Dáil Éireann - Volume 316 - 22 November, 1979
Housing Act, 1969 (Continuance) Order, 1979: Draft Order.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. J. O'Leary) Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. J. O'Leary)
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. J. O'Leary): I move:
That Dáil Éireann approves the following Order in draft:
Housing Act, 1969 (Continuance) Order, 1979
a copy of which Order in draft was laid before Dáil Éireann on 24 October, 1979.
D'achtuíodh Acht na dTithe, 1969, mar Acht sealadach toisc go raibh ganntannas géar tithíochta ann ag an am, go háirithe i mBaile Atha Cliath agus i gcuid des na bailte móra eile, agus ceapadh sa tráth sin nach mairfeadh an ganntannas ro-fhada. Bhronn an tAcht cumhachtaí ar údaráis tithíochta chun scartáil tithe áirithe nó a n-úsáid ar dhoigh seachas mar ionad cónaithe a rialú. Leanadh i ngníomh é le Ordaithe a dheineadh sna blianta 1972, 1974 agus 1977 agus éagfaidh se ag deireadh na  miosa seo chugainn muna leanfar bhfeidhm é arís le Ordú a dhéanfaidh a tAire Comhshaoil tar éis dó cead na Dála agus an tSeanaid a fháil. Tá cead Seanaid Eireann faighte cheana féin.
The 1969 Act provides generally that the permission of the housing authority must be obtained for the demolition or change of use of a habitable house in their administrative area. When determining an application for permission, housing authority must take cognisance of the state of repair of the house to which the application relates and the adequacy of the supply of dwellings in it functional area. An authority may refuse permission or grant it with or without conditions and may, in granting permission, require the provision of replacement accommodation or a contribution towards the cost of providing it.
The expectations in 1969 were that the restrictions imposed temporarily by the Act, combined with an increase in the output of new houses and in the number of existing houses being repaired and improved with the aid of Government incentives, would progressively ease the situation to a point where the controls under this Act would no longer be necessary. However, while housing output has greatly increased since 1969 and a huge number of houses have been preserved and improved with the aid of loans and grants from public funds, the circumstances which gave rise to the introduction of the Act have not entirely disappeared. I am satisfied that a need still exists for some form of control over the change of use or demolition of habitable houses to facilitate commercial or industrial development which, due to economic factors, can often be financially more rewarding than the retention of houses for residential purposes.
While statistics furnished to my Department show that the provisions of the Act have been utilised by at least 38 housing authorities, the greater part of the activity has been confined to the Dublin and Cork city areas. Up to the end of September this year, Dublin Corporation had reached 2,021 applications for permission. Of these, 886 were  refused and 1,135 were granted subject to conditions. During the same period, Cork Corporation received 257 applications. Permission was granted in 181 cases, refused in 61 and 15 applications were withdrawn.
There is a right of appeal to the Minister for the Environment where a housing authority refuses permission or grants it subject to conditions. Up to 30 September 802 such appeals had been submitted. Of these, 48 were invalid as they were not received within the statutory period, 585 were determined, 112 were withdrawn, and the remainder were under consideration at that date.
In November 1977, when a motion proposing the continuance in force of the 1969 Act for a further two years was being debated in the Dáil, the Minister for the Environment indicated that permanent provisions for the type of control exercised under the Act were then being prepared. The task of making the provisions permanent was being undertaken in the belief that, with some amendments of the terms of the 1969 Act, the new provisions would form a realistic and equitable method of control and that it would be possible to incorporate the revised provisions in the Housing Bill, the preparation of which was well advanced.
Following the making of the order extending the 1969 Act up to 31 December 1979, the proposals then in draft for making permanent provisions were reconsidered in the light of the debates in the Dáil and the Seanad which preceded the making of the order. Subsequently, when the proposals for legislation on the subject were considered in consultation with other Departments, attention was drawn to a number of problems to which the proposals could give rise and to associated and conflicting considerations which it would be difficult to reconcile.
In this context, there was, and is, the argument that the controls may have the effect, in the case of refusal of permission for a change of use from a habitable house to an alternative and more profitable use, of making it difficult, if not impossible, for the owner to maintain  the property economically, as a result of which it may deteriorate rapidly and be lost to the housing stock.
Representations have been made in this regard about the policy operated in relation to limited areas within their district by some housing authorities under which permissions for change of use of houses in the area are generally refused. This can have the effect of bringing about the steady, and sometimes rapid, deterioration of whole streets of houses, worth retaining on architectural grounds, but which would require a level of expenditure on maintenance and improvement which the income obtainable from lettings as houses and flats would not make economically viable.
A further consideration which arises is that a refusal of permission cannot ensure that the habitable house retained will be occupied as a dwelling. Again, where permission is given subject to conditions requiring at least the same amount of habitable accommodation to be provided in the course of redevelopment, the new accommodation may not, in many cases, be a suitable alternative for the persons or families displaced. In other words, the stock of the type of housing they require will be diminished and the replacement accommodation provided on the site may be too expensive for them. This point was referred to by Deputy Ruairí Quinn when a similiar Motion was before this House on 7 December 1977.
There has been considerable, and justifiable, criticism of developers who set out to defeat the objectives of the Act by allowing habitable houses to remain unoccupied, unmaintained and a target for vandals. They do this on the basis that the restrictions under the Act on redevelopment will no longer apply when the dwellings become unfit for human habitation. There are provisions in the temporary Act which were intended to enable local authorities to deal with such cases of deliberate dilapidation, but in practice these powers were found to be unworkable. Attempts by local authorities to enforce the controls were not successful. This is an unsatisfactory  situation, one which will receive careful attention when proposals for permanent legislation to replace the 1969 Act are being prepared.
Finally, there is the question of whether or not provision for compensation should be provided in cases of refusal of permission, either to demolish or change the use of a habitable house. No such provision had been seen as necessary in the temporary Act. But it has been argued that the absence of such a provision can, in some cases, be inequitable to the owners of property affected. On the other hand, provision for payment of compensation generally could make the operation of the Act unduly costly for local authorities.
These legal, administrative and functional problems could not, because of their complexity, be resolved without unduly delaying the preparation by my Department, and the consideration by the Dáil and Seanad, of the other aspects of housing legislation which were enacted last August in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1979. Rather than hold up these other changes in housing legislation, for some of which there was an urgent need, it was decided to defer a decision on the future of the 1969 Act until the recent Bill had been enacted.
While I have mentioned a number of factors which might appear to justify allowing the 1969 Act to lapse nevertheless I am satisfied, on balance, that there is a need to provide housing authorities with some positive powers of control over the unwarranted demolition or change of use of sound houses and flats. To guide me in deciding what form these controls should take in the future I decided that a detailed analysis of the operations under the Act should be carried out by all housing authorities concerned, not only of the results of the grants of permission for either demolition or change of use, but, even more so, of the effects on the houses and the neighbourhoods in respect of which permissions were refused. I have asked local authorities, particularly those who actively  operate the provisions of the Act, to make this analysis and to inform me of the results. In the light of the findings of this survey, having regard also to any views or recommendations which Deputies might like to put forward today, I hope in the coming months to decide what policies governing the control by housing authorities of sound existing housing accommodation might most appropriately be adopted.
In the meantime, I recommend to the House that the existing controls should be retained for the further period proposed in the draft order now before the Dáil.
Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan) Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan)
Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan): As the Minister of State has told us, the purpose of the motion before the House is to continue up to 31 December 1981 the provisions of the 1969 Housing Act which make it illegal to demolish habitable houses without the consent of the appropriate housing authority and lays it down that consent may be refused or given subject to conditions. That Act was introduced as a temporary measure, as is clear from the fact that it was to expire two years after its enactment. Indeed the Minister's opening speech makes it clear that it was regarded as a temporary measure.
Very briefly, the history of that 1969 Housing Act is somewhat as follows. The Planning Act, a very comprehensive planning measure, was enacted in 1963. On the day following its enactment the then Minister for Local Government made an order under its provisions exempting a number of activities from the planning provisions of the 1963 Act. One of those activities, strange as it may appear, was the demolition of any building; a person erecting a building was controlled in every way possible by the Planning Act, 1963. But the Minister, by a stroke of his pen, removed all control from the demolition of buildings on the day after the Planning Bill was enacted. The result of that was that there was a scandalous demolition of habitable dwellings all over the country but particularly in the city of Dublin and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the  city of Cork. It was a scandalous abuse of the powers which should never have been given by the Ministerial Order made following the enactment of the Planning Bill. Immediately it was seen that building speculators were demolishing habitable houses, replacing them with office blocks while there remained an acute shortage of dwellings for people in need of them. That scandal soon aroused grave concern amongst people all over the country. The then Government allowed that state of affairs to continue from 1964 until 1969. The scandal of which I have spoken became so acute at that time and aroused so much indignation in the country that the Government were forced to put an end to it. The 1969 Housing Act, which we are now extending, was introduced for that specific purpose—to prevent the demolition of habitable houses and preserve them for the thousands of families in need of housing. It was a negative measure in the sense that it prevented the demolition of houses but did nothing very much to ensure or to encourage their improvement and preservation.
The Housing Act of 1969, with which we are now dealing, is being extended for the fourth time since its enactment. Having considered the matter I believe that the motion this House is now being asked to pass is a reflection on our democratic system of government, is the type of thing that justifies the criticism of the form of government we have and indeed holds it up to ridicule. This was a temporary measure introduced in 1969 to give the Government of the day and the Minister for Local Government of the day a brief space in which to introduce permanent legislation. Now we are being asked to extend this negative measure for the fourth time in ten years.
In 1977 the Minister for the Environment moved a resolution similar to this but assured the House that he had solved the problem and that that was the last occasion on which he would ask for an extension of the 1969 Act. In the Seanad, the Minister stated that  although he was asking for a two-year extension he would not really want it because he gave an undertaking that an Act which would be introduced in 1978 would solve all the problems. Now we have the Minister of State saying that the whole thing has been re-thought and that when a Housing Act is drafted some time in the unstated future, when housing policy is being considered, the whole thing will be reconsidered. We are being asked to extend further this measure up to 31 December 1981 with no assurance whatever that the Minister, if he is still there, will not be asking for a further extension. I am not exaggerating or using extravagant language when I say that that is the sort of thing that brings our system of government into ridicule and justifies people becoming frustrated.
If the preservation of housing stock was important in 1969 it is even more important now because the cost of building houses has rocketed, according to official statistics, in the second quarter of this year. That is a very good argument for preserving existing houses if they can be preserved. There is also another argument for preserving the existing stock of houses and that is the apparent policy of the Government in drastically cutting back on the number of local authority houses being built.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Sean Browne
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy knows better than the Chair that on this order we are discussing only the preservation of houses. We will not have a housing debate on this order. The Deputy should bear with the Chair.
Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan) Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan)
Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan): I will, if the Chair will bear with me for a second. I am making the case that instead of continuing this order we should have a positive order with big incentives to preserve the existing stock of houses.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Sean Browne
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy would be completely in order in doing that, but we cannot debate new houses, the financing of new houses and things like that.
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
 Mr. Quinn: They are inter-related.
Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan) Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan)
Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan): I am putting my arguments briefly and I have said all I want to say on the price of houses.
Fewer local authority houses are being built. The record shows that the apparent policy of the Government is to cut back on the number of local authority houses being built. In 1975 8,794 houses were built, in 1976 7,663 houses were built, in 1977 6,333 were built, in 1978 6,073 houses were built and it looks as if there will be fewer than 5,000 completed this year. It is essential that houses which can be preserved are preserved. It is also essential, if this capital city is to remain a living city, that houses be preserved and that people be encouraged to live in the city. The population figures show an overall substantial increase in population throughout the country but the population of Dublin city has fallen by about 24,000 or 25,000 people. That is a sad state of affairs. For various reasons people should be encouraged to live in the city, which should be made into a place where they would like to live and where they would be near their work, which would relieve the traffic congestion. People cannot be expected to live in the city or in any other place unless it is made acceptable to them. One of the ways in which it could be made acceptable would be to preserve houses that are fit for human habitation and to encourage people to live in them.
This is a negative measure in the sense that it stops people knocking down houses but apparently it allows them to let houses fall down. That is not good enough. More generous incentives should be offered to encourage people to improve and reconstruct houses. Improvement grants are available. Many people think that the Government substantially increased house improvement grants and they think that the Government gave a grant of up to a maximum of £600 to anybody who wished ro renew his house. Those are not the facts. The Government increased the maximum house improvement grant. Under the previous Government, £200 was  payable by the State, and £200 by the local authorities. The Government abolished the £200 payable by the local authorities and replaced it by a grant of £600 which is an increase of one-third.
In the meantime, the cost of reconstruction has doubled and people are worse off in regard to reconstructing and improving their house than they were. Because the cost of new houses is so very high, it would be good business, good economics, for the Government to increase the maximum reconstruction and improvement grant substantially. I understand that in Northern Ireland the maximum reconstruction and improvement grant has been of the order of £5,000 for some years—and this has nothing to do with the troubles there—to encourage people to preserve and improve their houses. That is good national economics.
The Minister should be doing that instead of engaging in this lazy operation of simply preserving the status quo by a continuation of the 1969 Act. The Minister told us very little about his thinking on housing policy and the preservation of houses in general. This is a serious matter in the city of Dublin. Members of the corporation know perfectly well that at least 6,000 families are on the housing list awaiting houses in this city. They are accepted as being people who are living in unacceptable dwellings. There are thousands of others on the waiting list for a transfer out of flats and inadequate dwellings into proper dwellings. The Minister should come in here with a statement on housing policy for this city and country instead of continuing this negative measure which does nothing more than preserve the status quo.
I want to emphasise that there is a great case to be made for giving grants of the order of thousands of pounds for the preservation of houses where they can be preserved and where they have a worthwhile life expectancy. There is no point in talking about hundreds of pounds. It would be very good economics to preserve the life of those houses by reconstructing, repairing and improving them so that they can house  people for years to come. That would be a cheaper way of providing houses than building new houses. Apparently the Government have decided to cut back on local authority houses. When we get the figures for the next two quarters we will be able to tot them up but, unless there is some miracle towards the end of the year, the figure will be under 5,000 for this year.
That is my message to the Minister about Dublin city. He more or less said in his opening statement that the problem we are dealing with is largely a city problem. In the interests of people who want houses, and also in the interests of the city, dwellings should be preserved.
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: It is with a lot of regret that I find myself speaking on this motion once again. I opened my contribution in 1977 with a similar type phrase. I regret that the Minister of State has been given the rather nasty task of getting this motion through the House yet again and not his senior colleague who carries the ultimate responsibility. I listened to and read the Minister's speech in this House and in the Seanad some weeks ago. Having regard to the housing stock, and particularly the portion of the housing stock which is most at risk, all that can be said is that after two-and-a-half years in office the Government are totally and utterly bankrupt of any housing policy designed to preserve and protect the housing stock.
The Minister will reply that they have increased the grants and introduced energy conservation grants, and that there is unprecedented activity in the housing sector. Deputy Fitzpatrick has already given an indication of the scale of the increase in the grant for improvement and the scale of house construction costs. The 1969 Act was forced onto the Statute Book by street protests by the Dublin Housing Action Committee at that time, and by students and others who took to the streets because of the scandal of what was then the destruction of living accommodation in this city,  largely as the result of an unfortunate mistake made by the then Minister for Local Government, Deputy Blaney. It was not an unreasonable mistake. Certainly the gap which remained open for so long was unreasonable. I have the highest regard for the contribution Deputy Blaney made as Minister for Local Government in the field of planning, and I would allow him that mistake. He was not finally the person responsible for introducing the 1969 Bill. It was his colleague, then Deputy Boland.
We have always known that it was a temporary Act. It was introduced as such. I have not read the moving speeches for the renewing of the motion in 1972 and in 1974, but I am sure they are not much different from those made in 1977 and by the Minister today. A great deal has happened since 1969 in the understanding of how to manage the housing stock in inner city areas. Effectively we are talking about a few housing authorities, despite the fact that the Minister said 38 housing authorities are operating this. In real terms we are talking about three or four urban housing authorities, and predominantly Cork and Dublin.
If there is a popular appeal and demand in this city at the moment across every spectrum of society and all political parties, it is for the preservation and revitalisation of the inner city. Only last week yet again The Irish Times carried another story about the collapse of Dublin. It is a regular journalistic feature to run a piece on the decline and collapse of Dublin. There are hosts of solutions, proposals and committees making suggestions as to how this decline can be arrested. Two-and-a-half years after the Minister took office, and nine or ten years after the Bill was introduced, the Minister comes in here and does not put before us one single proposal to replace this temporary measure. There is the retreat into seeking advice from committees and housing authorities on how this Act is working.
Two years ago I referred the Minister to a thesis study by Mr. Michael Swanton,  reference No. 57 in UCD Library, on the specific operation of the Act in relation to Cork Corporation and Dublin Corporation. Nothing very much has changed except, perhaps, that this Government are a little more lenient about giving housing permissions on appeal than the previous Government. But your own Department as recently as this year joined with the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland in a joint housing conference which is held every two years, the major topic of which was the question of urban renewal and rehabilitation, predominantly of residential residences in the inner city area which are going through a transitional stage.
At that conference there were some excellent contributions, contributions that were measured, studied and researched, and they came from participants who were practitioners in this country and also from people from abroad. But I am appalled that there is not as much as a single reference to the possibility of some such rehabilitation programme being formulated by you in the coming few months. Undoubtedly, the file in the Custom House is full and is more than explicit in regard to the ways in which the objectives of this Act, which yet again is being renewed, could be met directly by positive legislative action. If there is anything that discredits parliamentary democracy in a society such as ours it is the kind of governmental and ministerial incompetence that is evident now. Both Dublin and Cork cities are crying out for a creative response from the people who have a democratic mandate to make that response.
In December of 1977 one could with fairness say to the Minister for the Environment that, as he had been in office for less than five months and not having held previously the brief for the environment, time would be required in order for him to study the problems. However, you have had your time. You have had two-and-a-half years and all we have had  in regard to this issue is a miserable and mealymouthed plea for a further two years' extension. I use the phrase “mealymouthed” for the reason that your concern in moving this motion and in your reference to the administrative and legal difficulties attached to replacing it with a more positive instrument, is not out of concern for those people who will be rendered homeless or for those people who, though they have housing of a low standard, are at least in a position to pay for it because of the low rents involved.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Sean Browne
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: All of this will appear in the record as if the Chair were responsible for all these matters, and I am not so responsible. Therefore, would the Deputy please address the Minister in the third person and through the Chair?
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: I would not attribute the blame to you at all, Sir, but you have developed a remarkably good style of parliamentary hand tripping which at times is difficult to step over.
Mr. Boland Mr. Boland
Mr. Boland: Deputy Quinn is a high stepper.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Sean Browne
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy will appreciate what will appear in the Official Report.
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: The concern is not for those people who happen to be affected by reason of the 1,100 permissions that were granted by Dublin Corporation since the coming into operation of this Act. Neither is the concern for the property owners in terms of property rights. Here again we have an example of a classic confrontation—the rights of property versus the basic human rights of shelter. Again, predictably, this Government and this Minister come down unashamedly and unabashedly on the side of property. Who are these property owners who, in many cases, have allowed the houses to fall into disrepair, into a state of dilapidation or who in some cases have provoked this situation deliberately? Frequently, they are not  the poor defenceless landlords living on restricted and controlled rents and who have a right to an adequate return. Frequently, the areas of maximum abuse concern property owners who are really financial institutions and banks who have financed the vandalism of this city. There are properties in this city that have been vacant since 1973 but the mortgages and the title deeds of those vacant properties are held by respected members of the banking community and of financial institutions within the banking community. The Minister's concern is for those people. There is not a word of concern for the people who live in some of those dilapidated houses but who will be displaced as a result of development works.
The Minister was fair enough to refer to a contribution I made a couple of years ago when I drew attention to the fact that when a housing permission is granted because of housing stock being increased, invariably the person being moved as a consequence of the demolition of that dwelling is not the person who will occupy the new unit to be built.
Frequently some of those tenants are rehoused satisfactorily elsewhere, but all too frequently they are manoeuvered and manipulated on to the local authority housing list and subsequently rehoused by the local authority at the expense of the community but to the benefit of the private developer. What sort of housing policy is that?
In my contribution of 7 December 1977 I offered a detailed and sustained criticism of the technical and legal functioning of this Act. In summary of that I should merely like to say that nothing has changed in those two years to invalidate any of that criticism. This is still a bad piece of legislation. It is costly and ineffective and adds administrative costs to the Department and ultimately to the people involved in the development of the city of Dublin but does not protect the interests of people living in such residential property, whose plight and whose exploitation were the major causes of forcing this piece of legislation on to the Statute Book in the first place.
 Their situation was made known by way of the street demonstrations of 1967, 1968 and 1969. That is the sad political fact, and I am appalled that the Minister still seems to be totally ill-informed and persists with this legislation.
I read with interest the contribution of the Minister for State in the Seanad when moving this motion there. He referred significantly to the link between the role of the housing authority in administering this Act and the role of the planning authority in effectively providing for the proper planning and development of the area in which the Act is operational. I am puzzled at the absence of any such reference in this House by the Minister, but that is the direction in which the policy should be directed. The legal separation of the responsibility of the local authority as the housing authority on the one hand and as the planning authority on the other hand has brought about most of the bad effects of this defective legislation. My contribution of 1977 went into this aspect in detail.
In essence we are playing an artificial numbers game in regard to the operation of this Act. First of all, the 1,113 permissions that were granted with conditions probably in all cases involved the paper exercise of actually increasing the housing stock on that site, the proposal being that under the operation of the 1969 Act the developer was proposing to knock down four or five residential units and replace them with 20 or 30 units. Two things emerged from that. First, frequently there has been a long time lapse between the demolition of the existing dwelling units and their replacement. Some of this time lapse has been deliberate and some has been as a result of the economic crisis in property development in 1975 and 1976. The other effect has been invariably that because of the construction costs the new units produced under the development were totally outside the economic reach of people who lived there previously. Therefore, the objective of the plan in holding a particular social mix in an area or maintaining a certain kind of residential content,  perhaps of families with children or families connected with the area, has been shattered because all too frequently the occupants of the new dwellings are transient people who regard their occupancy of a new flat as temporary or use it only for part of the year. The local authorities with whom the Minister is consulting and the local representatives in the areas would be able to detail that at some length. I suggest to the Minister that before he makes any final proposals he should consult with the local councillors in Cork and Dublin. He should also consult with his colleague, Deputy Moore, who has an enormous amount of experience with regard to this matter as leader of the Fianna Fáil group in the Dublin Corporation.
We are being asked to renew this Act again on the vague promise that the Minister and the Department will come forward in a few months with proposals to replace it. In his speech the Minister stated:
This is an unsatisfactory situation and one which will receive careful attention when proposals for permanent legislation to replace the 1969 Act are being prepared.
That is as far as we go. There is no indication of what might be the parameters of the proposal, no indication of the timetable other than the next few months. Parliamentary language is quite elastic when it comes to the interpretation of time. Phrases such as “the near future”, “the immediate future” and “the next few months” are as long as a piece of string so far as this House is concerned. We are left with the situation where yet again an Act that is regarded by the Minister as unsatisfactory is being renewed and extended for the fourth time. The Minister has no specific proposals to bring to the House despite the fact that two years ago he knew he would have to do this and despite the fact that in drafting the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which we dealt with during the summer there was ample opportunity between then and  now to indicate the outline of the proposals. Yet again, we are being asked to take on trust the bona fides of this Government in regard to legislation on this matter. Quite frankly, I do not trust the Minister to perform in this area.
Indeed, there is no guarantee that the Minister or his senior Minister in the Department may even have responsibility for these matters next January after the now definitely promised reshuffle. If that is the case, will we have to go through the whole nonsense again? Will we have to wait two years while somebody else reads himself into the job by which time Fianna Fáil may not have any responsibility for implementing the proposal? Every day there is no action in this area another residential unit disappears. Every day the Minister seeks more consultations, information and advice the inner urban areas of Dublin, Cork and Limerick are visibly collapsing for want of a major policy of urban renewal. There is a crying need for positive, concerted and intelligent actions for which there is an undoubted consensus politically and for which there is a public demand for action without delay.
We are not asking the Minister to do something extraordinary. We are not asking him to re-invent the wheel or to design legislative measures of a unique character where he has to do everything from scratch. The Minister has the resources of an excellent Department where there is a store of accumulated wisdom going back over the years. He has also a local authority structure that, if it can sustain the blows he gives it each day, still retains within it the commitment and expertise necessary to implement proposals.
What I expect and demand from someone who purports to be concerned passionately with the right to shelter and the right to housing—we hear about this at election times from Fianna Fáil—are detailed specific proposals for an urban renewal rehabilitation programme that avoids the trap set by the Department of Finance. Their attitude is that reconstruction grants for housing are a  sieve through which endless amounts of money flow and over which they have no control. Their view is that the housing stock of 700,000 or 800,000 houses will qualify for such grants, that there is no end to the kind of money that will be involved and, therefore, there is no way they will underwrite grants of £800 or £900 or even the £5,000 grant referred to by Deputy Fitzpatrick.
The Labour Party are aware of this. We recognise the difficulty and complexity of government, something that was absent from the Fianna Fáil manifesto two years ago. We know the difficulties but we also know the solutions. In this instance the solution is to separate the unique problem of inner city housing areas from the mass of housing stock around the country, because it is a separate problem. There is ample room for a scheme of grants to be introduced that would relate to specific urban areas and for those grants to be justified on the grounds of maintaining and developing the stock of housing within the country as a housing provision and, in addition, to have the beneficial planning effect of consolidating inner city communities. That policy can safely be sold to the Minister's own backbenchers who would be claiming for parity in terms of housing reconstruction grants between the city and the country and between the inner city and the suburbs. The Minister can safely do that if he wishes.
Regrettably, I do not see any political commitment or political awareness of the necessity to do that or the possibility that it could be done. I made a brief reference to that possibility when the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was going through the House. I understood that the Minister took upon himself in that enabling piece of legislation the possibility of creating, by way of order, schemes for rehabilitation, renewal and grant for certain designated areas. My interpretation was not contradicted by the Minister then present. Within the context of that new legislation the Minister has the legal vehicle for proposing an urban renewal rehabilitation  programme. There is nothing coming from the Department. We have heard of vague proposals after consultation with other Government Departments and local authorities. Regrettably, when the Custom House speak about consultations with local authorities it never means consultations between the political master in the Custom House and the political representatives at local level. There is a lot of consultation and direction from the Custom House to every local authority but almost all the time local authority members do not know what is passing in circulars. The last thing is that they should be told. That is a political problem that requires (a) political recognition of that and (b) political commitment to do something about it. With those two things in his back pocket the Minister can go to his professional advisers who have all the competence necessary to do the job and ask them to design a programme that will implement that politically.
Instead, we get classic bureaucratic trench defence positions as evidenced in the following quotation from the Minister's speech, which is good for any kind of holding operation. The Minister of State said:
Finally, there is the question of whether or not provision for compensation should be provided in cases of refusal of permission either to demolish or change the use of a habitable house. No such provision had been seen as necessary in the temporary Act. But it has been argued that the absence of such a provision can, in some cases, be inequitable to the owners of property affected. On the other hand, provision for payment of compensation generally could make the operation of the Act unduly costly for local authorities.
These legal, administrative and functional problems could not, because of their complexity, be resolved without unduly delaying the preparation by my Department, and  the consideration by the Dáil and Seanad, of the other aspects of housing legislation which were enacted last August in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1979.
The Minister mentioned “these legal, administrative and functional problems”, not political problems, compassionate or emotional problems about making a reality out of the right to shelter, something that we could be proud of. He told us that the difficulties and the blockages to getting a decent human and compassionate policy off the ground here were “legal, administrative and functional problems”. I should like to know who is in charge in the Custom House because the admission in that paragraph, and the admission of failure to produce a housing policy in the last two-and-a-half years, clearly indicates to me that there is no political control in the Custom House. The Department are on automatic pilot and heading deeply into fog. The last thing they are going to do is to open up a new Pandora's box where they may have to take political initiative.
If the Department are on automatic pilot—there is every evidence that they are—it is not the political or democratic function of civil servants who are not accountable to take upon themselves policy initiatives. They have honourably resisted doing that. It is the job of the Minister of State and, frankly, he is not doing it. There is not any indication that he proposes to do his job. There is no indication that (a) he knows what has to be done, (b) he has any sense of what the timetable is or (c) what the ultimate cost might be.
Next Sunday at my clinic I will meet at least three people who will be directly affected by the non-performance of the objectives of this Act. They will be seeking housing because they are being evicted by their landlords from property which may be substandard but which they can afford and is in an area they want to live in. As citizens of this State they are not protected by the provisions  of the 1969 Act. The only thing I can possibly do for them is to articulate their case and advocate their housing claim to the local authority. We have already heard from Deputy Fitzpatrick of the poverty of housing statistics on the local authority field that the Minister of State has brought about. The people I spoke of will be put out of a house, a home and a community because, in the final analysis, when Fianna Fáil are faced with a choice of people versus property one does not have to think, worry, ponder or muse about it because every time property rights come first. They come first in what the Minister of State said today.
The misery that is caused by lack of housing, eviction and displacement that spills over into alcoholism, wife-beating. separation and other problems can be reduced if the Minister takes courage and runs the Department as a political Minister with a political commitment to do something about the housing situation. The situation is not improving. Local authority housing figures are down, housing construction costs are up and the Department have already wasted millions stupidly inflating the construction industry with the £1,000 grant, an election gimmick, to such an extent that the cost of replacement of the houses the Department were given permission to demolish is beyond the dreams of anybody involved in housing economics two years ago. In the time since the Minister took political responsibility for housing the construction cost of new houses has gone from £14,500 to £23,000. Coming from a Government which claims, among other things, to be the party of reality and to consist of people who understand the mixed economy and capitalism, that is some claim to credit. It is some marvellous statement of economic efficiency to be able to say that the cost of housing construction was put up to such an extent so quickly and at the expense of people who are totally at the mercy of an open market economy and who cannot afford to house themselves.
Dáil Éireann 316 Housing Act, 1969 (Continuance) Order, 1979: Draft Order.