Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 March 2019
Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach
Estimates for Public Services 2019
Vote 13 - Office of Public Works (Further Revised)
As Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works and flood relief, I will outline the Office of Public Works' 2019 gross allocation of just under €464 million. The Estimate figure of €464 million takes account of the rescheduling of funding to programme A, flood risk management, that was within the original Estimate I presented to the committee on 12 February. During my attendance at the previous committee meeting I outlined how the 2019 allocation for flood risk management would support both capital infrastructural and non-infrastructural work to mitigate flooding and provide much needed protection for homes and businesses. I reiterate the Government's commitment within the national development plan of €1 billion for flood risk management. The rescheduling of funds in no way undermines my commitment to achieve the targets outlined in the 29 flood risk management plans published in 2018 or the 119 new projects to be undertaken in addition to the 35 projects included in the existing programme. This work will be progressed in the next decade and provide protection for 95% of the properties assessed in the plans to be at significant flood risk.
The OPW will consider all possible options to mitigate any negative impact of the rescheduling of funds from the original Estimate presented to the committee.
The OPW currently has ten flood relief projects at construction stage, 25 schemes at design and planning stages and an additional 57 new projects from the flood risk management plans which I announced in May 2018 on which further design work will be advanced during 2019. As the committee will be aware, the progression of these projects is dependent on many variables. Hence, the OPW will review progress throughout 2019 in order to assess where the rescheduling of funds is most effectively allocated. I fully support the OPW in this exercise and reassure the committee that all projects will be delivered in the quickest possible timeframe.
There is no change to the 2019 Estimates funding of €355 million previously presented to the committee regarding estate management, which supports the OPW in the provision of accommodation for civil servants and the ongoing enhancement, maintenance and preservation of the State’s heritage sites and monuments.
I thank the committee members and administrators for the speed in scheduling the reconsideration of the OPW 2019 Estimates and I am happy to take any questions.
Cuirim fáilte riomh an Aire Stáit. The burning issue when dealing with the Estimates is that the OPW is currently reviewing the most appropriate means of achieving its required capital rescheduling of €3 million in the flood risk management area. The big question for many of the community groups the Minister of State has worked with on the alleviation of flooding in their areas is whether there will be an impact on the timing of their project. I understand the knock-on effects of this rescheduling have not been identified. Can the Minister of State give comfort to those groups that have made applications and have been part of the CFRAM programme either as priority projects or further down the line that they will not see a delay in the flood relief and mitigation measures in their communities?
I can assure the Deputy 100% that any of the schemes I announced will get the green light to go ahead. There will be no delays under my watch. Planning issues can be unforeseen. I stressed this in the Dáil in recent days. Having announced all the schemes, I had hoped to have machines in the ground in Cork last summer, but there has been a delay. The same applies in Ennis south. Thankfully we will sign the Ennis south contract next week. Given that type of delay, I believe I can absorb the €3 million loss.
As the Chairman will know, in his constituency I announced further schemes under tranche 2 which had not been in the first allocation. The Deputy and other Deputies from his neck of the woods were in my office when I announced the second one. I am in the advanced stage of announcing schemes and getting them up and running. We try to do these in a timely fashion but there can be delays in the planning process. That is where I believe I can deliver on the schemes. I am committed to ensuring that no woman, man or child need fear that I will not get on with the job that I am proposing. My record speaks for itself. When we went into government, we were spending €43 million on flood relief schemes and we are now spending €73 million. It is a major increase in a year. I am committed to ensuring that those schemes will be delivered.
I appreciate the level of additional investment that has come at a time when the Minister of State has responsibility for the area. We both agree that every euro - possibly more - is needed to deal with communities at risk of flooding. Did I understand the Minister of State to say that the Department will not take any conscious decision to delay any project and that he expects the full €3 million to be absorbed because of delays that are outside the Department's control? Although the Minister of State is quite certain and we understand the number of projects in planning, if those delays do not materialise, can he confirm the Department will not take a conscious decision to delay any projects as a result of the-----
I appreciate that. Has the OPW investigated more natural flood defences such as the slow-flow model? Is there a danger that an approach from the OPW that sees physical concrete defences as the best way of preventing flooding to communities and property is causing delays resulting in difficulty for homeowners and businesses in being able to avail of insurance? Has the OPW examined other non-concrete defences to prevent flooding?
We have looked at a wide range of flood defences in other countries. The best practice that we are engaged in at the present time is the best possible way of protecting homes. However, it is not all about concrete walls. We have announced the schemes, but when we bring in architects into a town sometimes is not easy. One has to break eggs to make an omelette. We have to be able to do the work to protect people. We are trying to do a better job in helping and enhancing towns and villages around the country. Where we go in and do the work, we always leave a town in a far better way. Particularly in an historic town is hard to get everything right. That is why the consultation with residents through the local authorities is working well.
Given the work the Department has done on flood defences, is the Minister of State satisfied that is now being matched by insurance companies offering property and business insurance? What engagement has the Minister of State or his Department had with the industry on the matter? We repeatedly hear frustration from business owners and homeowners who cannot get insurance despite flood relief measures that have been implemented.
At the start it was slow, but we had a number of meetings with insurance companies over the past 12 months. Where we have put in the defences, insurance companies are now coming on board to insure the place. As the Deputy can imagine, each insurance company operates different policies. We are happy to say that it is starting to crank up and they are getting insurance. I see that across the country. Even in my town, Athlone, where people could not get insurance and where no flood defences have started yet, they are getting insurance. I accept it is costly in some cases, but where we are building the defences, insurance premiums are coming down and people are getting insurance.
On the last occasion the Chairman asked about insurance companies using the flood risk maps. I have checked it out. In no way are they using the maps. They have their own maps regarding insurance setting out the parameters of where there is a flood risk and where there is not. If the Deputy or the Chairman is aware of individual cases, I invite him to bring them to my attention and I will take them up with the insurance companies the next time I meet them.
We have raised this before, as has the Chairman. I have previously mentioned examples in my community where a river flooded nearly a decade ago and caused substantial damage to businesses and homes in the vicinity. I know of one homeowner who was refused insurance because of the potential for that river to flood again. Looking at a map one would see that the home is quite close to the river and therefore one might believe it is at a risk of flooding. However, because not all land is flat, if one were in the area, one would see that the house is on the top of quite a high hill. If that house were to flood, a big part of the parish would also flood. There is concern about insurance companies taking a blanket approach based on their own maps or the Department's maps showing that a house is close to a river. Local knowledge is not being brought to bear.
Owing to my role, I have met many people who have insurance. If one reads the small print, it will show that the insurance company takes that stand where houses are close to a river. I take the Deputy's point about a house on a hill. In cases where people argued with the insurance companies, brought them out and proved to them that their houses could never flood, in fairness to the insurance companies they have been supportive of them.
There is always further work. I am working closely with the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, on that.
We had a meeting recently with the insurance companies and we will have another in the near future.
In recent days, many people from communities I represent in Castlefinn and Ballybofey have contacted me, as well as some of our councillors in Inishowen, including Mr. Jack Murray, and Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. They have shared pictures of the heavy rainfall over the past 48 hours. Those pictures are scary and I will share some of them with the Minister of State later. He knows Castlefinn and Ballybofey well because he accompanied me to meet residents there previously. It is frightening to see the level of water lying around those premises and businesses, especially since that was not a flooding event.
Those communities suffered two "once in 100 year" events within a few weeks some years ago. It is part of the programme and on the priority list, along with Burnfoot, Glenties, Downings, Kerrykeel and Lifford. There is, naturally, concern as to when this work is going to happen. The Minister of State referred to the meeting we had with the residents and business groups from Ballybofey. That area is not on the priority list but funding has been granted. Is there any update on the advancement of that project? Anything the Minister of State can tell us will help alleviate the concerns of people in those communities. I refer to these projects being on track and the Department taking a hands-on approach.
I am well aware of the images, as Deputy Pearse Doherty knows. Some councillors from his party have sent on material in recent days. I have also been talking to people up there. As the Deputy stated, I went to Burnfoot and Castlefinn, and all of those other affected areas, and announced the schemes. I have also given the relevant local authorities the resources to employ engineers to move these schemes forward. The councillors in those areas need to keep on top of the local authorities to ensure those schemes are being driven forward. It is up to them to raise these issues in meetings.
In recent days, I have asked the OPW to talk to the relevant county councils. I also intend to visit those areas again. Where schemes have been announced, I want to see them started. All of us in the House have people contacting on issues daily, but I want to go to Donegal to make sure those schemes are being driven on. Money and resources have been allocated and I am keen to ensure those projects are delivered.
That would be welcome. We have been in meetings with the Minister of State and council officials, but bringing the OPW and the council officials together is the best approach. A visit to Donegal by the Minister of State, with his officials, would be helpful to ensure any unforeseen problems are identified and overcome before they cause delays to the project. I also want to ask the Minister of State about information he supplied to the committee on Garda stations. Many have been closed. I am opposed to the closing of rural Garda stations, but I am not going into that policy now. I am concerned with the closed Garda station buildings and the use of those premises from the OPW's perspective. In respect of many of the buildings, I think it is 53, it has been stated that future use is on hold, pending the outcome of a Government review of closed Garda stations. Will the Minister of State update the committee on whether that review is complete? What is the current status?
Returning to the Deputy's previous question, he knows I have visited Donegal and Lifford and Burnfoot. I emphasise that I announced six major schemes during that visit. The associated costs are €6 million in Lifford, €1.5 million in Burnfoot, €1.75 million in Castlefinn, €900,000 in Downings, €600,000 in Glenties, and €30,000 in Kerrykeel. A sum of €2 million was also allocated to minor flood relief works, with €175,000 for a scheme in Ballybofey-Stranorlar. I am very much in agreement, therefore, with what is happening in Donegal and the surrounding areas. I am with the community. As I have said, I will visit soon to drive on those schemes.
Regarding the question on the review of closed Garda stations, I have examined the situation since I came into office and since we last appeared before this committee. I have been answering frequent parliamentary questions on the matter. I want to do something with these premises because many closed stations are lying idle. I met with the Garda Commissioner recently. I put forward proposals regarding some stations that could be given back to the local community through the local authorities. That could be for a community hall, a boxing club or whatever it might be. I want to deliver on that for communities all around the country. We will offer some closed Garda stations to the housing authorities, to the local authorities and to the Land Development Agency. If they do not want them, those premises will be sold. I am confident that a number of the remaining closed stations will reopen in the near future.
The Chair asked at the last meeting for a list of all vacant properties. As can be seen from that list, most of those properties are closed Garda stations and we need to do something with them. There is no point having those buildings empty and unused. They are costing taxpayers money each year to secure them, make them more presentable and ensure they do not fall into disrepair. Some of the closed stations have already gone to wrack and ruin and it has been suggested they could be used for parking. I support that. I have sent a list to the Garda Commissioner and I also have to meet with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan. We will then move to the next stage of the process.
First and foremost, it is Sinn Féin's great desire to see these Garda stations reopened. If the review has determined, however, that some stations will not reopen and will be sold - we have seen sales take place in the past - I welcome the Minister of State's comment concerning transferring ownership to the local authorities for community use. That would be very beneficial. Regarding No. 15 on the list, the building in Cloghan, Donegal Mountain Rescue, a local community organisation, has expressed interest in using that as a base.
It provides lifesaving services to people in Donegal and neighbouring counties, in conjunction with mountain rescues groups in those areas. Donegal Mountain Rescue does not have a base and that raises health and safety questions because its equipment has to be checked. It is very difficult for the organisation to do that at the moment. If a decision has been taken to not reopen Cloghan Garda station, consideration should be given to its use by Donegal Mountain Rescue, given the buildings central location in the area where the group operates. During the Minister of State's visit to Donegal, I suggest he accompany us on a visit to Donegal Mountain Rescue, look at the premises in Cloghan and consider the potential future use for it.
I would not like to single out one location above the rest but I will gladly take up the offer to visit. I also have to discuss this with the Minister for Justice and Equality, however. A letter is on the way to the Garda Commissioner as well. Pending that, I will visit with Donegal Mountain Rescue when I am in Donegal. I know the excellent work done by such organisations all around the country. I have dealt with similar groups and helped them.
I appreciate that and I thank the Minister of State. I have one last point. Perhaps when he is in Donegal, the Minister of State and I can examine this matter further. There has been significant progress on the announcement of the six major schemes to which the Minister of State has referred, as well as the work that needs to be advanced in Ballybofey. He will also be conscious of other work taking place in respect of coastal erosion. I ask the Minister of State to update us on the Magheroarty project and the seawall to protect against the threat of coastal erosion. Again, the Minister of State accompanied me and some other Members of the Oireachtas to view that situation last year. Perhaps he could furnish us with a note and update us when we are in Donegal.
I will gladly do that. I outlined some months ago that in 15 years coastal erosion flooding could be more damaging than ordinary lake or river flooding, such as occurs with the Shannon. I have seen the major problems that exist and everyone turns to me when there is a flood. That area, however, is within the remit of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his Department. I am seeking to meet with the Minister and his officials because I foresee problems arising around the coast. We dealt with one such issue recently in Dublin. It seems to have been a successful operation and has protected a number of homes. I would like to see that approach extended around the country and I will speak to Deputy Pearse Doherty about that during my visit to Donegal.
To follow on from the discussion on Garda stations, the comment on most of the stations listed is that the decision on future use is on hold pending the outcome of the Government review. I take it from what the Minister of State has said that there is an input by the Garda Commissioner and the Minister and that at some stage a decision is made. How long does it take?
As I said, I looked at this issue when I took office. The review had been ongoing for quite some time and in order to speed it up and see an end use for some of the Garda stations, I took it upon myself to meet the Garda Commissioner to express what I wanted to see happen. I believe giving some Garda stations to local authorities for community use would be welcomed. I am of the same view as the other Deputy in that I would love to see all Garda stations open, but, realistically, that is not going to happen and there is no point in sending that message. Some of them could be put to community use or used to provide local housing, as was done in the past. We will continue to work with An Garda Síochána and the Minister in charge in that regard.
Miscellaneous buildings are included in the list. I want to ask about the meteorological station in Kilkenny. The comment is that it was an intra-State transfer. Does that mean that the county council asked the OPW for the building, or does it mean that the OPW asked and is transferring the building to it? Did the county council express an interest in it or was agreement reached in some other way? Mr. Long can answer that question if he wants to do so.
There is the Garda station in Castlecomer which, again, I would love to see in use for the community. I do not know whether the county council asked the OPW for it. If the Minister of State does not have a direct answer on both properties, perhaps they might let the committee know in due course.
There is a community group that would be interested in using that Garda station. Deputy Pearse Doherty said there was also a community group in his constituency.
What is the up-to-date position on the flood relief scheme in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny?
I will have to come back to the committee on that matter. My Department and I are driving schemes forward with the local authorities. It is probably useful to say to the Chairman that I will have a meeting with my officials in the next few weeks to be updated on all of the schemes that were announced and received money. Local authorities also received moneys for minor works.
I can tell the Chairman straightaway that we have had a number of meetings with the local authority. In the eyes of the Chairman and the general public, it was taking a long time to deliver the scheme. The local authority came back looking for help and resources for it. We gave them two engineers who will look at the design and what is in play and inform local councillors. It will be put on public display. My Department will be working closely with the local authority on the scheme.
Every scheme is different and issues related to private property and State-owned land must be taken into account. Engineers, in working with the local authority, will design the scheme. I cannot tell the Chairman if it will happen this year or next year, but I will come back to him about it.
Please do. I want to ask about vacant properties and rents. Are there many vacant properties? I know that the OPW manages them for some Departments, but are they often left with properties such as office accommodation?
As I said, we have a number of vacant properties, most of which are Garda stations. We examine other vacant properties to see if they could be used for civil servants. We may offer other vacant properties to local authorities for use as housing, or to the Land Development Agency. We have 2,500 properties all over the country, of which a total of 96 are vacant, of which 53 are Garda stations.
Deputy Pearse Doherty made a point about insurance that I also mentioned to the Minister of State at our last meeting. The Kilkenny flood relief scheme was one of the biggest in the country. In spite of the size of the scheme and the fact that the area has not flooded since, residents of John's Quay in Kilkenny city still find it difficult to get insurance cover. I raised the specific question of insurance companies taking information from the report on the website. I am asking that in meetings with the insurance companies, or Insurance Ireland, the Minister of State highlight the fact that insurers are treating some residents unfairly. The example I gave the Minister of State the last time he was before the committee was of an area which had never flooded, yet the residents cannot get insurance cover or sell their properties. When there was flooding at John's Quay, millions of euro was spent on the flood relief scheme, but some of the residents are still having difficulties in getting insurance cover. If the Minister of State has ongoing meetings with the insurance companies, or their representatives, will he, please, bring pressure to bear on them where insurers are being unfair and unreasonable?
I took note of that issue on the last occasion and will raise it when I meet the insurers. I point out to the Chairman that I have dealt with many insurance companies after schemes have been put in place and the companies are stepping up to the mark and working with people. There are, however, isolated cases. If the Chairman brings an individual case to my attention, I will work with the insurance companies to find a solution.
I also point out that all maps are regional; there are no individual, house by house, maps. There is no advantage to any insurance company in using them. At the risk of being parochial, in my town of Athlone the house in which I was born and reared is 33 feet above road level on a hill and my father could not get insurance cover because it was deemed to be in a flood risk area. We had to fight with the insurance company, but we eventually managed to get insurance cover. I agree with the Chairman that in some cases insurance companies are being unfair, but they are working with people. If the Chairman knows of an individual isolated case, I will gladly take up the matter for him at the next meeting.
Recently I asked a parliamentary question about the use of glass blocks in Garda stations. I raised some issues in that regard. I do not expect the Minister of State to know the answer now, but I will send him further information. I would like the correspondence to be dealt with as efficiently as possible. Further questions have been raised with me about the quality of the blocks used and what is going on in the procurement process and thereafter in terms of maintenance and repair. I ask the Minister of State to examine the matter.