work for roads was held up by local objections last year. The cost of overcoming those objections and meeting the demands of groups has eaten into the provision for very valuable infrastructure. We have noted with disappointment the progress made by the National Roads Authority.
We heard the Minister say that investment will be made in non-national roads. However, many such roads are in a dreadful state. I am most familiar with the Cork County Council area and in many cases it is just playing catch-up. The money provided for non-national roads only allows councils to catch up on repair work on roads after bad weather. We do not seem to make progress. We need to see a far greater level of investment in this area to provide roads that approach the standards required. I have seen engineers trying to spread the very small roads provision thinly to satisfy all interest groups. No valuable progress is being made in road restructuring which many roads, especially those which carry a heavy volume of traffic in urban areas, need. People believe the roads they use are not of an acceptable standard, a matter about which we have heard over the past five years at this committee.
I know the Estimate for social housing programmes is up by €209 million, but the increase is accounted for by the Ballymun redevelopment initiative and the redevelopment of Dublin Corporation flats and does not provide for any additional housing. Housing lists have increased in all areas. In spite of this the provision does not allow for any increase in the number of housing units. Much more can be done in this area.
Local authorities are not geared to provide the numbers of houses required of them. The serviced land initiative is not advancing as we had hoped it would. It is said it is to provide 170,000 sites. Where are they? There is a huge hold up in the system. The provision in the Estimate does not allow for one extra house. I have no doubt that the projects mentioned are very worthwhile, but we need to do much more in this area.
The shared housing initiative is very important. There are people who fall between the local authority housing list and buying their own house. It is a vast chasm. An awful lot of people should be helped and supported in buying their own house. I would like to see more action in this area driven by Government. It is a very valuable scheme and should be expanded.
We have not made any advances in recycling. Last week we heard the announcement of the closure of the Ardagh plant which is a set back for glass recycling, one of the materials on which we had made some progress. At less than 9%, we have one of the lowest recycling rates in Europe. The provision of incinerators, landfill sites and waste management facilities is being frustrated. We have made no progress in reducing or recycling our waste. Our only solution is end disposal proposals. We have regressed in this area.
I would like to start on a positive note by welcoming the statement by the Minister that this will be the last Estimate that he will present to the committee.
In this Dáil.
I was inclined to take the more benign view of what the Minister said, but now that he has entered that caveat I will not. No Minister has come before the committee or its equivalent with Estimates for the Department of the Environment and Local Government with more money. A lot of money has been presented before the committee. With so much money available to the Minister, why have the high levels of achievement that he claimed for himself and the Administration in his concluding remarks not been achieved? The claim about improvements to our infrastructure is simply untrue. Our infrastructure is far short of what it should be and what we need for the development of our economy and the maintenance of economic prosperity.
The term "infrastructural deficit" has become something of a cliché. The plan to advance our infrastructure in a coherent way, which was supposed to be captured in the long promised national spatial strategy, has never seen the light of day. The Minister has talked about a national spatial strategy since he took office and it appears he will leave office without publishing it. The Government, which had so much money available to it, has not left any vision, plan or coherent view as to how the infrastructural deficit is to be made up, other than what is contained in the national development plan, a pot-pourri of individual projects.
The claim that our road network continues to be enhanced is something that will cause wry amusement to motorists stuck in bottlenecks on many main primary roads and motorists and commuters stuck in traffic in our major cities. It is no secret that the road programme under the national development plan is behind schedule. The aspiration to have dual carriageways or motorways linking Dublin and other major urban centres by the end of 2006 will not be achieved. The threat of foot and mouth disease, followed by the refusal of the farmers' organisation to co-operate with the National Roads Authority, was a gift horse for the Minister as it provided cover for the failure to release resources for the road programme. Coupled with the failure of his colleague to advance the public transport structure, we have a country that is grinding to a halt under this Administration.
A lot of money is spent on water and related services, yet there is the scandal that, in a country which prides itself on being clean and green, water in many rural areas is not fit to drink. People must boil it to make it potable and safe or else buy bottled water.
The claim about housing is laughable. It is true to say, as the Minister does, that the Government has a strong record on housing, but it will still be remembered as the one which put home ownership beyond the reach of couples on low to modest incomes. The people who traditionally could buy a home in this State can no longer do so from their own resources as a direct consequence of the Government's policies and its failure to deal with the housing problem.
Discussing housing units is meaningless without examining the type being produced. It may be that, in the Government's lifetime, 216,000 new houses were built, but the scandal is that there were more holiday homes than local authority houses for families who need them. The claim that after two years of the multi-annual programme local authorities have delivered almost half the increased level of 25,000 housing starts, provided for in the PPF, is untrue. In the year 2000 the number of local authority houses was only slightly over 2,000. The Minister's statement today indicates that local authorities completed 5,000 units in 2001, which brings us to slightly over 7,000 local authority houses completed in the first two years of the PPF.
The Minister concentrates on headlines and the big percentage, but on page 115, under subhead B1, the small print on the allocation for the provision of local authority housing reveals a €577 million outturn last year, while in 2002 it will be €661 million. After one takes into account construction inflation, this means that the number of dwellings will be the same as in 2001. By the end of 2002 this allocation will have provided for a total of slightly over 12,000 houses, barely half what was planned for in the PPF for a four year period. Meanwhile, local authority housing lists have grown astronomically. At Question Time last week the Minister refused to give the House the number of applicants on local authority lists. I estimate, from information supplied by local authorities, that there are about 60,000. The Minister will only use the out-of-date 1999 figures. I invite him to tell us at the end of his term of office how many are on local authority lists in order that we can see the true effects of his polices. Many families are waiting in appalling circumstances for local authority housing.
The claim in the Minister's statement that there has been a steady roll-out of waste management plans and infrastructure is half true. If plans, documents and statements could convert waste into a useful product, the Minister would have been a roaring success. Unfortunately, there has been no corresponding roll-out of waste management infrastructure, which is what is needed. At the end of the Minister's term of office we have landfill sites reaching the end of their lives with no alternatives being provided. A little over a year ago in Ballinasloe people's bins were suddenly no longer collected because of this problem which is likely to arise elsewhere.
Waste management infrastructure, especially recycling facilities, is in decline. Last week the closure of Ardagh Glass, our biggest glass recycling facility, was announced. Rehab, which collects glass for recycling, although only a small amount of what is available, stated it was as a consequence in serious trouble. The one area of recycling that appeared to be a success failed and the Minister only issued a bland statement of regret.
I am concerned about other points in the Estimate, principal among which is the reduction in the local government fund of 12%, from €475 million to €419 million, at a time when local authorities are being asked to undertake additional responsibilities. The fund enables them to carry out day-to-day maintenance work on roads, water and other services. The cut will be felt on every street in the country through lack of public lighting, roads not being swept or public spaces not maintained.
I see nothing for the establishment of the penalty points system for which legislation is passing through the Houses. It looks as though we are moving in the opposite direction. It is indicated on page 117 of the revised Estimate, under subhead C3, that the provision for national vehicle computerisation was €9.7 million last year which has been reduced to €6.5 million this year when we are supposed to be starting the penalty points system. The Government has delayed bringing forward the legislation, implementation of which will be delayed because the national driver file is not in place, yet in the Estimate there is a reduction in the provision.
It is in place.
Where is it? Why has the money been cut?
When money is provided in year one and it actually achieves what we are looking for, we do not provide the same amount in year two.
We were told it would cost about €11 million per year. The amount provided for in next year's Estimate is €6.5 million.
The Deputy is comparing apples with oranges.
I am comparing one year with another. In the year the Minister is supposed to introduce the penalty points system it does not make sense that the amount of money being provided for in the Estimate is €3 million less than the amount provided for last year, particularly when we were told that the amount required was €11 million.
May I intervene? The Deputy is making a mistake in regard to the penalty points system. He is forgetting that part of the computerised system that has to be put in place comes under the Estimates for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The funding is now in place. All the work to be done on our side has been provided for.
Is it done? Is the file now in place?
Not on the side of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Work in respect of the Courts Service and Garda barracks is not complete.
We will now end up at the end of the year without it. I already see the script forming that we now have two Departments——
The Deputy knows that it is an integrated system. There is another Department involved. If the Deputy did not know that, he is not following how the system works.
I can see exactly what will happen. We will pass the legislation and then pass the buck between one Department and another as to which is responsible for implementing it.
The Deputy is making a classical mistake. It is an integrated system. The Courts Service and 41 Garda stations around the country must be involved.
It is not happening.
It all has to feed into the driver database in Shannon and the local authority licensing system. All the local government elements are in place. What was being spoken about recently was the Courts Service and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform side for which funding has been provided and for which the contract will be signed.
We can return to this matter during the question and answer session. Will the Deputy conclude his opening remarks? We can go into more detail as the session develops.
I will. I suppose the only comfort I can take from this is that both the Minister and the Minister of State will be out of office by the time the national driver penalty points system comes into operation.
That is a fantasy, like the rest of the Deputy's statements.
There is no fantasy involved. Everything I have said is grounded in fact.
The Deputy should get involved in——
Deputy Gilmore to continue without interruption, please.
The Chairman should protect me from harassment by the two Ministers. I have never made a personal statement about either of them.
The Deputy should try not to be provocative and to conclude, please.
That is an impossible task.
It is my job to be provocative. My final point is that I note no increase has been provided for for the planning tribunal. Given that the stated intention is to appoint three new members, will the Minister indicate if additional money is to be provided?
I thank the Deputy. That brings us to the detail of the Estimate and the question and answer session. We will deal, first, with subheads A1 to A8 which deal with the administration of the Department.
There is an increase of about 25% for consultancy services this year. What consultancy services are proposed in the next year?
Is this to do with subhead A7?
We have to make provision for consultancies during the course of the next 12 months, among which will be the construction industry review and outlook, a report carried out on an annual basis; public-private partnerships integrated financial and legal services; an EU price parity study; a residential repairs and maintenance service study which will deal with housing stock, and a human resources study related to the implementation of change management within the Department. There will also be a consultancy in relation to the completion of the e-strategy for the Department and others outside the administration budget related to the national development plan. Those mentioned are the major consultancies within the budget.
Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur faoin ghrúpa stiúrtha don Ghaeilge. Níor caitheadh airgead ar bith anuraidh ar an ghrúpa agus nuair a chuir mé ceist ar an Aire cúpla seachtain ó shin, ba léir ón bhfreagra nach bhfuil an grúpa stiúrtha ag obair ar chor ar bith faoi láthair ach go bhfuil sé ar intinn ag an Aire grúpa nua a chur le chéile. Níl sa mheastachán seo ach €4,000 don ghrúpa stiúrtha don bhliain seo chugainn. Léiríonn sin nach bhfuil an Rialtas seo i ndáiríre faoin Ghaeilge sa chóras rialtais áitiúil. Tá an-obair déanta ag na húdárais áitiúla ar fud na tíre i dtaobh na Gaeilge, cuid acu, cosúil le mo chomhairle chondae féin, le córas aistriúcháin curtha ar bun. Bhíodh an grúpa stiúrtha an-ghníomhach i dtaobh na Gaeilge. Bhí roinnt mhaith stuif eagraithe acu - comhdháileanna, cruinnithe agus cúrsaí traenála - ach níl grúpa stiúrtha ann faoi láthair. An leor an méid atá sa mheastachán don bhliain seo chugainn?
Tá muid ag caint faoin Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta, Gaeltachta agus Oileán.
I assume the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, will reply.
He may translate for me if he wishes in relation to the grúpa stiúrtha.
We have €4,000 in the budget. The administration budget allows for flexibility. It is precisely because I have an interest in advancing the cause of Irish at local authority level that I am looking at the question of the grúpa stiúrtha. I do not want to dismiss what it did in the past, but it could have been more effective. There should have been a greater level of activity. The local authorities should have been more active. They held cruinnithe in gach áit in Éireann, but a lot more could have been done at that level to advance the cause of Irish. That is the reason we are talking to the other Department involved before the matter is finalised. We can proceed once those talks are finalised. If further funding is required during the course of the year, we will be able to provide it because there is flexibility within the budget.
"Consultancy services" is a popular heading in every organisation and under which I note a massive increase - 25%. Is the Minister satisfied that there is value for money? In Wexford County Council we found that over the past four or five years we were forced to employ consultancy services for planning. However, we achieved far better results and far better value for money by using our own staff. Consultants can charge what they like, particularly when they have undertaken the research and the council needs the information.
The Deputy is referring to the appointment of consultants for infrastructural projects. The consultancies mentioned are hired after a competitive tendering process. Obviously, the one deemed most economically advantageous is accepted. I have often heard criticisms of the number of consultancies employed by Departments and local authorities. To a certain extent it is the result of the pressure put on various sections of Departments where the workload of civil servants necessitates the hiring of consultants who will be required to examine the matter in question and present documents which will then be used as a basis for recommendations to the Minister. If there was complete flexibility regarding employment within each of the sections in the Department, we would be able to cut down on the use of consultants. I am satisfied that there are no unnecessary consultancies. The consultancies we hire give value for money. We have had one or two experiences where the consultancy service was not as good as expected, but in general terms, they are good.
Is the Minister aware of unforeseen expenses and unforeseen items in respect of charges? That was the experience of Wexford County Council. Items were added on.
That does not happen as much in the case of the consultancy services about which we are talking which come under the administrative budget. It can often happen, however, on infrastructural projects. I accept the point made by the Deputy that very often in the case of infrastructural projects problems arise, that half way through a contract somebody comes up with a suggestion which can cause costs to escalate.
I ask the Minister to explain the item entitled "Recoupment for staff on loan".
Due to the change in the Planning and Development Act we had staff on loan to An Bord Pleanála and the NRA. Staff are still with the NRA. In some cases local authority staff come to work in the Department.
We will now move on to discussion of subheads B.1 to B. 4, which deal with housing.
The issue of housing is the subject of ongoing debate in every constituency in the country. As Deputy Gilmore said, we have been unable to establish from the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, the extent of the housing problem across the country. As far as County Wexford is concerned, in 1997 there was a waiting list of approximately 1,200. There is a waiting list of 1,800 at present. The up-to-date position is completely different from that in 1999. Many have been placed on the housing list since that date.
There is an increase of approximately 2% in the private sector housing grant subsidy. I am prepared to accept that the public sector will never be able to resolve the housing crisis because there will never be enough money to do so. It will only be done with the co-operation of the private sector through the provision of affordable housing and grants. The first-time house buyer's grant has been £3,000 for the last 12 years in which period the price of houses has trebled. The grant should be increased to encourage people to buy their own houses to get off the housing list.
The Department has retained authority, even for the building of a cottage in County Wexford. I cannot understand the reason this has not been changed. County councils should be given authority for the construction of housing schemes of up to ten houses. Guidelines could still be laid down by the Department regarding costings, but there is often a delay in the granting of permission for housing schemes. I ask the Minister to consider the proposition that authority be given to county councils for the development of housing schemes of up to ten houses within guidelines laid down by the Department.
I presume the heading "Private Housing Grants and Subsidies" includes the scheme of subsidies for affordable housing and affordable sites being provided by local authorities. I have operated such a scheme in Gorey for the past 20 years, long before the idea was developed by the Department. We have provided private sites for people to build their own houses and the Department has always given its approval. This is the one area where progress can be made, but only by looking at the ability of a person to repay a loan. Taking all things into consideration, including site subsidy, private houses in Wexford are costing in the region of £90,000. There is a regulation whereby any subsidy can go up to £25,000 per site. I appeal to the Minister to relax the requirements on Wexford County Council and let it build the houses required. It should not be necessary to come back repeatedly for approval for a single house up to ten houses. I am dissatisfied with the outlook for private housing given by the Government. Adding 2% to an Estimate that is already way below the requirement will do nothing to resolve the problem.
What is the Minister's estimate of the current number of applicants on local authority housing lists nationally? Does he have the results of the housing strategies adopted by local authorities last July? What is the total estimate of the number of applicants on local authority housing lists as shown in the strategies?
The completion of 50,000 housing units per annum over the past four or five years is a very significant achievement. Clearly, some credit goes to the Minister and the Department. Much credit also goes to those in the business of building houses and units. Deputy Gilmore made the reasonable point that a substantial percentage may be holiday houses. The scheme under which the vast majority were built was introduced by the Government of which he was a member and required major amendments subsequently. A substantial amount of tax revenue was foregone that ought not have been. In the general context of housing, an output of 50,000 units per annum is extraordinarily high. Given the complaints we heard about the difficulties experienced in the area, the outturn for last year was extra-ordinary.
I have a number of questions about Traveller accommodation and some of the schemes administered by the county councils. I keep being asked about the perceived delay in implementing the Traveller accommodation programme and whether somebody is engaged in assessing the causes of the delays in the various places? We are all familiar with towns and villages throughout the country where the county councils are trying to provide halting sites. The ones that receive the most publicity are those where there is a very high level of objection. It is not universally the case that there is a very high level of objection, which is not the principal reason for lack of progress.
One reason was brought to my attention last week. Apparently, councils are either required to have a practice of requiring Travellers to sign an agreement that they are prepared to inhabit a particular site before the council concerned purchases it. In the past county and urban councils have had the experience of purchasing sites in which the Travellers subsequently refused to reside. It is, therefore, probably a sensible requirement. However, it is causing enormous delays.
I cite the example of Ennistymon, a small town around which there are to be three or four families living on halting sites. Up to last week only one of the four families concerned had a signed agreement to reside in one of the sites proposed by the county council. Clearly in that case, the county council just cannot move. Usually, we assume the blame for delay resides either with the county council or residents objecting to the sites. In this instance neither is the case. I give this as an example of many little niggling difficulties that seem to significantly delay the process of providing acceptable levels of accommodation for people generally living in appalling conditions. Is it possible to address this? In this case the people concerned seem to be contributing to their own difficulties.
Many people, particularly those in local authority housing estates, are concerned that the shared ownership scheme, which to a certain extent is taken up by Traveller families, frequently results in virtually entire estates being sold to Traveller families. If we have a strategy that operates on the basis of integration, it is clearly being negated in these cases. The inevitable result is the creation of ghettoised elements in particular housing estates, which is not helpful in the long-term.
I apologise for illustrating difficulties without proposing solutions. It has been suggested that since these are local authority houses there should be some kind of quota system beyond which the transfer of houses would not happen. I would have grave reservations about doing this, but understand the difficulties brought to my attention by people who worry where this is leading.
There is an 8% increase across the board in the disabled person's and the essential repairs grant schemes, which seems reasonable and exceeds inflation. However, these are schemes which for fairly modest amounts of expenditure bring significant benefits. In effect, in many instances people who might otherwise have to go into care are able to remain in their own homes. They bring a level of comfort far in excess of the outlay on them. Clare County Council probably has a two year waiting list to start paying out. It is one of the councils which proposes to introduce an income limit for the disabled person's grants scheme for example. I have been asked to inquire if this is entirely legal within the parameters of the scheme in the first instance and whether it is desirable.
The fact that 170,000 sites have been made available under the serviced land initiative demonstrates it is working very well. This is a huge number of sites which would probably account for almost four years outturn of private development. The Minister made no reference to the RAPID initiative which holds out considerable hope for the future in relation to what it might achieve in particular communities. My experience has been that local authorities, in general, tend to have housing budgets that are either in difficulty or in penury. One area that suffers dramatically is that of maintenance of their rented stock. It is clear this cannot be addressed within capital resources. In the case of local authority rented accommodation a very good case can be made for some kind of scheme, perhaps rent rebate based, which would enable tenants to carry out basic improvements, for example, to windows and doors and get some credit for it. It is clear that in many instances councils find this a step too far financially.
I mentioned the shared ownership scheme. Is there any question of increasing the funding allowed under the scheme to ensure more applicants qualify? With house price inflation, in large urban areas people are finding this more difficult. There must be some way of recognising this. Has the Minister any plans to increase the funding? On the serviced land initiative, the Minister said it is expected to deliver over 170,000 sites. What is the time-scale in that regard? What is the current position and when will those sites be delivered? In the Estimates, under subhead B2, there appears to be no provision for an increase in grants for new houses - the figure stands at €38 million for last year and this year. If we are to increase the provision of new houses, one would expect that allocation to increase. Perhaps I am not reading it correctly, but the figure appears to be stagnant.
Most of those questions were answered by the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy. In relation to the SLI, at the end of December 2001, 80,000 sites were completed or under construction and it is expected that a further 87 schemes, providing 80,000 sites, will commence this year. While the matter rests largely with the local authorities, those starting this year, depending on their size, will take from 12 months to two years to complete.
I have listened, over the past 12 months, to the Opposition bemoaning the critical state of the house building industry. Now that the outcome for the year can be seen, it must be somewhat embarrassing for them to challenge the Government on its housing record.
It is not in the least embarrassing.
I know it is the duty of people in Opposition to be critical at all times.
There is very little embarrassment on the Government side anyhow.
There never seems to be room for a word of appreciation or congratulation to emanate from the Opposition benches. However, I have been here long enough not to be greatly surprised by that, although I believe the record of the House will show that, when I was in Opposition, I at least gave credit where it was due. The achievement of 52,600 house completions in the year 2001 was a fantastic record. That is due to measures the Government took in the years since it came into office and those measures were often criticised by the Opposition and by some people in the building industry. The issues confronting us immediately on coming into office included a huge demand for housing, with no provision made to meet it, as well as a huge increase in house prices, putting houses out of reach of people who would normally have been in a position to buy them. Those issues were included in the programme for Government, following the discussions with our partners in Government, in which the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, and I participated.
We took some tough measures to deal with house prices and housing output and to ensure that first time buyers got the priority this Government wanted them to get in terms of restoring their position in the market place. We have succeeded in doing that. Builders will confirm that they are now inundated with demands for housing from first time buyers. That was not the position formerly - it was an investors' market and house prices were being driven through the roof due to the recoupment of exorbitant land prices. We took tough measures to deal with that and, although they were unpopular with people in the industry at the time, their true effects are now being shown and we have not, in any way, damaged the industry, contrary to some predictions. I recall newspaper headlines to the effect that some of the measures we introduced would put up house prices by 20% and this would result in no housing being built for first time buyers. The very opposite has happened. House prices have stabilised and, in the higher price range, reductions are being recorded in many cases. There is now a state of realism in the housing market and a readjustment on the part of house builders to planning for the future. They see that the Government is serious about the provision of homes at a reasonably affordable price. We have taken other measures to encourage investment in the provision of accommodation for renting.
It is disingenuous on the part of DeputyGilmore at this stage, when the facts and figures are out there in the public arena, to seek to deliberately mislead the committee and to continue with his propaganda based on false figures and false information.
They are not false figures.
In the Deputy's earlier contribution, he said the Government had not achieved half of what it said it would achieve.
That is right.
The Deputy is confusing starts with completions.
No, I am not.
The Deputy is doing so and he is leaving out acquisitions. In the PPF, the commitment was to start 22,000 houses over the five year period from 2000 to 2004. When we published——
The Minister of State is changing the goal posts.
I am being constantly interrupted. That is obviously a tactic also.
The Minister of State interrupted me earlier.
When we published Action on Housing, we increased the PPF target from 22,000 starts to 25,000 starts. In 2000, the first year of the programme, we achieved 5,000 local authority housing starts. Last year, we achieved 7,000 starts - 7,000 plus 5,000 equals 12,000 and the target was 22,000 initially, which we increased to 25,000. We exceeded the initial PPF target, which the Deputy is quoting and we nearly made——
Why were they never finished?
——our increased target. It is deliberately misleading on the Deputy's part to seek to mix up start commitments and completion commitments, which are two entirely separate matters, and to omit acquisitions. I hope that has straightened the record in that regard. I would at least expect any comments to be based on the actual figures. The Deputy asked about the estimate for the national housing strategy. The estimated need was for 58,000 applicants on the waiting list.
At what date?
Some 58,000 last summer?
That was the figure, yes. In 1999, when the last national assessment of housing lists was undertaken, the total number of applicants on the list was 59,000. When that assessment was completed and all the applicants were interviewed individually, account was taken of applicants not approved, applicants included in more than one list, the number suited to social housing, the number suited to SWA, resident overcrowding, suitability for local authority housing, those included in other local authority housing assessments and the number of travellers suited to caravan parks. When all those criteria, as is the norm, were applied, the actual housing need was established and the figure reduced to 39,176. In the previous assessment carried out in 1996, the experience was similar. The number of people on the housing list is different, in reality, from the actual housing need and the assessment is carried out for that purpose. The housing strategy figure, which is the only figure we have since the full national assessment of 1999, is 58,000. There is no way of knowing how many of those are double applicants, how many have other accommodation and how many can be accommodated otherwise until the assessment is done. That assessment requires each individual applicant to be interviewed and to record their particular circumstances. It is very extensive and not something that one could undertake every year. We could probably think about doing it every second year. It ties up local authority staff for quite a long time. However, it is important that we get the statistics right in order that we can plan to meet that need as quickly as possible, where resources allow.
Deputy Killeen asked about Traveller halting sites and related delays, given that there was not a high level of objections from the public. The funding, as shown in the Estimate, has gone up substantially. There is no delay in the Department in approving any application received. The Department has approved applications from local authorities where the costing involved far exceeded what was given as a guideline price in order to ensure Traveller housing needs were met. I am happy when I see applications coming in from local authorities for funding, approval and accommodation for Travellers.
The problem is that I am not receiving enough applications to meet the housing need that I know is there. In County Clare a serious effort has been made by local authority members and the community to try to meet the needs of Travellers. I am pleased to inform Deputy Killeen that the most recent application I received last week was approved very quickly be me, at a price which well exceeded the normal guideline price with which the Department would have been expected to comply. We have been very generous because of the circumstances in approving certain proposals from the local authorities, and did so in the case of County Clare last week.
The shared ownership scheme was mentioned by Deputy Clune, in respect of which there is open demand. The Department does not know in any given year how many will apply for shared ownership. Some local authorities are very good at utilising this excellent scheme. I am disappointed that there are others which do not make adequate use of it. The income limits are kept under review to ensure the figures are realistic in relation to market prices. At the same time, people must be able to afford to take on the financial obligation to meet the repayments. Their ability to do so is obviously a factor.
Deputy D'Arcy asked the position across the country in relation to housing lists, a question I have answered. The exact figure will not be known until the results of the assessment are completed. The assessment is being undertaken this month and will continue for some months. The final figures will not be available until August or September.
Deputy D'Arcy also asked the reason local authorities are not allowed to build houses without having to apply to the Department for approval for funding.
Up to ten months.
Is that what the Deputy is suggesting?
They may do so. There are guidelines laid down and cost control limits determined for each area. If they come within these limits, which are reviewed annually, they can proceed. They do not have to apply to the Department. I am confused as to what is at issue here.
I take issue with the Minister of State. It is my understanding that we must seek approval from the Department, even for a single SI house in respect of costings.
Only where it exceeds the guidelines, which are very generous.
When are they reviewed?
I am not conscious that many files from Wexford come across my desk for approval. I assume, therefore, that they are being approved locally.
I was in contact with officials of the Minister of State's Department, whom I thank for their courtesy, in trying to have single houses cleared where there was a hold up, where contractors were saying they needed approval within a fortnight, and where the county council was waiting for approval from the Department. I am not sure if this is an excuse. If the guidelines are in keeping with the cost of housing, that is one thing. However, if they are too low, every scheme will be submitted to the Department, even for a single house.
I can look at the position in Wexford, but do not expect that it will present major problems with regard to price. The Deputy should first discuss the matter with officials at local authority level and ask what are the guidelines. They can make that assessment. If the Deputy wishes to come back to me, I will be pleased to address the issue.
The Minister of State says he does not find any problems in the case of Wexford applications——
They would not all come across my desk. However, the facility is available. That decision was made a number of years ago. It is a facility that was decided on to expedite the procedures in relation to the provision of housing, not, as the Deputy says, in order that everything is held up by having to submit the scheme to Dublin for approval. In most areas, if current cost guidelines and other factors can be met, schemes can proceed without having to be submitted to the Department.
We will proceed to subheads C1 to C4, dealing with roads.
This a very important heading as far as Wexford County Council is concerned because it is responsible a very high mileage of roads, some of which are in very bad condition. To put the matter in context, in County Wexford there are approximately 2,100 miles of road which includes 1,700 miles of county roads. This year for national roads the Minister gave Wexford County Council a reduced amount, approximately €180,000 less than previously, which I noticed when looking at the figures the other day. This is a great mistake because roads must be maintained. It is a mistake to have a reduction in the level of maintenance.
The main point I want to make relates to non-national roads which across the country, county roads in particular, are in a ferocious condition. That is the only way to describe it. During the discussions on the county estimates for last year three or four of us got together - including Fianna Fáil members because we work as a good unit in Wexford County Council - to see if there was any way we could provide money to bring county roads up to a reasonable standard. In lengthy discussions with the county manager we discussed a five year plan of X amount per annum. The county manager asked the county engineer to come back with the financial requirements for such a five year plan. The county engineer said the requirement to bring the roads in question up to a reasonable standard was between £40 million and £50 million, which is beyond the capacity of ratepayers in County Wexford. The county manager clearly stated this was not a county but a national issue and would have to be dealt with by the national parliament as far as finance was concerned.
This matter will never be solved by the counties concerned as the requirement is too high and the roads in question are in such bad condition. The Minister must look at this. If the level of deterioration over the next five years is as bad as in the last five, a stage will be reached where county roads across Ireland will have to be closed as they will be too dangerous for road users. Complaint after complaint is being received concerning claims of one type or another for damage to cars and for personal injuries. Accidents are being caused by the condition of roads. I am not exaggerating when I say this. The cycle for surface dressing has reached the stage where it is only done by Wexford County Council once every 16 to 18 years. Engineers ask for this to be done every seven to eight years if they are to maintain a reasonable standard.
Road users, mostly car users, have been put to severe expense in the last ten years, in particular. The cost of cars, petrol and repairs have all gone up, from which revenue for the Government is substantial. The number of cars sold over the past five or six years is enormous. Therefore, there is substantial revenue to the Exchequer from car owners.
Motorists are aggravated in respect of the condition of county roads. I appeal to the Minister to look at the matter, not from a county but from a national perspective. A proper ten year plan should be drawn up to bring the roads in question up to a reasonable standard. That is the recommendation of Wexford County Council engineers. I have travelled the country and spoken to other county councillors who speak of the same problems.
The increase last year was approximately 15% for non-national roads, which, according to the county engineer, was reduced to about 5% when substantial wage increases were taken into consideration. This year's increase in allocations to Wexford County Council for non-national roads is 9%, which is entirely inadequate. The Department is advertising its programme, Better Local Government, but it is difficult to finance better local government, including road improvements, when there is little or no money. I appeal to the Minister to deal with non-national roads, which is a major issue in every county and constituency.
It is not too long since we were here wondering whether the National Roads Authority had the capacity to get its house in order to deliver the proposals under the national development plan. I do not know what the Minister said to the authority, but it has worked almost too well, as almost all road projects seem to be ahead of schedule. Grave concerns were also expressed that industry was unable to deliver on the projects in the plan, but, clearly, that is not the case as expenditure in 2001 was 106% of that initially provided for. People will always complain that things are not happening quickly enough, but we should recognise the successes of the Minister and the NRA. The national development plan was initially considered to be scarcely attainable, but we are now looking at achieving its aims more quickly than was originally intended.
The Minister said the allocation for national roads improvement works has increased by €170 million on last year's figure. I deduce that we spent an additional €120 million last year than we had provided and presume this was provided for in a Supplementary Estimate. Many would argue that we should not encourage such increases in expenditure, but I take issue with such an attitude. I know the Minister cannot guarantee he will be in a position to provide the Supplementary Estimate next October personally, but if the NRA can move quicker than has been the case heretofore, we should facilitate it to do so. It is very encouraging that we went in such a direction last year.
There is some validity in Deputy D'Arcy's comments on non-national roads, but in my experience the local government fund has been an enormous success. Many had reservations about it initially, but practitioners view it as more satisfactory than previous arrangements. While I am no longer a councillor, I have spoken to some of my former colleagues about the matter. The 1997 review of the state of non-national roads was extremely discouraging. It was argued that restoration of the roads on the list within ten years was impossible, but 60% have been completed. Naturally, their completion has meant a decrease in the number of roads which are in a bad state and require maintenance work. The upshot is that while potholes will always occur in the Irish climate, they are now being dealt with much more quickly. Deputy D'Arcy's point in relation to resurfacing is a valid one. We should endeavour to get much better value from our resources by including a provision for subsequent surface dressing in the restoration programme. This happens in many cases, but not always. It is fair to say that if the 1997 study was replicated now, one would find huge improvement, by any objective standards.
I thank Deputies for their contributions and I am sure they will appreciate it if I do not go up and down by-roads and county roads in County Wexford, County Clare or anywhere else.
We will do that for the Minister.
I have been around some by-roads in County Wexford in recent weeks. I brace myself between mid-January and the end of March each year for demands for huge increases in funding for non-national roads, despite the fact that I have announced the non-national road allocations. This is the worst time of year for roads and I usually receive requests for deputations in relation to the need for more money for non-national roads before Easter each year. People do not become disinterested thereafter, but as the weather changes, repair work can be expedited.
There are four years remaining in the restoration plan and we have reached all our targets so far. About 52% of roads in the programme had been completed by the end of last year, a figure which will rise to 60% by the end of this year. I am confident that we can continue to maintain progress on the programme.
Perhaps I should not talk about him behind his back, but if I had said in 1997 to Deputy Gilmore, who gets very exercised by these matters, that I would double the money available for non-national roads by the time I leave office, he probably would have jumped and danced around the place and accused me of making all kinds of false promises. We have, however, achieved such a success in the last four years. It is worthy of note that funding for non-national roads has increased from £219 million to £438 million. There is no doubt that there will always be problems with non-national roads, as we have a large network, but we are making reasonably good progress.
When I came to office the National Roads Authority, for various reasons, was operating on a stop-start basis in relation to national roads. Foremost of these reasons was that the authority was not certain of its future funding. These financial constraints meant that it had to work from year to year, bringing forward projects for approval on an annual basis. Delays in statutory procedures meant that it had no other projects in the pipeline and was unable to spend its money. It got its act together following a review of its procedures. Deputy Killeen rightly mentioned that it spent £120 million more than was planned last year, which shows that it has increased its efficiency and effectiveness. I could not encourage such overspending on an ongoing basis as I have to work within the parameters of budgets, but it is a good indication of the fact that the NRA has improved. I could quote a range of statistics, as I did at the outset, to illustrate the progress made.
As I said to NRA officials following the review in which I asked it to keep moving forward, the planning and design of routes are crucially important. We will build as many roads as we can and provide record amounts of money. I do not care if 25 or 30 projects have been planned, designed and passed through statutory procedures but have to wait for a few years for money to come on stream. It is better that we plan and design as many schemes as possible in order that we will not have to go back to the drawing board when things turn around, wondering whether we will be able to get projects for the money we want. There are a number of such schemes at present. When money becomes available they will be advanced very quickly and the list of roads will rise.
The record of my Department and the NRA has been impressive in recent years. There have been, I believe, more than 60 schemes, many of which had been lying around for eight or ten years. Last year alone 14 schemes were completed and more than 60 are currently in planning and design. The roads programme is up and running and although it has the ability to absorb huge amounts of money in coming years, it is absolutely necessary that the work is done as quickly as possible.
In response to Deputy Gilmore's comment on the five inter-urban roads, these are being provided for by public-private partnership. Despite a slight delay caused by the failure to carry out some survey work last year, the projects are advancing and I remain confident that they will all be completed within the timeframe of the national development plan. Because decisions were taken a little later on the Waterford road than on the others, it will run over into 2007 whereas the others will be finished on time. I am anxious to advance these projects as quickly as possible because they will release the potential for private finance for road schemes from next year on which will allow us to proceed with other work funded by Exchequer grant aid. Although I take the Deputies' points on non-national roads, it is important to note that good progress has been made in this area in recent years.
Does the Minister honestly believe that councils have the capacity to bring the roads in question up to a reasonable standard? That is a straight question because the argument has been ongoing for ten years. There is an enormous level of deterioration on these roads. We had a reasonable winter with only three weeks of bad weather. Before Christmas there was little or no rain. The number of employees working on our roads is declining year on year and the engineers' excuse is that they do not have enough to buy the material, let alone pay the men. I have raised this with the Minister before. Every county manager shared my view that this should be a national issue. The block grant provided by the Department is not always inadequate and amounts to 9% this year. The problem, particularly surface dressing, cannot be dealt with by the councils, but must be addressed by the Government, whether this one or the incoming one, on a national basis.
I am well used at this stage to being told that local authorities cannot do this, that or the other because they do not have enough money. They have more money than ever because the resources available to them have increased substantially. Engineers, in particular, have the capacity to use all the expenditure available to them and considerably more if one provided it. We all have to live within a budget. We do not have a bottomless pit of taxpayer's money. I am satisfied that the amounts made available are the maximum possible. The local authorities provide almost £150 million on top of the allocation, which amounts to very substantial expenditure on county roads.
I do not envisage that in my lifetime in politics or during the lifetimes of my children or grandchildren that a county manager, county engineer or Opposition Deputy will tell the Minister for the Environment and Local Government he is a great man for providing more money than is required and ask him not to bother sending further allocations. That is not the real world. We live within the allocations available to us and the local authorities must assume responsibility for this. In some cases they will need to prioritise, for example, by spending more money on roads in County Wexford and less on something else.
Will the Minister consider diverting moneys from main and arterial roads to county roads? Does he also accept that county councils cannot raise more funds because his Department imposes a limit on the funds they can raise through rates?
It is up to the Deputy to propose a policy which would allow unlimited increases in rates. I am not sure ratepayers would be too happy with such a measure.
I did not say that.
Through a combination of rates increases and the local government fund we have substantially increased the amount of money available to local authorities, a point accepted by everyone. If one moves money from one head, such as national roads and national secondary routes, to another, one robs Peter to pay Paul. Local authorities have responsibility for local roads, while the NRA is responsible for national roads. Local roads are important to the local economy while national primary and secondary routes are important to the national economy. Therefore, I reject the Deputy's suggestion.
We will proceed to subheads D1 to D3 on the environment.
Will the increase of €29 million be spent on specific projects or is it a more general allocation? As Deputy Gilmore and I stated in our opening remarks, we need vast improvements in the environment, yet the allocation for the litter initiative has been reduced this year. As I am unhappy with the effect of anti-litter measures, I, therefore, oppose what appears to be a proposal to cut back the programme.
I share the widespread view that the Environmental Protection Agency is under-resourced and cannot match what is expected of it across a range of fields. I am aware the Minister plans to introduce legislation in this area. While this may not be the appropriate forum to discuss the matter, many changes are needed and more funding is required for the agency. In the light of what is expected of it, the levels of funding and staffing available to it are insufficient and must be increased. As the matter needs to be discussed at this committee, perhaps we could allocate a whole meeting for this purpose. I ask the Minister to expand on the issue of recycliing and address the matter of the EPA.
This issue revolves around infrastructure. In respect of private sector involvement in infrastructure, both water and sewerage works, current regulations stipulate that all schemes must be approved by the Department to secure grant aid, some of which amounts to 100% of the cost of the scheme. While I do not wish to be repetitive, most counties find that approval for a project comes through only as money becomes available. This is the criterion laid down for approvals and could give rise to a degree of political pressure being applied here or there. Is the Department prepared to consider for grant aid an offer by the private sector to fund essential sewerage and water works?
I welcome the fact the Minister is committed to providing good quality water for the 50,000 rural households in deficient schemes. As with many initiatives, it is difficult to predict the level of interest this one will generate. As there is great interest in the upgrading of group water schemes, I commend the Minister for introducing it. Will the scheme be continued and is the level of interest and uptake exceeding what was predicted? I have a feeling that is the case.
In relation to water quality management, I know the Minister has been examining the nitrates directive and how he can proceed with it. Everybody concedes that it is an important step towards improving water quality and, unusually, a relatively cheap way of providing high quality water in the future. I have spoken to the Minister a great deal about the fact that it will work best if a system can be devised to achieve co-operation with the other players, particularly those involved in agriculture. It will be a difficult system to police if it is introduced with any difficulties. The way the Minister is approaching it is the correct way. There is an onus on the other players to co-operate because water quality management will work best at source and is an area where much ground has been lost over the last 20 or 30 years. I commend the Minister for facing the fact that much work remains to be done which can be done in co-operation with the other players.
The capital programme has seen more work done in the last four years than in the previous 20 or 25. This demonstrates that the capital allocations made available have been productive.
Deputy Clune raised a point about the €29 million spent on recycling facilities. This was on foot of the acceptance of the various regional waste management plans and it is intended that, as part of the encouragement of rolling out the plans, finance will be made available to the private sector and public authorities for the provision of recycling facilities. That is the reason there has been an increase. In relation to the litter initiative——
Is that a figure for collection facilities? I have seen the expansion of green banks in my own area through the local authority.
Yes, among other matters, including materials recovery facilities and civic amenity sites, in particular. The Deputy had a concern regarding the apparent slight reduction in the litter initiative. I can put her mind at rest in that it is a technical matter. The awareness campaign which we run will supplement it, particularly the public advertising aspect. There are a number of litter advertisements, some of which members may have seen. This element is concentrated more on the awareness campaign than on the litter initiative.
People have heard me speak about the EPA, of which I am a supporter because we need an independent body in order that anybody who wishes can refer to it for independent scientific advice on environmental matters. It is accepted as discharging its functions in that context and in relation to licensing very well. I have consistently increased its budget - almost doubling it since 1998. It now has a staff of over 230 - since 1 January it has been increased to 242. In addition, as its capacity and workload expands, it will have an increase in income. It has been built up and I am supportive of it.
In relation to the general query by Deputy D'Arcy concerning the private sector, I am not sure if I have picked up his question correctly, but we have issued a number of circulars to local authorities where development is being held up and a builder or private individual has offered to provide sewerage facilities to allow it go ahead. While we have approved this approach, it is not intended that we will give grants to the private developer if we take over the scheme because the developer is getting the go ahead for a development that would not normally be taking place and will build in the cost of the provision of private facilities into the cost of the houses he sells. In that circumstance he would be paid twice and we have no plans to do this.
In relation to the other points raised by Deputy Killeen, we need to continue for the next number of years the level of expenditure on existing group water schemes, particularly to bring them up to date, protect sources and so on to which we are committed. In 1997 the figure provided for group water schemes was £8 million or £9 million. This year it will be about €70 million. It is important that we continue to look after those that are already in place. There is not a huge number of new schemes awaiting approval. They are picked up quickly in the Department. If one applies this year, one may have to wait until next year, but there is not a huge backlog. It is something positive that local people can do for themselves.
In relation to water quality management, there has been much talk about water quality, but it is important to reiterate that we have been doing a number of things over the last four or five years to try to ensure water quality in group water schemes is specific to drinking water in rural areas. Deputies will be aware that for the first time in 30 years the trend in falling water quality has been reversed, which is a major achievement. As Deputy Killeen rightly says, this was done, not by the Department alone, but in partnership with farming interests, the Irish Detergent Association, local authorities and so on. It is important that this is acknowledged and that we also remember we are talking in relative terms in relation to our water supply. Our bathing water is the best in Europe while our drinking water overall has a compliance rate of 94% for all supplies. We hope that by the end of next year the problems in group water schemes will be totally eliminated because of the programme we have put in place. We are also way ahead of most other European countries on the implementation of the water framework directive because we have established the various catchment management groups.
For legal reasons, we want to resolve the nitrates issue quickly in Brussels, but also because the changes in structure of various grant schemes in the agricultural sector are being held up. There is a threat that not only will the changes be held up, but that the grants may also be. There are many farmers who would be affected by this. We will continue to talk with farming and fisheries interests as well as NGOs which have a particular view which may not coincide with that of the farming community. However, I hope that within a couple of weeks we will be able to move ahead and make the initial decision on the nitrates directive in particular. Are we to adopt a whole-territory approach, as we will need to for waste management, water framework and climate change or will we concentrate on nitrate vulnerable zones specifically and implement the others separately? That is the initial decision we must make, following which the regulations will need to be put in place. I look forward to co-operation from all the interested parties over the next number of years.
Deputy D'Arcy asked about approvals. This is something of which I am very conscious since I came into the Department. Having spoken to managers and so on around the country about the required approval procedures, we have changed the procedures. There are three different thresholds for approval for water, sewerage or major waste water facilities. Up to a couple of years ago no reference to the Department was required if a scheme was worth less than £250,000. I doubled that to £500,000. Only limited reference to the Department was required for schemes worth between £250,000 and £1 million. That might mean that instead of having to obtain four or five approvals for different stages from the Department, only one or two were required. Those limits have been changed to £500,000 and £2 million and these schemes require only a limited number of references. These changes took place after detailed consultations with the Department. For schemes worth over £2 million detailed contact is maintained. These regulations have been there for about 12 months and I am prepared to consider them again. We try to keep them to a minimum.
Despite the fact that Deputies often ask me when I am to approve some sewerage scheme which they hear has been on my desk for a number of weeks, everything on my desk has a 24-hour turnaround time. Applications must first go through other parts of the Department to be investigated technically.
Could the Minister provide an explanation for subhead D2? The allocation for environmental and related services will increase by 412%. The Minister must have a lot of money to give away. What area is that heading for?
That is mainly for waste management grants and so on. Money is being made available for the roll-out of the waste management plans in the various regions. There is money available under the NDP but this money is for grants and for the provision of facilities.
We move on to subhead E which deals with local government.
There is a figure of ?12% under this subhead. Better local government means larger expenditures. We do not like to see money being removed. We provided €2.2 million extra in the Estimates for better local government. Could I have an explanation of these figures?
The local government fund does appear to have been reduced. I will give a technical explanation. It is a 12% reduction on the basis of the amount of money provided in the fund. Members will recall that at the end of last year and during the previous year we received a Supplementary Estimate of €70 million which will only be used this year. It does not mean, as Mr. Gilmore said, that local authorities will have less money to spend on sweeping the streets. This year's figure should be compared with last year's initial allocation and that gives the true figure for the amount of money available to the local government fund this year. There has actually been an increase of €48 or €49 million.
We will move on to subheads F1 to F16 dealing with other services.
There is one chestnut I have been trying to crack for a long time and that is the question of the old SDA loans. The Department gave approval to every county council for fixed interest loans over a long period. The rates varied from 8% to 12.5%. When interest rates came down - and they went down as low as 4.5% - these people were still paying a high level of interest, 12.5% in some cases and 10.5% in others. This is nearly three times the normal rate for loans. I have had this argument with the Department on numerous occasions and it refuses to give in. This is very unfair to the poorer sections of our community who could not acquire a loan from a bank or building society and went to the county council. They are now being asked to pay penal interest rates over a 25-year period. The amount of money left in the fund for those repayments is about £150 million.
I blame the Department of Finance rather than the Department of the Environment and Local Government as it refused to let the latter Department allow people to buy out these loans. They are allowed to buy out the loans but if they have to buy into another loan it costs them £2,000. Some of these loans have as little as £8,000 or £9,000 left to pay, with a tenant. If a person with a loan such as this were to take out another loan from a building society or bank it would cost approximately £2,000 as the deed would have to be changed over. The Department of Finance argues that these people should buy out their loans, but that is most unfair. The Department of the Environment and Local Government should charge only the going interest rate. They brought in that money and it was managed within the Department. They brought it in at the lowest possible interest rate.
This has gone on for a long time - ten years - since interest rates fell to a reasonable level. The argument between the Department of Finance, the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the county councils has continued. This is to do with subsidies of local authorities towards loan charging in respect of the provision of capital service. Is there any hope of this being sorted out? I am not sure how much money is left to be repaid but I reckon it is in the region of £150 million.
There is a provision here for one-stop shops of ?4%. The one-stop shop is very important for the provision of better local government. Formerly, in a place such as Cork everybody within a 50 mile radius had to come in to the central county council office in Cork city. We have been fighting for one-stop shops 20 miles outside Cork in some of the local towns. The same argument is going on in Wexford. However, the managements of county councils have failed to set up these one-stop shops to provide better facilities for ordinary people. What are the proposals under this heading in the Department? What kind of pressure is being exerted on different county councils to put one-stop shops in towns with populations of 9,000 and 10,000 whose inhabitants have to drive 30 or 40 miles to tax their cars? That is most unfair. The same applies when they want to pay their rent or rates. Even the planning services should be brought from the main offices of the county councils to branch offices in order that the people receive a better service.
I was disappointed to see a reduction in the funding allocated for the preservation of and works on protected buildings. Legislation has increased the number of buildings that qualify for protection. While we have made provision for conservation officers in local authorities, we must do more. It is a backward step to reduce funding. Is there a reason for this?
The grant to An Bord Pleanála has also been reduced. There are such delays dealing with the workload in An Bórd Pleanála that we should not reduce the available funding. Instead, it should be increased to allow for additional staff to deal with the workload.
There was a survey in February to establish the number of high interest loans and see what support, if any, we might be able to give to the home owners concerned. The survey showed that the total number of fixed rate housing loans was 63,000 and that the average amount outstanding in individual loans was £5,000.
What is the total amount outstanding?
The total amount outstanding to the local loans fund operated by the Office of Public Works and the Housing Finance Agency in fixed interest rate loans ranging from 7.5% to 12.5% is almost €254 million, or £200 million.
Yes. The cost of a reduction in these fixed interest rate loans to the current local authority fixed rate of 5.3% would be in the region of €14 million, or £11 million, in the first year, declining thereafter as loans were paid off. Borrowers have the option of refinancing at current interest rates. In view of the fact that the average size of loans is small, and they have a longer term to repay them, this should prove attractive. If they had a loan with the building society and tried to refinance, they would have to pay six months' interest. That charge is not made in local authority fixed rate loans. From the point of view of the Department's Estimate, it is a huge amount of money, but from the point of view of the individuals concerned, if the average amount is only £5,000 and they have the option to refinance without having to pay a penalty of six months' interest, they should be encouraged to do so.
The Department of Finance was not willing to take on the burden, bearing in mind that at the time the borrowers concerned got the loans at fixed interest rates others who were not granted local authority loans were paying up to 16% interest. They had a substantial financial advantage because the taxpayer subsidised these fixed interest rate loans over those years. The balance went the other way in recent years, but they had the option of refinancing.
There was no question of subsidies at that stage because the local loans fund was bringing the loans forward, selling them to the county councils which were charging 0.5% interest for administrative purposes. The last time I asked this question, about four years ago, I was told about £190 million was outstanding. The Minister of State says there is now £200 million outstanding. Therefore, no progress has been made. The point was made that people can buy out their loans, but it does not pay to do so. I accept the Department has offered no six month interest charge, but some of the people concerned have paid 12.5% interest over a long period. I cannot understand how the local loans fund could not buy out the loans. No one charges 12.5% interest now. Money can be brought in from Europe at an interest rate of 3.5 %. I cannot understand the reason the local loans fund cannot redeem the loans and pass on the benefits to the people concerned.
The initial survey showed a total of 44,000 individual fixed rate housing loans, but subsequently it was established that some of the information supplied in response to the survey did not include tenant purchase loans. When included, the figure increased to 63,000.
Is there any way the local loans fund can redeem the loans? There is a State management fund for all State funds. Why is the fund in question not managed through the State management fund also?
This offer has been looked at extensively and the best option for the people who have the loans is to refinance them.
That is not what I asked. No one pays interest of 12.5% on loans. I accept the loan was bought forward at a fixed rate, but it can be bought out at a reasonable rate in view of the fact that interest rates are so low across Europe.
If the average loan is £5,000, it would not be a huge burden. People are borrowing £50,000 and £60,000 these days.
It is an unsatisfactory situation that has been badly managed by the Department.
It was not.
It was. The loans should have been redeemed long ago. It was not right to ask the ordinary householder to pay 12.5% interest. That is a ridiculous situation.
The Deputy is leaving one aspect out of the equation. The capital value of the houses involved is now very substantial. Someone who owns an asset worth up to £100,000 and has a loan of only £5,000 with the option of refinancing without penalisation is not in a bad situation.
The capital value of a house is of little use to a man on a low income. He cannot get bread and butter from it.
There are others who have been housed by local authorities and have paid a fortune in rents.
I agree, but this is a penal interest rate. The situation was handled badly by the Department.
There are 18 local authorities involved in one-stop-shop projects, with a further four with projects in the initial stage. There are one-stop-shops operating in 14 different centres in Donegal, Kerry, Meath, Waterford, Dublin city, Galway, Laois, south Dublin, south Tipperary and Wicklow. We expect that further one-stop-shops will open in Donegal, Kerry, Dublin, Galway, Kilkenny, Mayo, Sligo and Wicklow. There are others hoping to open after 2002.
We introduced this initiative for the reason outlined by Deputy Clune - we want to bring services as close as possible to local people. While we have spent €27 million on the initiative over the last four years, I have been disappointed with the responses of some local authorities, but cannot force them to adopt this approach. I would like them to adopt an approach whereby they spread their services to all parts of their functional areas. Donegal County Council is a good example, it intends to provide six one-stop-shops around the county. There are some councils which are of the view that this is another way of getting money for the local area office, but will find that the Department will refuse, and continue to refuse, their applications. It is not just about providing local area offices for the county council, we want to see them incorporating other authorities into the offices concerned, as has been done with urban district councils. We expect to see very significant involvement on the part of other agencies, such as health boards, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, Leader groups and county enterprise boards. We want to see them operating from the one office, something I will encourage. The amount we have tabled is sufficient for what will come up this year.
The reduction in the architectural heritage subhead stems from an initiative introduced with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, I think in 1999. Because the scheme was new and it was relatively late in the year when projects were brought forward, there was not much spent. There was a lot carried over to the following year when there was a much better take-up. That is the reason this year's figure is less than last year's.
The reason for the fall in the allocation to An Bord Pleanála is that it had substantial capital expenditure arising from changing offices, which is detailed in the Estimate. In addition, it has taken on extra functions and its income from fees arising will substantially increase. I make it clear that, like other agencies under the Department's aegis, An Bord Pleanála has had substantial increases in its number of employees in recent years. With the other initiatives, such as employing individuals on a fee per case basis, I expect the backlog to which the Deputy referred will be cleared by the middle of the year.
As there are no questions on the final subhead, subhead G, dealing with appropriations-in-aid and no Fine Gael members want to make concluding remarks about the Estimate, that concludes our consideration of the revised Estimate - Vote 25 - for the Department of the Environment and Local Government for 2002. I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for their participation.