Strange to think that the county councils have been advised to the opposite—that this whole question of drainage was put before the Inter-Departmental Committee who were most anxious to find useful works that would benefit the country and give employment. I used to be under the impression that there were two particular classes of work that would give employment with correspondingly little expense in anything else except labour. These were roads and arterial and other drainage. The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that I had occasion to bring under his notice and also under the notice of his Department the case of two drainage schemes in my native county. I give these as illustrations. I fear that one particular case may be an illustration of what occurred elsewhere and so I should recommend it to the earnest attention of the Parliamentary Secretary because I am convinced that an entirely impossible position has been created there. If that is in any way typical of drainage schemes that have been carried out by his Department, I hold strongly that the Department should look into the matter. I am not now advocating legislation—I am not allowed to do so by the rules of the House. I am asking the Minister to get this case examined and if portion of his departmental work is the setting up of this committee, I am putting it to him that first of all the matter is extremely urgent and secondly, most useful and valuable evidence could be got from this and similar cases if there are any other such cases. One particular case I have in mind is that of the Akeragh Lough drainage. The scheme was actually undertaken and carried out by the Board of Works. There was the usual contribution from the State and the usual contribution from the local authority. Then there was the repayment of the balance by way of an annuity charge. Now I am sorry to say that I have not the figures with me at the moment but quoting from memory, which I think is fairly accurate, it was estimated in that particular case that the annual improvement to the lands amounted to £332; leaving out of account altogether the amount contributed by the State, and the amount contributed by the county council, the annuity charge on the farmers whose lands were supposed to be benefited to that extent amounted to £232. So far everything seemed plain sailing. Considering the condition of Akeragh Lough district at the moment I had, perhaps, better avoid metaphors of that kind. There was in 1934 what looked like a large charge for maintenance, especially for the first year, of £54. The next year, 1935, the maintenance charge plus the annuity charge brought the whole sum that had to be made up by the farmers to over £510, although the estimated benefit to their lands at the very beginning was only £332 a year. Now two things follow; first that it is extremely unreasonable and very unjust to expect any body of farmers to pay, with patience, over £500, a sum largely in excess of even the estimated improvements. I say that that is an intolerable position, but that is one of the results; secondly, I think that these figures do show this: that if in the second year the maintenance charge was £278, sufficient, therefore, to bring the charge on the unfortunate farmers to nearly £200 over the estimated benefit, it is obvious that in the second year in which the county council had charge of the scheme, the scheme had already hopelessly broken down. That gives a great deal of colour, indeed it completely substantiates the complaint of the farmers that they have got very little, if any, benefit out of it.
Personally, I think what occurred was this. Possibly some of the people in the higher lands of that drainage district do continue to get a certain amount of benefit—though very slight. I think for those in the lower lands the benefit has already ceased. The drainage district, so far as the lower portion of the district is concerned, has, in fact, reverted to the position that it was in before the work was done. Therefore, instead of getting an annual benefit of £332, as they were led to believe, the farmers of the whole district will be very lucky indeed if even at this early stage in its history they get an annual benefit of £50 out of the scheme. In return for that they are asked to foot a bill in one year over £500 and in the next year £418. I am not now speaking of the first year, where the figure was somewhere slightly short of the alleged improvement.
It is quite obvious there is something radically wrong there. The Parliamentary Secretary may reply to me that once the Board of Works said they had done the work and handed it over to the county council, its functions were finished. I am quite aware I am not allowed here to advocate a change of the law, but surely it must be obvious to the Parliamentary Secretary that either the scheme has completely broken down or that the character of what is called maintenance work is really not maintenance work in the proper sense at all, but is a re-conditioning, a re-making of the scheme—it cannot be ordinary maintenance work.
I know perfectly well the difficulty of dealing with schemes where the tide is concerned, and I know the difficulty of making an estimate. I do not want to make any ex parte case whatsoever; I want to put the plain facts forward, and endeavour to show the absolutely intolerable position that is there created for those people who are asked to meet a rate sometimes over £500 and sometimes close on £500 annually. They are asked to meet that year after year, and will be asked to meet it apparently for the next 35 years for a work that they are convinced, and it seems to me properly convinced, gives them no satisfactory return, indeed, hardly any return at all. That is not a reasonable position.
Again, commissions are well-known methods of delaying dealing with urgent matters, and even if a commission is on the brink of being set up, it must take some time to investigate. Even when commissions do investigate, governments take some time to consider what they will do with reports of that kind. Then possibly legislation will be necessary, and I cannot see anything in the way of relief coming to this particular body of men for the next five or six years, if they have to await the report of a commission. I do not know how many other cases there are of that particular kind in Ireland. I mean cases in which the maintenance charge, plus the annuity, amounts to more annually than the alleged benefit. Whether there are any other cases or not, I think that the Board of Works could accede to the request of the local councils to examine such districts. I know of no law preventing them from doing so. It does not require legislation surely to enable the Board of Works to oblige a council, especially when you are dealing with an intolerable case of that kind.
I have suggested that, in the case of the Akeragh Lough district, what is included under the head of maintenance possibly is not what is generally looked upon as maintenance by the engineers of the Board of Works. It was probably something not contemplated as maintenance by the engineers when they were forming their estimate and when they handed over that scheme. It is something in the nature of new work, re-conditioning, pretty much the same as has been undertaken year after year by the Board of Works, when, for instance, old schemes not properly looked after for years are being brought up to date. There you had practically the old scheme dealt with to a certain extent as if it was a fresh scheme.
In the case of old schemes, that is understandable enough. They were neglected year after year. But here there is no question of neglect. With the best will in the world the county council could not neglect it, and the amount they have expended shows there was no tendency to neglect. The scheme has broken down—and thoroughly broken down—and it would be most unreasonable to expect these men to face that charge without any hope of alleviation for the next five or six years. Is it reasonable even to ask them to pay the charges already assessed?
Two steps would seem to me to be possible for the Parliamentary Secretary to take. The first is to get the scheme immediately investigated, to see why it is that in the year 1936 it took £300 to maintain that scheme, or something close to that amount; and the second is to regard this and possibly other schemes —if there are any such that in the same way inflict intolerable burdens on the people, schemes that are, in their eyes, manifestly unjust—as exceptional cases and come to their help, as the Parliamentary Secretary in another capacity can come to their help: let him meet it out of the Vote for relief works. I do not know, as the law stands, of any other way in which he can help at the moment —perhaps some other Department can.
You have a position in which the farmers feel they are most unjustly treated. I know that the engineers were perfectly open and that they tried to give the best estimate they could. I know the difficulties of estimating in cases of rivers of that kind.
But the fact remains that the farmers are told that the alleged benefit will be £332 and that that benefit will be a real benefit. Then they find in the lower portions that the flooding is as bad as ever, and when they find this heavy maintenance charge has to be met they naturally feel that they were, in voting for that scheme—unintentionally no doubt— seriously misled. There may be the feeling that they were misled, that they were not misled in the sense that anybody wanted to mislead them, but that they were misled in the sense that the prophecy, the estimate given to them, proved completely wrong. That is one case and I am afraid there may be other cases in the Saorstát like that. I know that particular case very well and I have suggested two methods by which the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department could come to the relief of the people.
The other case I have in mind is in a neighbouring district. Possibly the Parliamentary Secretary will say that what I have said about the Akeragh district will make him a bit chary about the next district I will mention. However, remember, I do not know whether it is the purpose of the Department to make up its mind definitely that nothing can be done in this particular case or whether they are merely bent on leaving us in doubt whether anything will be done—a habit that the Government has adopted and made its own even in larger matters of public policy when we try to get a plain answer to a simple question.
Another matter to which, then, I should like to refer is in connection with the Brick and Cashen district. At the present moment, although there is no such place scheduled in our geography as a lake, there is a lake there now, and I feel sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, if he cares to look for it, can find a most extensive lake there. This is not a question of what one might call an occasional flood. There is a permanency in regard to floods in that district, and I understand, further, that you have a situation where quite a number of people are paying the Land Commission for what might be called submarine estates, spread out over hundreds of acres, and almost permanently under water. About two months ago I put a question to the Parliamentary Secretary on this particular matter, and I gathered—in fact, I was particularly dashed when I heard it—that the Board of Works had the matter under their very serious consideration. The reason I felt dashed was that they have had it under consideration for many years past, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows.
I am sure that it is more than 11 years ago since a petition was sent in to the Board of Works in connection with that matter. Of course, there was a certain amount of the usual and unavoidable delay in the sending down of an engineer from the Board of Works to examine this particular scheme. Then a preliminary report came in, and then there was a further report. Afterwards, there was an estimate of the cost, and the cost was very considerable. I think it was in 1931 that the Minister for Finance —fully six years ago—gave a pledge that the Government were quite prepared to go on with that particular scheme and to give the highest grant that the peculiar grant they have allows—and that is 50 per cent.—on certain conditions. These conditions were that the county council would make a certain grant and that the balance would be met by the beneficiaries. There was a certain amount of delay in that connection caused by a certain gap. The county council, I think, was prepared to contribute, say, about 30 per cent., but finally agreed to bring it up to 37 per cent. At that time, I think, the commissioner was Mr. O'Dwyer. Although the actual benefit to the farmer was estimated at about six per cent., the fact is that the land on which the farmers were living is for the most part of the year under water, so that it is not exactly a working proposition where they are concerned, and the farmers were willing to meet the cost of 12 per cent. or 13 per cent. and the county council to meet the rest. However, an agreement was then made between the county council, the Government, and the proposed beneficiaries, and the scheme arrived at as a result of that agreement was accepted by the Government.
That matter came up before the Government, and I think the Parliamentary Secretary said that his heart was bleeding for the people there— anyhow, that he was convinced of the genuineness of the demand of the people there for that particular scheme. Then, I think it was the then Minister for Lands and Fisheries who, in dealing with the general matter of drainage, spoke of the inter-departmental committee investigating this whole matter, and said that one of the principal difficulties that the Government had was not in finding money to spend, but in finding ways to spend the money. I see that the Parliamentary Secretary fully agrees with that dictum of the then Minister.