Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 16 Jul 1941

Vol. 25 No. 19

Housing (Amendment) Bill, 1941—Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I do not think that the first section of the Bill calls for any great explanation in detail. It merely continues for another 12 months from the 1st April last the grants to persons and public utility societies building and reconstructing houses in rural areas. It also extends the time for completing the erection and the reconstruction, as the case may be, of houses in these areas for which grants have been, or may be, allocated.

The provisions of the Housing (Financial and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1932 relating to the acquisition of houses by municipal authorities with the aid of a grant under that Act and the improvement or enlargement of such houses by municipal authorities or philanthropic societies are also being extended by Section 1 of the Bill for another year.

Up to the expiration of the existing Acts, viz., 31st March last, grants had been allocated to the extent of £3,347,655, in respect of the erection by private persons and public utility societies of over 34,000 new houses and the reconstruction by small farmers and agricultural labourers of over 32,000 houses. Actually on the date mentioned the number of new houses completed under these allocations was over 31,000, while the number reconstructed was over 27,000. This meant that at the closing date approvals were outstanding in respect of approximately 2,700 new houses and over 5,000 houses for reconstruction. To enable persons to avail of the approvals, in the present financial year, it is necessary to extend the date for completion though it is expected that in present circumstances some of them will not be proceeded with.

In the second section of the Bill, namely, that amending the definition of agricultural labourer, I hope to remedy an unsatisfactory position under existing legislation. While it is in itself an important amendment it should not involve any very far-reaching effects. The present law in so far as a person is not actually engaged in purely agricultural work but is working for hire requires that he should be working for hire in a rural district. Cases have been brought to my notice of persons living in villages just outside the boundary of a city but actually working for hire at non-agricultural work within the city boundary. Some of these people though instrumental in having a scheme of labourers' cottages promoted by the board of health to remedy what were deplorable sanitary conditions under which they lived found themselves debarred by legislation from getting cottages because they were working just over the urban boundary within the urban area. People situated as they were, were in the unfortunate position of having no claim for housing on either the urban or rural authority. The definition of agricultural labourer is set out in the first of the Labourers Acts, viz., that of the Act of 1883, in the narrow sense in which the term is ordinarily understood.

For the past few years there has been a strong movement in favour of providing additional moneys to finance house purchase, especially since the Dublin Corporation a few years ago decided to curtail their loans under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts. Up to a few years ago the corporation had advanced approximately £1,500,000 for house purchase. For various reasons it was not possible for them to provide funds for making these loans and at the same time finance their own housing schemes. Section 3 of the Bill is proposed in order to enable building societies to acquire funds to make loans to persons desirous of purchasing their houses. The guaranteeing of loans by local authorities is not the establishment of a new principle. A power of a similar kind was conferred in relation to public utility societies by the Housing Act of 1919, though as far as I can see no actual operations under that Act in respect of the power mentioned took place in this country. The section confines the guarantees to three Dublin local authorities as the area outside Dublin is reasonably met by the facilities afforded under the Small Dwelling Acquisition Acts.

Several conferences took place before the Bill was drafted with the representatives of the banks and the building societies, and the matter was also the subject of correspondence and examination with the representatives of the building industry. The representatives of the banks indicated the co-operation of the banks but, of course, if other lending institutions such as insurance companies are willing to make advances to the building societies they will be free to do so within the terms of the section.

The object of this Bill is entirely praiseworthy. Sections 1 and 2 simply make necessary adjustments but, with regard to Section 3, I would like the Minister to give us a little more information. I know that the fact that the working of the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act had practically lapsed in Dublin City and the borough has been a matter of concern to a great number of people but, on the face of it, this particular section gives power to the Dublin Corporation, the Borough Council of Dun Laoghaire and the Dublin County Council to guarantee money to building societies for advance to persons to purchase houses. Ministerial sanction must be obtained. I wonder if the Minister could tell us how that Ministerial sanction will operate? I understand that the power must be given to the corporation, not to the manager, to make the loans, because that is the general position under the Local Government Acts, but is it possible at all that under this provision advances would be made to building societies which may have to be repaid by the corporation and thus increase the burden upon the ratepayers?

I am wondering whether it would not be possible to put into the Bill that the Minister shall not give his sanction unless he is satisfied that the building societies are solvent? Perhaps that is the intention. We have heard here this evening and often see in the newspapers complaints of the slowness with which the Local Government Department acts and, presumably, when a local body is considering the giving of a guarantee under this Bill, when it becomes an Act, the manager will be present and the manager will have power to speak and to make his case on the matter when the councils come to reach their decision. The Minister will then have to give his consent. Between the advice given by the manager and the authority exercised by the Minister, the ratepayers ought to be safeguarded but one wonders whether merely an administrative safeguard is sufficient or whether something should appear in the Bill as to the principles which will guide the Minister when he is giving or withholding his sanction.

I recognise, of course, the desirability of continuing a scheme such as did such an immense amount of good in the city under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act. I entirely agree that that should be continued. In so far as the Bill continues that, I am all for it but, on the face of the Bill, we do not see what the restrictions or precautions are which will be adopted by the Minister in giving his consent to the guarantees. Of course, public utility societies are not included, and I think that is a good thing. I would like the Minister to say, when he is concluding, what principle the Department will work on in considering guarantees given by bodies such as the Dublin Corporation, and where the City Manager or the Manager of the Dun Laoghaire Borough comes in in the preliminary operations at the council meeting when the guarantee is being sought.

We welcome this new Housing Bill, and I have only one or two points to make. I will start off where the applicant has to start. A person in a rural area who intends to erect a house makes an application to the appointed officer, who then issues a certificate of approval. A number of utility societies are doing very good work. They issue credit notes on which the applicant can get materials and, as a matter of fact, this method enables the applicant to get the grant really before the house is built. These credit notes are issued on a certificate of approval by the appointed officer, and then, in a number of cases the first payment—that is, half the grant—is given by the Department. When further investigations are carried out, they find that all the facts stated are not true. The valuation may be over £25, and the grant is reduced. In a number of cases, the public utility societies have issued credit notes up to £80, on the understanding that the £80, having been certified by the approving officer, will be repaid. It is a great hardship on them when they have to make up the balance themselves. I should like something to be done, so that the appointed officer's certificate of approval would hold good.

This is a lot of work to expect from the appointed officer, if he has to carry out inspections and point out sites, etc., and if he is allowed a fee of only one guinea. That is too small. One cannot expect a man to travel over a wide area for that sum, choosing sites and giving the necessary instructions in filling up forms by the applicants. The present Bill extends the time to 1942, and here again I think the time should be further extended. We are now in the month of July, and at this time the people in the rural areas are very busy at agricultural work, and they have very little time for house building. It is usually in the winter months that the people in the rural areas devote their time to the erection of houses. The date should be extended for another 12 months at least. That would make it 1943 instead of 1942. Otherwise, a number of people who would be inclined to start will not do so. If a person goes to the secretary of the society, and asks about building a house, he is told that he would be entitled to a grant if he had it built, say, by the 1st April.

Under the 1932 Act the people in urban areas were entitled to a grant and I do not believe there is any just cause for refusing a grant to such people at the present time. If there was a case in 1932, there is one now. In an urban area, one of the standard size houses, for which one would receive the grant in the usual way, would take three months to build. If three men are working on it for the whole 13 weeks, and a plasterer for six weeks, a plumber for three weeks, and three labourers for three weeks each, they ordinarily would have been receiving £1 a week in unemployment assistance, which would be £55 for the three months. It would be better to spend that £55 in giving a grant in an urban area to a person who would undertake the building of a house. I know one or two cases of people who think it is better to have the money lying in the bank than in use for house building. As I have said, if house building were encouraged the tradesmen concerned who are now receiving £50 in unemployment assistance—and more where there are large families—would receive a greater amount.

Then there is the case of the agricultural labourer living in an urban area. I know of a case in Galway where a man has seven or eight children—as a matter of fact, there are ten living in the house—and the children are receiving the Gaeltacht grant of £2 for Irish. There are two rooms in that house—a kitchen and one other room. Because that man is living in an urban area, he is not entitled to a grant to build a house— neither the Gaeltacht grant nor the local government housing grant. Where an applicant derives his living from agriculture, the same provision should be made as for rural areas, if the Minister is not prepared to extend the scheme to urban areas. After all, the man is an agricultural worker, just like a farmer. There are also cases of people with very small holdings in the country, with a £5 or £6 valuation. While a grant of £80 is very beneficial to a man who can get a loan from the Agricultural Credit Corporation or the Land Commission, the man with the very small valuation cannot build a house with the £80 and so cannot build a house at all. I have suggested before that, in cases of that kind, where a certificate would be issued by the county medical officer of health and by the local inspector, the Minister should be empowered to give an increased grant. Otherwise, the small farmers with the worst type of houses and very low valuations cannot get a labourer's cottage, as £80 is not sufficient to build a house even in the best of times. A few years ago it was worth more than it is now worth. I know that the Minister for Local Government and Public Health has not very much to do with grants, but I think something should be done.

Usually people who avail of the grants from the Housing Department also send applications for loans to the Land Commission. There is great difficulty in getting even an acknowledgment from the Land Commission, or a statement that they are prepared to make the advance. When the house is built and they do give that certificate, the merchant who has given the building materials may have to wait months before the Land Commission pays up. Some arrangement should be made between the two Departments so that the one inspector would be sufficient. The local government inspector's certificate, before the completion of the grant, should be sufficient for the Land Commission in granting the loan, and the loan should be made available at once. Otherwise, the whole system of credits, as far as the rural house builder is concerned, will fall asunder.

A number of houses have been erected all over the country. Some of them have been built in Galway, and strange as it may seem in this age of turf, they are making preparations to instal ranges. Before there is any further advance in that direction I ask the Minister to get his inspectors to look into that to see that any ranges going into those houses are going to be turf ranges. Otherwise it will not be easy to rectify the position later. The Department might consider for houses built later for slum dwellers a more general use of furniture fixtures. There could be more built-in furniture. That would eliminate a lot of carting of dilapidated furniture from the old houses to the new houses and if it cost more it would be money well spent, if there were certain furniture fixtures in each scheme. As regards the giving of grants to public building societies, I think that is a very good idea. It is one that should be extended because if we are going to cope with the housing demand we can never do it under the present system. Local authorities have as much as they can do to cater for people in the slums. Other people will have to be dealt with by private enterprise or by public utility societies. There, again, the rate of interest arises. It is one of the vital things affecting the housing problem.

In Galway a few houses were built under the Small Dwellings Act, and the rate of interest was 6½ per cent. That is too great a burden. We ought to have some system whereby the rate of interest would be much lower. As regards the raising of loans by banks and public utility societies during the operation of the Small Dwellings Act in Galway City each person made an application to the council through solicitors, and when that was sanctioned they received a bill on account varying from £18 to £20. I think that amount of costs should not be allowed. A case went to the court, but as it is not finally decided I had better not say more about that. The Minister should look into the matter to see that there should not be much costs in such applications. The definition of "agricultural labourers," is also desirable. It is a departure from the old system in which everybody gave his own definition. I know many cases where people found that they did not come under the definition for the purposes of the Act. One definition was that you could have no more than a quarter of an acre of land. I think that is wrong. No man should be limited to a quarter of an acre. Yet, in these cases he did not come within the definition for the purposes of the Act. Then there were other cases of people—blacksmiths or village carpenters, and as there were disputes it was difficult to know definitely whether they came within the definition. The matter seems to be settled now in relation to an application under the Bill.

I am very glad Senator Hawkins drew attention to what I have myself spoken of—the very bad system that prevails of having ranges that are made for coal in areas where turf is the natural and traditional fuel. We had instances of that in Galway and I am sorry to hear from Senator Hawkins that that deplorable custom is to be maintained. It has been said that these ranges are very bad ranges. They have been defined as miracles of inefficiency. These ranges are super-miracles of efficiency with regard to coal but with regard to turf they are useless. There is danger in taking them out except proper precautions are taken. They are liable to cause accidents and fires. Such dangers should be guarded against. If a grant was made available in turf-burning areas to enable people to adapt these ranges for turf I think it would be very desirable. Another thing that strikes one coming from Galway is the great waste of opportunity that prevails in allowing some of our magnificent streets of old houses to fall into unsightly ruins. One particular house, a hotel, has been reconditioned and it just shows what can be done. It is a great pity that instead of building these houses with the ranges that have been spoken of they do not build flats. These magnificent old houses of cut stone could surely be reconstructed and made into very beautiful and very serviceable flats. That would improve the city immensely. I suppose Senators have heard the story of the submarine commander who came to Galway and, after seeing the city, thought it had been shelled. I suggest that these houses should be reconstructed and turned into beautiful and useful flats. It would be much better than some of the houses on which much public money is being spent and wasted.

I urge the Minister to try to extend the Act to urban areas. The urban councils, of course, have power to build houses for people living in condemned houses. There are numbers of people in urban areas, young people who have just got married, and they have no hope whatever of getting a house. If some grants were given in the urban areas a good many of the derelict sites in our towns would be built on. The sites are very suitable for building, but they may or may not be acquired by urban councils. There is a great scarcity of houses in urban areas. I know people paying from 15/- to £1 per week for miserable hovels, and it is very hard to get them at that. I know people who are living in one or two rooms and paying high rents for them. When this grant was extended to urban areas, as it was at one time, many houses were reconstructed and built in the towns. If that were done now, it would help to relieve the lack of housing in the urban districts.

I should like to refer to the Small Dwellings Act. We put that into force and a few persons tried to reconstruct their houses under the scheme but there were delays. One man did build practically a new house and he found that, because he had not been notified by the clerk of the council that his house was one that should be reconstructed, he was deprived of any grant. The fault was not his and I do not think it was the fault of the council either. The man wanted the house and he started to build. The wording of the Act deprived him of the grant to which he was really entitled, even if he was not legally entitled to it. If the Minister has power, he should do something to remedy that and I suggest that he extend the provisions of the Act to urban areas.

I support the appeal made by the Senator who has just sat down regarding houses which are not new. We have had some experience in that connection in County Monaghan. Houses which would be very necessary were deprived of the loan under the Small Dwellings Act, because they were only houses for reconstruction. Portion of such a house may be as good as that of a new house, if not better. Because that old portion is allowed to remain, the person concerned is deprived of the loan under the Small Dwellings Act. I think it was something of that nature which the last Senator had in mind. I fully support the extension of the Act for another year and I would support its extension for two years more.

There is one drawback which I referred to before in another place. I hope the Minister will give sympathetic attention to it. I refer to the limit of valuation of £25 in respect of anybody who wants to reconstruct a house. No reconstruction grant is given to anybody with a valuation of over £25. A person may be living on a farm portion of which is on the side of a mountain. The valuation may be over £25 but the person concerned may be in a much worse position for reconstructing his house than a person with a valuation of £10 or £12. We have not many cases of that kind in County Monaghan and I suppose there are as many there as in any other place. To extend the limit of valuation to £30 or £35, or even to do away with it altogether, would not cost very much. There are many reasonably good houses in which farmers are living who have holdings on the side of a mountain and whose valuations may be over £25. These men may not be in as good a position as a labourer in constant work and receiving good wages. If the Minister does not remove the valuation limit, I ask him to extend it up to £40.

With regard to the point raised by Senator Hayes, what we intend is that the corporation will negotiate with some of those societies —I know only two of them at the moment, but I think there are three— and try to arrange terms with them, so that they can be placed in a position in which they can guarantee the bank. With the assistance of the City Manager, they will be able to examine the finance of the society. When the matter comes to the Department, they will certainly inquire into the finances of the society. There is nothing to worry about in the present position. A Bill will be introduced by the Minister for Industry and Commerce which will regulate matters connected with these building societies. The Civil Service, the Permanent, the Metropolitan and the Educational Societies are the only societies I know which go in for this class of work. As a result of this Bill, there may be others. They will have to register and definite provision will be made regarding them in the Bill which the Minister for Industry and Commerce will bring in. I do not think that there is any necessity to worry on that score at all. I do not think that anybody will be given an opportunity to get away with anything of the type suggested. I should be prepared to insert a provision in this Bill, but I do not want to curb the corporation or do anything which would make matters more difficult for them.

My Department was approached by the Builders' Federation to see what we could do to encourage the building of houses. Something like the American federal housing plan was suggested. That would not work here because the people who avail of that plan in America are people earning £500 or £600 a year. People earning that amount here can go to an insurance company for a loan, if they are not able to buy out the houses themselves. We are trying to cater for people of more modest means. I do not think that there is any necessity to extend the operation of the Act for two years. We have been extending its operation from year to year and I do not think it would be any handicap to continue that practice. It may happen that work is not completed owing to some unforeseen happening, such as shortage of supplies. All these things will be considered when the Department is considering the introduction of a Bill next year. If the prospect is there, then building can go on without it, but I am sure that the Department will do everything they can to see it does go on, and to encourage it in every possible way.

Senator Hawkins raised the point why we allowed the grants for the urban houses to drop. There was no real demand for grants in urban areas. Builders in the urban areas wanted to build houses for sale, rather than to avail themselves of this grant. The figures will give some idea of what I have in mind. Grants to persons in urban areas were provided in the case of 10,979 houses. Out of that total the number built in Dublin was 6,730, leaving for the rest of the country 4,249, a very small figure for the area outside Dublin in view of the length of the period in which the scheme was in operation. When it was found that the demand was not there these grants were dropped, and I do not think that any case could be made for bringing them back again.

Senator Mrs. Concannon raised the point about the re-conditioning of houses. Provision is made for it in the Housing and Labourers Act of 1937, and we have taken it up with the Galway Corporation. We have also taken it up with the corporation in Dublin. When there are difficulties, of supplies, particularly in times like these, if there are houses of that sort available it would be much better, perhaps, to get them turned into flats, and perhaps it would be much easier, too. We want to encourage that as much as we can, and we are in full sympathy with the points raised by Senator Mrs. Concannon in that matter. We have already moved in the case of Galway, and we have been moving with the corporation in Dublin. So far as the provision of turf-burning ranges is concerned, whenever it is put up by a local authority it is assented to. In the case of Galway, which is a turf-burning area, the proposal would be automatically accepted.

Senator Johnston called attention to the raising of the valuation. That matter has been brought up every year and I suppose that if I put in £120, I would have somebody asking for £121. There must be a line drawn somewhere. I know there are hardships such as those mentioned by Senator Hawkins in cases where the grant is not payable. The same thing happens about the £25 limit. There will always be certain cases of hardship, no matter what limit you set. My predecessor, after consultation with the Department, fixed the figure of £25. That was a very fair thing, but, of course, hard cases will inevitably arise no matter where you set the limit.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage?

Make it the next sitting day.

I might be in the Dáil next Wednesday.

We need not take it until the Minister is ready.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 30th July.