Wednesday, 16 September 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Flood Relief Schemes
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. I will start by describing three serious flooding events that led to widespread devastation in west Cork in the latter half of August. On 13 August, the town of Rosscarbery was flooded, with several businesses and premises affected. There was widespread devastation of the road network in the hinterland of Rosscarbery, in villages or townlands that may not be familiar to the Minister of State, such as Glandore, Connonagh, Leap, Reenascreena and Rathbarry. Entire roads were completely washed away and most of them remain that way.
On 19 August, Bridge Street in the well-known town of Skibbereen was flooded. Skibbereen has a flood defence, but again premises and homes were flooded. Investigations into why that happened are ongoing. We thought we were over the worst of it, but a few days later the town of Bantry was severely flooded. The town of Bandon, on the eastern side of the constituency, experienced minor flooding affecting businesses and residences.
These three severe events occurred over the course of about 12 days. The initial Government response was quite commendable. The Minister of State with responsibility for dealing with flooding, Deputy O'Donovan, visited on three occasions. The Taoiseach visited Skibbereen after the flooding there, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, visited the area twice. The Government showed commendable seriousness in its response to these events. Moreover, the humanitarian response package extended to businesses and voluntary groups in these situations was made available to these towns and was mostly availed of by businesses. They were able to apply for some humanitarian funding.
However, the road network is still in the shocking condition I have described. Cork County Council has submitted an application for funding for repair works. The estimated cost comes to about €5 million. That damage is almost all confined to west Cork. Because of the damage to roads, residents of the affected area are forced to take detours taking 30 or 40 minutes. Many people find vehicular access to their houses has been cut off because the roads are not passable. The road serving a very popular area of the Wild Atlantic Way between Rosscarbery and Glandore was completely washed away. As a result, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area, Drombeg stone circle, is closed. The road in the village of Rathbarry was washed away, exactly replicating an event eight years ago when the entire road ended up at the bottom of the hill.
This is serious, and a range of issues are raised by the increased frequency of these events due to climate change. I am looking for a solid response in the form of funding, with a particular focus on the road network that has been completely washed away. Cork County Council is cash-strapped. It has not been collecting rates for several months and will not be able to foot the bill. I am looking for a firm commitment from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. There will also be housing issues, and I expect the Office of Public Works will be involved too. The engineers who are dealing with the damaged road network are unsure of where they stand at the moment and, above all, the people who live in these areas are very put out by the demolition of their road network. They need answers.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on these roads are funded from the councils' own resources, supplemented by State road grants.
I thank the Deputy for his clear outlining of the issues relating to the devastating impact of weather conditions in County Cork in August. Unfortunately, such severe weather events are becoming more frequent and highlight the need to focus on measures needed to address climate change.
As part of the recent Government stimulus package, eligible councils were asked to submit proposals to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport under the heading of climate change adaptation repairs by 14 August 2020. Cork County Council submitted proposals for 2020 which amounted to €1.63 million and on 31 August received notification that works to the value of €1.63 million had been approved. As the council's application for funding was received in mid-August, some but not all of the recent damage to roads and bridges caused by severe weather in County Cork is provided for in the August allocation. In that context, as the Deputy outlined, the chief executive of the council wrote to the Department, detailing the severity of the conditions experienced, particularly in west Cork, and requesting funding support from the Department for repairs to the regional and local network. Cork County Council has received its funding allocation under the stimulus package. The Deputy inquired whether the stimulus funding could be rolled over into 2021 to cover repair costs but, as the July stimulus is intended for projects which can be delivered this year, it is not possible for allocations to carry over into 2021. The Department has been engaging with the council about the repairs needed to the regional and local network and will be liaising further about the programme and the timing of the works. In that context, the council has been asked to provide a breakdown of the proposed 2020 and 2021 expenditure. I make the point that local authorities have the flexibility to revise their grant-funded work programmes in response to severe weather events.
On the works which will run into 2021, the Department's ability to provide specific funding for the repair and rehabilitation of roads in west Cork following the recent flood events is dependent on the funding made available for roads as part of the overall Estimates process. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, will be liaising with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, on this issue.
As regards national roads, under the Roads Acts 1993-2015, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has overall responsibility for the planning and supervision of works for the construction and maintenance of roads. In this role, TII undertakes maintenance and renewal of roads assets either directly through its contractors or through local authority programmes funded by TII. It has liaised with local authorities regarding damage caused to pavements and structures in counties affected by recent severe weather and funding is being provided for remedial works to be undertaken. Moreover, special inspections will be undertaken at affected bridges in order to ascertain that no structural damage has been caused to those bridge structures.
I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response. I am not entirely sure whether she indicated "yes" or "no" in terms of the response to the €5 million repairs that are needed after the recent specific flood damage to national, regional and local roads. The Minister of State referenced the climate action response funding that was recently announced, but I am unsure how much of the damage would be covered under that fund. I very much doubt that it would be covered. The bottom line is that there is a €5 million repair bill. The local authority will not be able to foot the entire bill because it is cash strapped as a result of the lack of rates. I take on board and appreciate that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, led by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, led by the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, will liaise on the issue and I have received similar correspondence from the Minister, Deputy McGrath, but I wish to take this opportunity to underline again the importance of a quick response to the damage because the residents of these areas cannot put up with this for much longer. Images and videos of the road network are available. It is a disaster zone and needs a response.
In the 40 seconds I have left, I wish to point out that when we are responding to such events or building roads, we must take account of the fact that these events are becoming more frequent because of climate change. There is no denying that is the case. As such, we need to look at the way in which local, regional and national roads are built. We need proper culverts and drainage systems in order that the roads can withstand the heavy rainfall we are experiencing.
Lastly, I ask the Minister of State to liaise with her fellow Ministers of State and the OPW regarding the response to the businesses and premises that were damaged in Skibbereen, Bantry and Bandon in particular. The humanitarian support fund covers businesses but there are many homeowners and other residents who are not covered under that fund and I would love to see a specific fund set up in order to address that issue.
It is the intention of the Department to liaise with Cork County Council regarding the programme and the timing of repair works. The Deputy can rest assured that that engagement is ongoing and will clarify funding requirements in respect of 2020 and 2021 and how that can be accommodated in light of moneys available to the Department and the council. It is important to note that the Department will not have clarity in respect of its available budget for 2021 until the October budget is finalised. In addition, there is ongoing consultation between Cork County Council and TII in respect of repairs to national roads and bridges. I will be highlighting the issues raised by the Deputy in respect of Cork to the Minister, Deputy Ryan.