Thursday, 13 February 2014
Topical Issue Debate
Flood Prevention Measures
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue. Given what has happened in recent weeks when flooding has again got the public's attention the quick solution is normally to look at coastal areas. Unfortunately, however, we have major problems inland as well. I know the Minister of State is familiar with the River Boyne in his area which was successfully drained in the 1950s and 1960s under the Arterial Drainage Act 1945, as was the Moy river. A colleague of mine asked me this morning, when I told him I was bringing this issue before the House, to ensure to ask the Minister of State whether the River Moy and the River Boyne would be drained today. To be fair, probably not, because of the impediments in place at the moment for arterial drainage. These include restrictions on removing debris from rivers because of the habitats directive and a variety of things which make it virtually impossible for landowners, local authorities or the Office of Public Works to deal with the issue effectively.
We need to have a national conversation about what we expect from arterial drainage. In 2008 the village of Athea in my area flooded on the same night as Newcastle West. It was clear to everyone that when the village of Athea flooded, the eyes of the bridge over the River Gale in the middle of the village were blocked and full of debris, gravel and so on. The local authority was prevented from taking the material out to ease the flow of water. The reason it was prevented was because the area was a habitat. We should ask ourselves what type of habitat are we going to try to protect in future. Are we to protect the habitats of wildlife, which, I agree, need to be protected? However, there is a hierarchy of protection at issue and first on the list of hierarchy must be human life followed by private property. It is clear this is not happening in some instances.
There are competing agencies throughout the country. There is no worse example of this than the management of the River Shannon, something of which the Minister of State will be aware. From Cavan to Limerick a multiplicity of agencies have made it virtually impossible for anything to be done with the river and the rivers and streams draining into it. If we have learned anything in recent weeks, when people's private property has been destroyed, it is that we need to examine this issue in a far more succinct way.
I wish to put some proposals to the Minister of State in this regard. In the context of the new rural development programme announced recently by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, there is an opportunity under agri-environmental schemes that he is introducing to allow local communities and landowners to make changes. The schemes could incentivise landowners through initiatives such as the rural environment protection scheme and the agri-environment options scheme to clear and maintain channels running through their land in a way that is supervised and assisted by the OPW, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Inland Fisheries Ireland or whoever. We cannot continue to allow our drains, streams and rivers to take care of themselves, but that is essentially what is happening at the moment. This is everyone's problem but no one's problem. What happens subsequently, when the water backs out, comes into someone's house and destroys land and private property? Then we all scramble to throw a few hundred million euro here, there and everywhere.
In many cases what is missing is an overall management plan. It is depressing to look at the Office of Public Works website and read the manual for arterial drainage with references to all the vested interests which have a say in what happens before a river is drained or material is taken out. The one group of people who seem to have no say are those who live on the banks of the rivers or who have watched thousands of gallons of water coming in their front door and out their back door. We should be honest with ourselves. Are we going to allow a situation whereby our rivers, streams, tributaries and dykes are to continue to be clogged full of dirt, debris, sediment and every sort of rubbish known to man, while pretending there is no problem?
I thank Deputy O'Donovan for bringing this matter before the House. As he rightly points out, the recent extreme weather events have been unprecedented. The impacts in terms of flooding, damage to property, infrastructure and land have been severe, with many locations being adversely affected on more than one occasion, causing undue hardship for many citizens. While the recent extreme events have not been the first time that flooding was experienced in certain parts of the country, the problem has been unprecedented in its scale and power of destruction. I note another storm is predicted for tomorrow.
The incessant rainfall in recent months has impacted significantly on our rivers and lakes as well as the adjoining lands. River levels have almost never been as high. Deputy O'Donovan raised the issue of the removal of debris and solid material from rivers, streams and drains. It is important to emphasise and clarify that the removal of loose waterborne debris and fallen trees from rivers, which involves no excavation works or remodelling of watercourse, will not normally be regarded as development under the planning legislation. Therefore, it would not require planning permission. In effect, there are few restrictions imposed for this type of activity, as the removal of such loose debris will assist in ensuring the better flow of watercourses.
Under their surface water management functions, the relevant statutory authorities, including the Office of Public Works and local authorities, have extensive powers under relevant legislation, including the Arterial Drainage Act, referred to by Deputy O'Donovan, and the Planning Acts, to effect works to manage flood risk.
Deputy O'Donovan referred to private landowner interventions in watercourses. Existing legislation provides that, in broad terms, excavation works involving removal of solid base material, deepening, widening or altering the flow of watercourses, as distinct from normal land drainage and reclamation, would normally be regarded as development and would, therefore, require permission. There is good reason for this controlled approach as any unregulated modifications along the lines mentioned could well have serious detrimental effects on downstream lands and properties in terms of flooding by accelerating the flow of water or altering water and flood storage patterns. In effect, a reasonable level of balanced regulation is considered appropriate to protect the interests of other property owners and communities downstream as well as the wider environment.
It is understandable that landowners and relevant public authorities might wish to act quickly to alleviate flooding in the circumstances that have prevailed. However, there is little point in temporarily solving a problem in one location and passing it on to another location; a broader approach must be applied. A measured approach whereby the relevant authorities would examine the performance of particular watercourses in the context of river basin management and flood risk management plans is preferable. Such plans are the responsibility of the local authorities and the Office of Public Works. This approach is taken with a view to identifying any management and alleviation-type works that might be speedily progressed without having any adverse effects on amenity, hydrology, water quality, biodiversity or other effects and will also involve working with affected local communities.
It is important to point out that I am not suggesting a farmer should go into the river with a Hymac and take out the base of the river. I am suggesting that we need to start thinking about these things differently. If we are to rely on the OPW to do it, we will be like Noah. The whole country will be under water because the OPW simply does not have the resources to do it. We need to start thinking about doing these things differently. I believe the way to do it differently is to involve the stakeholders. Among the primary stakeholders are the people who live along the banks of the rivers and the farmers through whose lands these rivers flow. I put it to the Minister of State that if the OPW was faced with the River Boyne today in the condition that many of our rivers are in, Drogheda would probably be under water, as would several other towns between Meath and Louth. Luckily that river was done at a time when we did not have restrictions from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and every other vested interest which seems to have a say in how these rivers are managed.
I agree with the Minister of State that it should be done in an organised fashion. However, if we do not change tack now and realise that the current model is flawed, it will cost a good deal of money. The State cannot afford it - I accept that - and it does not have the money to drain all of these rivers. However, resources are available throughout the country, which, I believe, could be tapped in a productive way. These could be supervised and operate in the best interests of everyone for the benefit of the river, its ecology and, more important, the local community. I put it to the Government that the new rural development programmes represent an ideal opportunity, whether through the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme or other agri-environment schemes to be introduced, to incentivise farmers, landowners and local communities to get involved along with Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Department and the OPW. We can pretend that the OPW will be able to do this, but it will never do it. The whole country will be under water in the near future if we take the attitude we are taking at the moment, that is, to leave it as it is.
The OPW only deals with channels on which work has started and it does not take on new channels. Areas at high risk of flooding, of which there are many, are being left to their own devices and that is unacceptable.
I acknowledge the issues raised by the Deputy and I will ensure the Minister and the Department are made aware of them. The Government has responded quickly to recent weather events. A total of €25 million has been available to flooding victims and it will be administered by the Department of Social Protection to deal with the immediate, significant and serious causes of hardship and discomfort and relocation to temporary accommodation as well as to address any other humanitarian circumstances arising, including the provision of food and clothing. This was followed by the announcement of a fund of up to €70 million for a programme of repair and remediation to help communities in the worst affected areas to provide for the restoration of roads, coastal protection infrastructure, piers, harbours and other infrastructure and amenities. The provision of these moneys is a clear indication of the Government's commitment to respond to the needs of communities devastated by the storms, which the Deputy has articulated.
Certain types of development work are also governed by a number of EU directives, which are required to protect habitats and ecosystems. Some of our rivers and streams are particularly sensitive in this regard and they lie within sites that have been selected for designation as SACs or SPAs. It is necessary to apply other controls to in stream work in addition than those that apply to water courses generally. As the Deputy correctly pointed out, this involves a broad range of complex and interrelated issues with flooding and the removal of solid material requiring the interaction of a number of State bodies, all of which have a role to play in developing approaches to ensure they can be effectively dealt with. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brian Hayes, is active in this regard and I will also bring the Deputy's comments to his attention following the debate.