I was unable to be present last Wednesday for the first half of this debate but I have noted the contributions of the Senators who spoke.
I can only express amazement at the audacity and the carelessness of the Fine Gael Senators who have put down this motion. Had they checked the record of my period as Minister with that for the 1983-87 period, they would not be here tonight attempting to prove the impossible.
I have had the honour of serving as Minister for the Environment for over four years. I am entitled to claim that each of those years has been marked by the launch of new programmes and initiatives, a legislative record second to none, concrete achievements and progress in traditional fields of endeavour, the development of new policies and services, continuous refinement and improvement of existing programmes and measures and firm leadership both in my Department and of the local government system generally. The Fine Gael Party in this House, by putting down this motion, have given me and my colleagues in the House an opportunity to have some of these achievements written into the record of the House, and I am grateful to them for that. It may have seemed to Fine Gael to be a good tactical move, in advance of the local elections, to set up a debate which would enable them to criticise me — and through me the Government of which I am a member — under a variety of headings. They obviously believe the old maxim that if one throws enough mud some of it is bound to stick. However, I am going to resist the temptation to engage in mud-slinging, enjoyable as that pastime can be. I am not, for example, going to waste time describing the sorry state in which I found the local government system, its finances and its services, when I took over from a Fine Gael Minister four years ago. The total indebtedness of the local authorities at that time, which were near bankruptcy, was in excess of £80 million. I am sure Senators on that side of the House will be pleased to know that that debt has been brought under control and, in fact, the indebtedness has now been reduced to below £50 million.
Instead, I want to concentrate on the positive developments for which I and my colleagues can claim credit, and on the further developments that are in prospect. Due to the limited time available, I will not, of course, be able to go through all the areas for which I have responsibility and in which there have been significant advances since 1987. However, even a short selection will be enough to show that the motion put down by the Fine Gael Senators totally lacks substance.
I will deal with housing matters first. Senators will recall the Fine Gael dominated Government of the mid-eighties which attempted to introduce legislation to deal with the problem of homelessness. They introduced a Bill in 1985 and almost two years later left office with the Bill still not enacted. So much for their concern for the homeless. In little over a year of taking office, I saw to it that the Housing Act, 1988, was on the Statute Book. This major piece of legislation revised and updated every aspect of the statutory basis for the local authority housing programme, provided extensive new powers to housing authorities to meet the needs of homeless persons, and went far beyond what was proposed in the 1985 Bill by effectively decriminalising homelessness. On top of this, I made additional resources available to voluntary organisations and to local authorities to secure proper accommodation for the homeless. At least the other Senator Ryan was prepared to accept my very good record in dealing with that matter.
The only concrete suggestion from the Fine Gael side to deal with housing problems has been to advocate the reintroduction of a grants scheme of the kind they inflicted on the country in 1985. The situation I found in regard to public expenditure commitments under this scheme, on becoming Minister for the Environment, was truly appalling.
Grants approved totalled almost £230 million, with applications still coming in at a rate that was adding £5 million a month to this staggering figure. This alarming legacy of public debt resulted from a crude attempt to buy survival by the then Fine Gael led Government; to court short term popularity they introduced a hastily conceived open-ended grants scheme under which expenditure could neither be predicted nor controlled. They gave large handouts of taxpayers' money to individuals, regardless of their means and in respect of often inessential or cosmetic works. This scheme pre-empted resources which could have been put to far better use in other parts of the housing sector.
I am still paying the bills for this extraordinary episode. It has cost the Exchequer some £200 million to date. How can anyone in these circumstances advocate the reintroduction of grants on a similar widespread basis? But that is what Fine Gael Senators seem to want. When they complain about the inadequacy of funds for other schemes, they should remember the irresponsible legacy of commitments which they left behind four years ago and which are still being paid off. Fine Gael in this debate show no understanding of or responsibility for, the state of the public finances.
On 14 February last, I launched the plan for social housing. The plan is the most comprehensive response to social housing needs ever presented by a Government in this country. The policies laid out in the plan will provide a more diverse and better targeted response to the housing needs of those households unable to secure adequate housing from their own resources.
The role of the local authorities is being greatly expanded and enhanced and a range of new options to meet housing needs are being made available to them. Those new powers will enable local authority housing schemes of the future to be smaller in scale and more sensitive both to the needs of the tenants and to the needs of the areas in which they are to be provided. Few would seriously advocate the building of large new local authority estates for single parents yet these represent one of the largest categories of need on the waiting list.
The plan offers real hope of decent housing to meet needs such as those that have become more complex and more difficult to resolve satisfactorily. The plan will develop the complementary roles of the local authority and voluntary housing sectors and will, in future years, be recognised as a major landmark in social thinking in this country. The great regret is that some Opposition speakers in the House cannot or will not accept real progress in social housing when they see it. They simply do not understand the new thinking that pervades social housing throughout the whole of Europe and which is being brought forward here in the most imaginative and futuristic plan ever conceived and brought to the House. They simply do not understand it and I would recommend that it should be prescribed reading for every one of them from now until the elections on 27 June.
I was taken aback at Senator Naughten's attack on the provision of funding to voluntary housing organisations. Shame on Senator Naughten. This is not surprising, given the level of funding by the Coalition Government in the eighties, which he supported. I have increased funding in this area to £11.5 million in 1991, compared to £1.9 million in 1986. That is a real recognition of the role that voluntary housing can play and will play in this country. They have recognised the usefulness of this social housing plan; they have commended me on giving them a budget line for the first time ever for voluntary housing.
Among the specific initiatives in the plan for social housing are proposals to deal with some long-standing problems which previous governments were unwilling to tackle. I am providing £2 million in 1991 for the provision of bathrooms in local authority houses which lack them. This has been demanded for 25 years but no Government were willing to identify that one particular area that needed special treatment but it is being done and it is being started this year by me. I am going to make the concept of shared ownership a reality. This has been frequently mentioned and often promised in the last decade but I am the first Minister to succeed in coming up with a viable scheme. The rights of private tenants are being safeguarded with new requirements in relation to rent books, standards and notices to quit. This is another item that was promised and suggested for many years but nobody had either the courage or the capacity to do it until I came along. All of this, and all of the other housing measures I have not had time to mention, add up, I suggest, to a credible and effective response to social housing needs. At the same time it is my intention to continue with the programme of local authority house building for those who cannot or never will be in a position to provide housing for themselves.
A number of Senators commented on the state of our road network. This gives me an opportunity to restate the Government's determination that Ireland should have a road network appropriate to the needs of a modern economy and to put on the record evidence that we intend to deliver on that. The clearest indication to our commitment to the development and maintenance of the road infrastructure is the enormous sums of money which we have provided for this purpose. Total State expenditure on road maintenance and improvement has risen from £166 million in 1986 to £234 million in 1991.
Since 1987 a total of £970.17 million has been provided in State road grants, over £300 million more than the amount provided in the five years before 1987. Within this total, discretionary grants for county and regional roads have been increased from £23 million in 1986 to £68 million in 1991, almost a threefold increase.
Having regard to the enormous financial mess the 1983 to 1987 Government left behing, including the bills of over £200 million for the housing grant schemes I referred to earlier, how can Opposition Senators suggest I have not been successful in obtaining substantial funds from Government? The figures speak for themselves. The Government's response in the aftermath of the near-bankrupt state in which we found the State's finances can only be regarded as truly magnificent. I will put on record now the exact position in so far as discretionary grants in county councils are concerned.
In 1989 block grants given by the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition amounted to £15.4 million; The western package brought in £2.6 million and a county roads strengthening — that magnificent effort on behalf of the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition at the time — amounted to £5 million for the whole country, leaving a grand total of £23 million for that work in 1986. In 1987 and 1988, my first two years was increased to £15.4 million, the western package to £3 million and county roads strengthening was increased from £5 million to £15 million, leaving a grand total of £33.4 million. In 1989 the sum was increased in total to £47.4 million in 1990 to £66.88 and in 1991 to £68.13 million. Let the record show the figures.
Last December I launched the operational programme on peripherality, the most important transport investment programme in the history of this State. Road investment under the period of the programme will amount to £615 million, of which £416 million will be recouped from the EC. When road expenditure under the programme is added to the non-programme expenditure, almost £1,000 million will be spent on roads in the five years 1989 to 1993. Twenty nine major improvement projects are scheduled for completion and 28 for commencement during the period of the programme.
Let us talk about the non-national roads. Primary responsibility for funding works on non-national roads have always rested with the individual local authorities concerned. Traditionally, work on those roads was financed from local resources with limited support from State grants. Local authorities continue to provide local resources to help maintain those county roads. They provided almost £50 million this year. That is good, although I have to say Senator O'Keeffe is right, some counties do much better than others. Some counties can traditionally provide £3 million per year for the improvement of their county roads, others find that they cannot manage £300,000. It is up to the Minister to top up these resources and provide the money that I have already mentioned and spelled out in some detail.
Arising from concern about the deterioration of the network of county roads, the Government at my initiative provided significantly enhanced levels of road grants in the last few years to supplement local authority expenditure. For the first time ever here, at my suggestion, the Government agreed in 1988 that they would commit themselves to £150 million over a three year planned programme. That had never happened before, it was dealt with year by year often the money coming to the local authorities half-way through the year. Now they get it in advance of their estimates and they can plan their business. I insisted on a threeyear programme, £150 million of discretionary grants to the county councils for the upkeep of their roads. That was in addition to their own resources imput. This has been more than fulfilled. It was no idle promise. In fact, total grants over the three years will amount to £182.4 million.
That is some indication, which even I recognised, that £150 million was not adequate to do the job despite the fact that the year before I took office the total sum was £23 million. That is all the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition Government going out of office thought of the road network. If there is any shortfall in the maintenance programme, if there is any shortfall in so far as the reconstruction of the roads are concerned, it is because of the legacy of poor management, mismanagement and neglect by my predecessors in office.
The conditions governing expenditure of the grants were also changed at my discretion in 1989 to give more discretion to county councils and to allow more funds to be spent on surface restoration. That was never allowable by any other Government until I came along. I gave the discretion and I will maintain that discretion by incorporating it into statute in the new local government reform Bill that will be coming before you next week, le cunamh De. That will make it absolutely clear that local authority members will decide where and how to spend the discretionary money that I have given them in such great abundance over the past couple of years.
A number of Senators referred to a "pothole blitz". Let us settle this now. There have been suggestions that the 1991 discretionary grants will be spent before the local elections, leaving no money for essential maintenance for the rest of the year. I am disappointed that Senators would trot out that line at this time. Let us have a look at the facts. On 12 April last I met the city and county engineers. When I asked for urgent action with regard to potholes caused by the couple of inclement winters which we had, and the severe frost that breaks up the roads — Senators know that these roads were laid down some 30 or 40 years ago for different weights and different types of usage than that which they are now committed to — the response I got was one that I was expecting, very positive and emphatic. Whether this remedial action can be termed a "blitz" is a question people will have to answer for themselves.
As regards funding, the 1991 road grant allocations were notified on 6 March. Returns to my Department up to the end of April show that some £9 million of the £68 million allocated in discretionary grants for regional and county roads had been expended. This is not surprising, having regard to recently improved weather conditions. It leaves almost £60 million in grants for the remainder of the year. When added to the sum of nearly £50 million contributed from local resources, this should ensure that sufficient moneys will be available for remedial work throughout the year. Even the casual observer, any kind of fair commentator, would have to be impressed at the level of finance which I have provided and I have arrangements in hand to achieve better value for the money by an agreement with the county and city engineers. I am not saying that we are getting full value for the £120 million that Senator Ryan talked about but I am saying that it is a considerable sum to be expending on the maintenance and construction of our county roads network. It is far in advance of anything that was contemplated just a few short years ago before I took office.
We will move to another item. This is a different item but one that is of considerable importance to me, the matter of urban renewal. The Government's drive to promote urban renewal in cities and towns throughout the country has been particularly successful in recent years. Our economic policies have created the right climate for private sector investment. The designated areas scheme for urban renewal which I have highlighted since I came to office, has increased the opportunities for investment and resulted in much worthwhile development in parts of our urban areas which had been derelict and has lain dormant for years. Nothing was done in that regard until I took office.
The scheme stimulates redevelopment of urban areas by the private sector through the provision of a package of taxation incentives and rates relief for development in specifically targeted areas.
In 1988 I extended the urban renewal scheme to nine provincial centres, Athlone, Castlebar, Dundalk, Kilkenny, Letterkenny, Sligo, Tralee, Tullamore and Wexford. The results in these areas to date have been most encouraging. A total of £120 million worth of development is either completed, in progress, or in planning. In 1988 I also designated an area of some 120 acres in Tallaght, a move which was directly responsible for promoting the development of the new Tallaght town centre as well as giving rise to other proposals in Tallaght valued at £10.4 million. That involved hundreds of new jobs being created both in that area and in the other designated areas where the developments are taking place.
With the success of the scheme in these areas, I extended it to a further eight provincial centres in May last year, as well as designating additional areas in the five county borough. Already in these areas, just one year after designation, private sector development valued at some £37.4 million has been generated between projects completed, in progress and in planning.
Since its inception the scheme has led to over £600 million worth of development. This is an addition to the Custom House Docks development in Dublin valued at some £400 million. Much private investment has been attracted here because of the economic situation that has been brought about by the rejuvenation of the economy by the Government and there are thousands of jobs involved in that. I did not hear much mention of that matter from the other side. These facts clearly show that the charge made by Senator Naughten — and it is well to put it on the record now — that the urban renewal plan for 1986 for designated areas has suffered severely because of the Minister for the Environment is clearly without foundation and is unsustainable. I wondered when reading the Senator's comments if he either lives in this city at any time during the year, and certainly if he lives in the country the rest of us inhabit.