Topical Issues Debate - Flood Prevention Measures

December 9th, 2015 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: Like other counties, County Clare suffered from extensive flooding on Saturday as a result of Storm Desmond which caused widespread road closures in the county and submerged thousands of acres under water. Houses were cut off and a number of houses were evacuated. Businesses were also affected.

It is anticipated that in the coming days more houses, property and roads could be damaged along the lower banks of the River Shannon in the Springfield area of Clonlara in south-east Clare as the ESB is set to increase the release of water from the Parteen Weir. I spoke to residents and householders affected by flooding and one issue arises constantly, namely, the maintenance and cleaning of our smaller rivers. Many have not been maintained or dredged for more than 20 years. Over time the build-up of silt and falling trees is holding back the water and increasing the risk of localised flooding.

I ask the Minister of State, the OPW and local authorities to carry out an assessment of rivers in my county, including rivers such as Fergus, O’Garney and Doonbeg, and to introduce a programme of river dredging and maintenance through the provision of a multi-annual funding programme. It could solve some of the problems and prevent further flooding.

I commend the OPW on the flood relief work it has done in Ennis, where two areas have been completed and, thankfully, we did not have the same type of flooding we had in 2009. However, problems remain on the Limerick Road side. St. Flannan’s College was closed over the weekend. Many residents in the area were very worried in case they experienced the same type of flooding they did in 2009.

I refer to the Ennis south flood relief project. I understand some technical issues need to be ironed out, and I ask the Minister of State to finalise the outstanding issues in order that the scheme can commence in the new year. There are other areas of concern throughout the county, but I wanted to raise two or three issues today.

Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Simon Harris): I thank Deputies for their contributions and for allowing me the opportunity to address the House regarding the severe weather which affected the country over last weekend and well into this week. I pledge my willingness to work with Members on all sides of the House to address the many challenges facing communities right across the country. I take this opportunity, too, to express my heartfelt sympathy for all those householders and businesses affected by the flooding. I assure them the Government will do everything it can to assist in getting their properties and lives back to normal as soon as possible. Storm Desmond, which affected the whole country but particularly the western seaboard and the River Shannon, was a severe weather event dominated by record high-intensity, short-duration rainfall together with storm-force gales, with the greatest impact experienced along the western seaboard from Donegal to Cork.

Indeed, parts of the country had the equivalent of one month’s rain within a 24-hour period. Local authorities, the Defence Forces and all other relevant parties are clued in to the situation. Mr. Seán Hogan, the excellent senior official who chairs the national emergency co-ordination committee, is keeping local authorities very much aware of the current weather situation.

The short-term impact of this extreme rainfall was predominantly fluvial flooding of roads, transport networks and hard surfaces in urban and paved areas.

As the road drainage and urban drainage systems became overwhelmed, the flooding extended to a fluvial event and affected properties in multiple urban centres of the north west, west and south, including Ballybofey, Sligo, Crossmolina, Craughwell, Ballinasloe, Bandon, Skibbereen, Kenmare, and Tralee. The national co-ordination group for severe weather, which is chaired by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, has been meeting almost daily since last Friday, initially to assess the forecast and the associated risks and later to deal with the aftermath of the storm. All local crisis management arrangements through local authorities were put in place last Thursday.

Every county has a severe weather protocol, which it was instructed to activate at that stage, and the full services of the Civil Defence and fire services as well as local authority staff were deployed over the weekend. I believe there were 7,000 front-line staff on call and on duty throughout the weekend. I take this opportunity to extend my appreciation to all the emergency responders and volunteers in local communities who worked tirelessly over the weekend. I understand 97 members of the Civil Defence were out in Donegal alone and 9,000 sandbags were filled in Deputy Calleary’s constituency of Mayo. Much of this was done by volunteers and I commend their efforts to deal with a very difficult situation.

I welcome a number of decisions taken by the Government today, including the humanitarian assistance scheme, the €5 million that will be given to the Red Cross and which needs to be administered as quickly as possible. The Minister for Defence, and Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, will provide clarity on that and on measures that have been put in place to support our farming community. I assure the House that the Government is absolutely and fully aware of the problems of flooding and prioritises the need to find effective and workable solutions to the problem on a national basis. In this regard, the Government is starting the final part of its proactive planning programme to develop feasible flood risk management solutions for those 300 areas across the country at most significant risk from flooding.

Through the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, the Office of Public Works, OPW, has completed extensive and systematic hydraulic modelling and hydrological examination for each of these 300 areas, including 90 coastal locations. To date, the CFRAM programme, which is being implemented with the co¬operation of progress and steering groups involving local authorities, has surveyed and modelled 6,700 km of watercourse. It has produced approximately 40,000 individual flood maps, including those required by the EU floods directive. It has also held extensive public consultations, inviting comments and meeting local representatives and local communities to explain the CFRAM programme, as well as exhibiting and proactively discussing draft flood maps to gain any additional local insight and knowledge to inform their development.

The OPW, informed by the draft maps, is currently and actively engaging with local communities towards developing feasible options for both structural solutions, such as flood defence schemes, and non-structural solutions to address the known fluvial and tidal risks. This is not just another report; this is a process of introducing proactive schemes and finding solutions, where possible, for these 300 communities throughout the country. I am out of time, but I plead the indulgence of the House for a moment. The Government is taking up the suggestion of Deputy Ó Cuív that we need to be putting more schemes into the planning process so that we have a constant pipeline of schemes to invest in, because we are going to see more severe weather in this country. The final flood risk management plans - not maps but plans and solutions - for these 300 areas are on target to be completed by the end of 2016. The CFRAM programme is the core implementation strategy for the Government’s flood risk policy. It is also the principal vehicle for implementing the EU floods directive. Engineering consultants have been appointed by the OPW to implement the programme, through six regional studies. Local authorities and other stakeholders are involved and steering groups are in place.

This is not a report. This is about trying to predict flood hazard and coming up with solutions, and I look forward to working with all Deputies. This only works if there is money behind it. That is why we have put in place, through the capital plan, €430 million to be spent on such capital and flood projects between 2016 and 2021. To date, as a State, successive Governments have spent €410 million since 1995, and we will be spending more in the next five years on capital flood relief schemes than we have in the past 20 years. That is a sign of commitment, as a Government and as a State. However, there are currently up to seven flood relief schemes in construction - we are not waiting for CFRAM to be completed. There are a further 27 schemes at various stages of design, including those in Cork city, Bandon, Skibbereen, Crossmolina, Claregalway, Enniscorthy and others.

I want to address the situation with the Bandon flood defence scheme briefly. There has, understandably, been much comment and criticism from local residents over the delays in bringing the scheme to construction. Following the major flood event in the town in 2009, the OPW, along with Cork County Council, commenced work on devising proposals to deal with the problem. In late 2010, consultants were appointed and the process of designing a scheme commenced. Designing a flood defence scheme is very complex and it takes many years to get from A to B, but it is vital that the best possible solution to the flooding problem is found and this requires very detailed analysis of hydrological data and assessment of all possible options. The process of procuring contractors to carry out the scheme can also lead to delays. This, unfortunately, is what happened in Bandon, where there were legal challenges to the process in both 2013 and 2014. The proposed scheme, however, is now at tender stage for a civil works contractor, with tenders due in January 2016. This should allow shovels to be in the ground in Bandon in the middle of 2016. The scheme will be submitted very shortly to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for confirmation under the Arterial Drainage Acts. The Minister will be required, under environmental legislation, to carry out an independent assessment. I will be monitoring this very closely and give Deputies my personal commitment that I want to see this scheme completed in the timeframe I have outlined. There are a number of other schemes I will come back to in response to some of the specific queries

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Minister of State for his reply and for travelling down during the year to the various areas to see for himself the work that is being carried out by the OPW. In the short time he has now, perhaps the Minister of State could give me an update on the current situation in Ennis and when he expects the Ennis south scheme to commence. He might also have some updated information from the ESB regarding the potential flooding of south east Clare, in Springfield and Clonlara, which is a real worry for the many residents and landowners in that area.

Deputy Simon Harris: I will do my best. There were a lot of questions and, obviously, Members had a lot longer to ask them than I have to answer them.

On immediate works, let me be clear that there is an ongoing scheme called the minor flood mitigation scheme, for which any local authority can apply to the Office of Public Works. It has clear criteria. All the local authority engineers are well aware of it and it is published on the OPW website. They can apply for up to €0.5 million for what we describe as minor flood works but could end up making a very big difference. We are continuing to pay out that to local authorities to carry out works. I encourage all Members to familiarise themselves with that scheme. There are criteria attached to it, but they should have a look at the scheme. I am happy to have further engagement with any Deputy, including Deputy Stanley, if he wants to come back to me on his issue in Laois.

The issue of delays is a fair point. We have acknowledged that it takes time to get the schemes right, and we have to get the right schemes. We have seen in other countries with bad weather in recent times what happens when the schemes are not necessarily right. Having said that, we need to get them done as quickly as possible. We have shown that we will look at elements on a stand-alone basis where it makes sense.

Deputy Simon Harris: ] Blackpool was supposed to be part of the River Lee scheme, and I gave a commitment that if Blackpool was ready to proceed before the River Lee, we would go ahead with it. I was in Blackpool approximately two weeks ago, moving it on. I also intend to ask the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, for which I have responsibility, to ensure that we are optimising every opportunity we have under EU procurement directives so there is no delay. I will ask OGP to prepare a report for me on it and to engage at a European level to ensure there are no delays.

The confirmation process which Deputy Harrington raised is relatively new and he is right. We are starting to run the tendering at the same time as the confirmation process in order to prevent any undue delays. I want to see more of it. There is a budget of approximately €6 million for the Dunkellin scheme which Deputy Cannon raised, and we will deliver the scheme by direct labour. While we are in the hands of An Bord Pleanála, I hope, if there is a positive result, we can proceed as quickly as possible. I am very sorry Templemore was flooded. Deputy Coonan has contacted me about the scheme, which we are pursing and will progress in 2016. I will return to the Deputy with more details.

I agree with Deputy Creighton about flood insurance. We do not have it right yet. I was asked to chair an interdepartmental group on flood insurance. When the country floods, everybody says it is the job of the OPW but it is not. It is the job of many State agencies and local authorities. The Department of Finance is reviewing its policy on flood insurance and is due to report as part of the interdepartmental group in the spring. I am not satisfied that, if the State is potentially going to spent €1 billion of taxpayers’ money over the next ten years delivering CFRAM, we could still have a scenario in which homes and businesses cannot get flood insurance. We are examining what other countries are doing. I am more than happy to meet with the residents and I have already visited the Dodder. I stand over the professionalism of the OPW staff, who do a very good job. I will seek a detailed note on the status of the scheme and, if the Deputy wants to follow it up, I will be happy to meet the residents. I tend to meet with as many delegations as I can.

Deputy Tom Fleming raised the situation of the people of Rossbeigh. I met them, and it is an extraordinarily difficult situation. We have made very clear what the OPW can do, and other agencies and Departments may need to participate, for example, the OPW does not maintain roads. I am waiting to hear from Kerry County Council on it and I am very happy to engage regarding it.

Deputy Breen asked about Ennis, which has been the focus of a number of flood relief schemes during recent years with the completion of both the contractors to carry out the scheme. This can lead to delays on occasion. The River Fergus Ennis upper and River Fergus Ennis lower flood relief schemes have been completed. Further works at Aughanteeroe and Fíor Uisce are ongoing and Clare County Council is progressing a scheme for Ennis south, which is expected to commence next year. A scheme for Clonakilty is at design stage, with the expectation that confirmation and tender processes will take place in the second half of 2016. I was pleased to launch the scheme in Clonakilty earlier this year.

There is a lot happening and I am willing to keep engaging with Deputies on it. While the OPW has very clear responsibilities, so, too, do the local authorities. They are doing the job very well. We all need to work together. The minor flood works scheme is there for some of the immediate issues that may be worth pursuing for local authorities.