Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 22 Nov 1961

Vol. 192 No. 4

Committee on Finance. - Vote 29—Local Government.

I move:

That a supplementary sum not exceeding £10 be granted to defray the charge that will come in course of payment, during the year ending 31st March, 1962, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of the Minister for Local Government, including Grants to Local Authorities, Grants and other Expenses in connection with Housing, and Miscellaneous Grants.

The purpose of the Supplementary Estimate is to enable grants to be made by my Department towards the cost of works of public amenity which will help to improve the recreational and visual amenities of towns, villages and countryside.

The House will note that it is proposed to amend Subhead K of the Vote for Local Government for the current year, which provides for grants for the acquisition, clearance and improvement of derelict sites. The amendment will enable grants to be paid from this subhead for works of public amenity as well as for the clearance of derelict sites.

The reason for the proposed amendment is that it was ascertained in the course of administering derelict site grants under Subhead K that certain desirable works proposed would not qualify for assistance, or would qualify only for very limited assistance, because the site was not derelict or was only partially derelict. Although the broadest possible definition applies to the derelict sites scheme, it does not include many sites which it is desirable to have developed or improved as public amenities. Furthermore, the restriction of grants to work on derelict sites tends to narrow unduly the scope of any improvements which are carried out with the aid of such grants.

This situation underlined the fact that there is a gap in the existing arrangements for affording financial assistance to local authorities and other bodies concerned with the provision of public amenities. Allocations from the Employment and Emergency Schemes Vote are related to unemployment returns. The funds available are adequate to enable a regular programme of amenity works to be undertaken in the larger urban centres. In other areas, even where an allocation was available, the amount of amenity development which could be carried out was small. In consequence, Bord Fáilte Éireann found it necessary, in order to provide amenities and facilities for tourists, to promote such works throughout the country and to offer financial assistance towards defraying the cost. I understand that the Board's activities in this field are limited because of more urgent demands on their funds but in any event their criterion is, naturally, the tourist value of the schemes. In most areas, if the needs of our own people are to be catered for, some further provision must be made. There is a growing awareness throughout the country of need for public amenities and of their value to the community.

The proposed amendment of Subhead K will have the advantage that any payments arising in the current year can be met from savings on the subhead. The total of the grants allocated to date in the current year for derelict site works is approximately £16,000 but it appears that requisitions for payment of grants are likely to be slower than anticipated. A number of proposals have already been received from local authorities for consideration in connection with the new grants scheme and I am informed that many more are in course of preparation locally. As there is a reasonable prospect that savings on the subhead will suffice to cover any payments in the current year on foot of amenity grants, the present Supplementary Estimate is limited to a token sum of £10.

As indicated in the Supplementary Estimate the grants will be payable to local authorities, local development associations and other bodies. The rate of grant will be 50% of the approved cost of the work. No grant will be payable where the approved cost of the work is less than £100. Eligible works will include the provision and development of parks, open spaces, playing fields, riverside walks, beach development works, means of access, boating slipways, opening up of views and prospects, landscaping of historic buildings, ornamental tree planting, seating and shelters, car parks in scenic areas, public caravan parks, provision of local museums and protection of places and objects of interest. I might also mention that public amenity works proposed by winners of Tidy Towns Competition Awards will be considered for amenity grants.

Local development associations and other such bodies will forward their proposals to the local authorities through whom applications for grants must be made. If the proposals are acceptable, the local authority will submit the application to my Department. It will be a condition of the grant that the amenity being provided will be available for the use or benefit of the public generally. Maintenance of the completed works will be the responsibility of the applicant body or of the local authority and formal undertakings may be required from local development associations or other bodies in this regard.

It is my intention that the programme for clearance and improvement of derelict sites should be given priority but that where there are no such sites qualifying for grants or where they do not admit of satisfactory development by themselves, other positive schemes for improving amenities should be encouraged. I have asked local authorities to give advice and technical assistance, where necessary, to other bodies putting forward proposals and I hope that all concerned will adopt an imaginative and constructive approach to the question of local amenities. With this object in view, the grants scheme has been drawn as widely as possible.

The principle behind the clearance of derelict sites is one with which we are all in agreement and the Minister now proposes giving grants of approximately 50 per cent. of the cost to local authorities, development associations and others interested in the provision of such amenities but prior to the provision of the amenities the first thing we have to do is get rid of derelict sites. My main criticism of what the Minister has stated is that the amount of State grant is insufficient to encourage local authorities to proceed with the clearance of derelict sites. I find in my travels throughout the country that the main offenders in the non-clearance of derelict sites are the local authorities themselves. We find in practically every county throughout the State old workhouses, old buildings, old walls, even old jails and old courthouses which are a disgrace to the local authorities to which they belong.

I have no doubt whatever that all local authorities would be most anxious to clear the sites and thereby give employment, were it not for the fact that at the moment it would be non-productive work and the mounting rate prohibits the local authority from this expenditure. In my own county, the rate at the moment is well over 52/- in the £. We are informed by the county manager that if we accede to the request for the increase in salary and wages of the various officials of the council, we will require to budget for an extra 4/9d. in the coming year, bringing our rate up to £2 16s. or £2 17s. How are we to ask the local authority, when the rate is £2 16s. or £2 17s. in the £, to expend 50 per cent. on the cost of clearance of derelict sites? I do not think we can do it. I would appeal to the Minister to increase the State grant if he desires the Derelict Sites Act to be implemented.

I wonder if the Minister is aware of the many obstacles placed in the way of individuals who are anxious to clear their own derelict sites, that is, apart from the local authorities? If one has an old building on one's holding and is anxious to have it demolished, the site cleared possibly to take away the scar on the countryside, is the Minister aware of the obstacles placed in the way of doing so? In the first place, the person has to prepare a plan of the site. He has to employ, if necessary, an engineer or an architect to show the manner in which he proposes to demolish the site. He then has to employ a costings surveyor to tell what it would cost to demolish the site. He has to provide plans for the site when it is cleared and he has to say what is going to be done with it. After all this has been done, he will be paid 50 per cent. of the cost of the clearance of the derelict site.

There is no encouragement in the Act, the Estimate or in the Minister's speech in regard to people who are anxious to clear derelict sites on their own holdings. I think it should be sufficient that if the assistant county surveyor gives an estimate of the cost of clearing the site and if the Minister cannot see his way to increase the grant, the estimate by the local authority surveyor should be accepted and 50 per cent. of that sum paid to any person enterprising enough to clear his site.

Down through the years, local authorities have had certain powers with regard to the acquisition and clearance of derelict sites. One of the reasons they fought shy of implementing these powers was that they were afraid they would be held up to ridicule by reason of the fact that they refused or neglected to clear the derelict sites of which they were actually the owners. If we are anxious to see this Derelict Sites Act a success, we should compel local authorities to set a headline by clearing the derelict sites of which they are in possession and by doing so, compel private individuals to clear derelict sites on their holdings. The Minister cannot expect any local authority to undertake large projects, unless a higher State grant than 50 per cent. is made available to them.

We are all in agreement with what the Minister states is desirable in regard to procuring the amenities to which he refers, namely, parks, open spaces, playing fields, riverside walks, bridge development work, means of access, boating slipways, opening up of views and prospects and other amenities of that kind. These are desirable in a Utopia but local authorities have many more urgent things to do with their very limited purse at the moment.

I should like to compliment Bord Fáilte on what they have been doing under their Tidy Town competitions. I should also like to compliment the winners of these competitions who have ploughed back the prize money into the development of amenities in their towns, but I am only afraid that the Derelict Sites Act will be more honoured in the breach unless more generous State grants are made available. I believe that if more generous State grants were made available, up to 75 per cent. or 80 per cent. of the cost, a considerable amount of employment in rural Ireland would be given to unemployed labourers, particularly farm labourers, in the off season.

Now with machinery, great numbers of road workers find themselves thrown out of employment. There is nothing left for them but the emigrant ship or migration. I believe that if more generous State grants were given to local authorities, these people could be employed throughout rural Ireland, in the towns and villages, particularly the seaside towns and villages, in tourist centres. If these more generous State grants are not made available, I am afraid the Bill will be more honoured in the breach. The Minister made suggestions in his opening speech and while we would all desire to see them implemented, lack of funds will prevent it.

I am only afraid that schemes such as the derelict sites schemes start off with a certain specific purpose in mind, that is, to clear derelict sites and unsightly ruins such as broken-down stores, old jails broken-down workhouses and so forth. Then the work for which the scheme is originally designed does not seem to be proceeding. Instead of inquiring why the work is not proceeding or why our primary object is not being achieved, we have a tendency to start spreading out the purpose of the scheme into a whole lot of related but not necessarily relevant alternatives.

The purpose of the derelict sites scheme was to clear derelict sites. I gather from the Minister's statement that the response has not come up to expectations. I assume that the Minister has asked himself why. Everybody wants to get rid of derelict sites. Why is a scheme designed to eliminate derelict sites not availed of? The answer is substantially what Deputy O'Donnell has suggested—that the cost of doing the job now is so burdensome that a local authority, trying to marshal its resources, finds that it has very many more urgent calls on its available funds than derelict sites. It seems to me it would be wiser, instead of widening the scope of the scheme, to ask ourselves if we could not use whatever sum of money is available for this purpose more effectively to achieve our end.

I do not think we can contemplate providing unlimited sums indefinitely even for so admirable an objective as the clearance of sites but I would suggest to the Minister that if the scheme is not drawing a sufficient number of proposals to his Department, he might consider reviewing the scheme, say, on a three year basis, and determining that over a period of three years some total sum would be made available and providing that in the first year 75 per cent. of the total cost would be made available and notifying local authorities that any schemes received, say, before 31st March, 1963 would, on approval, attract a grant of 75 per cent. provided they were undertaken within three months of approval issuing; that any schemes received between 1st April, 1963 and 31st March, 1964 would attract a grant of 50 per cent. on the same basis; and that any schemes put forward after 1st April, 1964 and before 31st March, 1965 would attract only 25 per cent.

I think that would encourage local authorities who were desirous of providing employment for the categories of persons to whom Deputy O'Donnell has referred to make a serious survey of what works could be undertaken within their resources and to expedite their formulation in order to qualify for the exceptionally liberal grant of 75 per cent. At the same time, it would be reasonable to assume that the remainder of schemes, if they were urgently desirable, would be proceeded with on the basis of the 50 per cent. grant and there would still remain a residue which might not be so obviously desirable but which for ulterior reasons, such as local employment, might still be proceeded with at a later date on the basis of a 25 per cent. contribution, bearing in mind the volume of local employment they would still provide.

Such a scheme would, in my opinion, expedite the primary purpose of the derelict sites scheme as originally adumbrated in this House and would probably cost no more than the wide diversification now proposed by the Minister, bearing in mind the overall limitation, that no matter how far we diversify the purposes for which this scheme can be availed of, the local authority remains liable for 50 per cent. of the cost and, in their present circumstances of excessively high rates, are very likely to be deterred from joining this scheme for any purpose because they feel their own rate cannot equitably be asked to bear 50 per cent. of the total cost.

I am afraid I could not agree with Deputy Dillon's idea about this change in the scheme at all because I know that while there are many derelict sites that could do with improvement, quite a lot of very good work has been carried out under the scheme up to now. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong but I think the reason for introducing the change is that there were quite a number of excellent schemes proposed by local authorities, private individuals and local development associations, which turned out to be borderline cases and could not qualify under the existing scheme. I am aware of quite a number of such schemes in my own area. The result was that the Department sanctioned a number of schemes and the work was carried out, whereas a short distance away or in the same area, there were schemes which to us appeared similar but which, for some reason, the Department found to be different, with the result that the Department refused to sanction work on them and, unless a change was made in the administration of the scheme, they could never be done.

Under this scheme, they could never be done.

Under the existing scheme, but they can be done under the scheme the Minister has just presented to the House.

But are there not plenty of derelict sites awaiting clearance?

There are. There are people who have got in their possession or under their control derelict sites which they would not clear or would not do anything about when they would not get the money to do so. They would not do anything when they were getting 50 per cent. of the cost because they would feel, as a result of Deputy Dillon's speech, that if they held up the scheme for another few years, they would get 100 per cent.

My idea is to give a good grant now and let it diminish.

It would not work that way. I am afraid the opposite would be the case. I would agree with the Minister that the present proposals will improve the position. I should like to refer particularly to a number of very dangerous car parks—call them that if you like—outside churches throughout the country. Under the existing scheme, a number of them have not qualified. Under the new scheme, I imagine they will qualify and the result will be that the roads will be made safer and everybody will be satisfied.

It is true, of course, that some local authorities do not consider that they should spend any rate money on this type of scheme. The county council of which I have the honour to be a member believe it is money very well spent and they have submitted a number of schemes, some of which have been passed and some of which I hope will be passed in the very near future. If the local authorities were to proceed with such schemes, the result would be far better than to wait and see if there would be bigger grants available in a year's time, in the hope that, eventually, no cost to them would be involved. I, personally, welcome the scheme. The improvement will make a very big difference in having the countryside cleared up. That was the original intention when the scheme was introduced.

I would like the Minister to indicate whether dangerous quarries and ponds will come within the scope of the scheme, because we have a particular problem in that regard in County Dublin.

With Deputy O'Donnell, I should like to plead for an increase in the grants made available from State sources for this work. County councils, faced with rising rates, are very reluctant to take on extra work, such as the clearance of derelict sites. In some of the smaller villages and towns throughout the country, there are old houses which have become derelict. The ground remains the property of the owners. When a council is faced at the annual estimates meeting with the task of finding half the cost of clearing such sites, if there are a large number of such schemes seeking qualification, the council look with a jaundiced eye upon this item and I think it would be only natural that they would say to themselves that there were more pressing things to be dealt with at present and that we could perhaps induce the councils to do more in this line if the State grant were higher than the 50 per cent. which the Minister is now offering. It is from that point of view that many small towns and villages suffer, because these derelict sites are not being removed and because there is not sufficient interest shown by the owners in removing these eyesores from the countryside. The local councils dealing with the problem do not like making more money available.

Leaving aside the other projects which the Minister mentioned, I believe these would be of great advantage, particularly from the tourist point of view and that, in the long run, they would repay the State and the local people concerned. From the point of view of local employment, and considering that more men could be taken off the Social Welfare payments to which they would be entitled at this time of year, the State would not lose the 50 per cent. I would ask the Minister to look at the matter again to see if he could increase the amount of grant in that respect.

I think the Minister has been rather precipitate in jumping to conclusions that not enough work is being done in regard to derelict sites. The scheme has not been sufficiently long in operation to enable him to come to that conclusion. If he had a little patience he would not find it necessary to embark on an extension of that scheme into the amenity field. I am always a bit nervous about this question of amenities. It is so widespread and so ill-defined that you can include almost everything under it except dancehalls. I feel that the situation might easily arise that in one area you could have an amenity scheme going ahead, while in the neighbourhood, you would still have derelict sites which were left untouched for years, and at the same time and in the same area you could have land flooded because of the non-operation of the Local Authorities (Works) Act. I feel that these things should be taken in succession and that we should attend to essential matters first and deal with the amenities at a later stage. The derelict sites aspect of these proposals—with which I agree and which are desirable—should be proceeded with first and pushed through more vigorously and, having done that, we should come back and talk about amenities.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding of my mind in this matter. I am not of the opinion that the Derelict Sites Act has not been working well or that it is not going to work. The fact that I have come here with power to provide grants for these amenity schemes is not because the scheme is not working. As I said at the outset, during the short term in which the derelict sites grant scheme has operated, it has emerged that there is a gap and that there is an anomaly in that a site that is now derelict can qualify for a derelict site grant.

Having so qualified, and having had that grant paid, either through a development committee, a private individual or the local authority, a further grant to make an amenity out of what heretofore was derelict can only be paid in the case where it was a derelict site and where already a grant had been obtained. What is wrong with encouraging people who have put forward proposals for various sites in towns and villages, which sites have on examination proved not to be derelict but are such as to command the attention of any fair-thinking person as being the type of scheme one would like to see encouraged? If those public spirited organisations, committees and groups are prepared to do a little voluntary work—there is a growing number of them in the various towns and they are not confined to seaside towns but are in all sorts of towns throughout the country—to try to improve the appearance of their town, not solely for the benefit of the tourist but for their own benefit, surely we would be lacking if we were not prepared, as we are, to give them some encouragement by way of these 50 per cent. amenity grants which are not conditioned by the previous arrangement in regard to a site being declared derelict.

Over and above that, I should like to say that the intake up to date is in the region of 500 approved applications. Of that number, 400 have come from private groups and private individuals and 100 approved applications have come from the local authorities. We have on our hands at the moment 200 borderline cases which, as Deputy Tully said, have been turned down under existing arrangements. There will be a greater volume, I have no doubt, if we pass this Supplementary Estimate to provide for amenity grants solely and without the tag of derelict site having to be attached to it.

I do not think that the charge that all sorts of obstacles have been placed in the way of the private applicant who wishes to do a job on a derelict site is correct, that he needs an engineer and a costs surveyor and probably an architect to show to the last detail what requires to be done. It amounts to this, that the minimum type of that procedure is required but it is absolutely essential that the particular site should be identifiable by whoever goes out to see it and that some type of local map should be produced with the application so that it can be identified for estimate purposes. I should like to say that if Deputies know that obstacles such as those outlined here have been placed in the way of applicants in some parts of the country, I should be glad to know and we shall try to get in touch with the local authorities and smooth the way, if the way needs to be smoothed.

It was also suggested that all this effort to clear derelict sites is likely to fold up because of the fact that local authorities cannot and should not be prepared to provide any money from the rates for this type of work. At the time of the introduction of the Derelict Sites Act, not to mention the Derelict Grants Scheme, there was not the same outcry here saying it could not be afforded. In fact, it was generally conceded that the Derelict Sites Act recently enacted was much needed, that the old Act of 1940 was not effective in law and that, furthermore, no grants whatever had been payable until last year. Therefore, we have an improved Derelict Sites Act which, I think, is said to be effective, as against the ineffective Act of 1940, and we have a 50 per cent. grant now being paid from central funds to make effective in a practical way the clearance of derelict sites throughout the country.

The amenity grants scheme is, as I said, filling a gap and is not so much a follow-on or, as would seem to be suggested, in substitution for a scheme that has not worked. I am satisfied the scheme we have has been and is working and will continue to work and that this new additional scheme will go a step further in changing the appearance of our countryside and small towns.

The question specifically asked by Deputy Clinton was whether dangerous quarries and ponds could come within the scheme. The answer is a qualified "yes"—qualified in the sense that if some useful purpose or amenity can be served in regard to the quarry or pond, then an amenity grant can and will be allocated. Indeed, such dangerous quarries and eyesores of that type were at the back of our minds in bringing forward this scheme. We are hoping for a little bit of imagination from our local authorities in dealing with these matters. Such places are not only eyesores but can be a source of great danger to the young.

Turning now to this question of the county councils being the worst offenders themselves, I should like to ask Deputies who are members of local authorities to use their good offices on these councils to clear up their own derelict sites. It is all very well to say a local authority cannot be expected to provide any money for clearing up these derelict sites when the rates are so high. Do not forget, however, the local authorities who have such sites in their own ownership. Surely, if the private individual can be compelled by law to clear up sites which are eyesores, it is strange to suggest that county councils should not be expected to do this work unless they get more money by way of grant for doing it.

However, I would be very loath to compel county councils to do their own sites first. But it is something that occurs to anybody who considers that councils may be offenders themselves. On the other hand, the members of local bodies are responsible people and it would certainly take a very great deal of evidence to compel me to come to this House with a proposal compelling local authorities to do this work. I believe they will do it. In fact, there is evidence that they are doing some of it at the moment. All I ask is that Deputies who are members of local authorities would add their voices at their various meetings to try to get these councils to do a little more if they are lagging behind.

On the whole, rather than compulsion, the emphasis has been on voluntary effort, both in regard to the clearing of derelict sites and the encouragement of the provision of amenities solely related, as the bigger schemes under Bord Fáilte must be, to tourists. Our own people must be considered and the development committees are doing good work in this direction. The small encouragement which this scheme will undoubtedly give to them is something I feel I can commend to this House and one which I feel the House will welcome and help to foster in the years ahead.

Vote put and agreed to.
Vote reported and agreed to.