Thursday, 8 February 2024
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Flood Relief Schemes
As the Department of expenditure is the planning authority for flood relief schemes, the OPW issued that Department with a report that addressed the supplementary information it required. The OPW is still awaiting a response from the Department. Will the Minister please tell the people of Crossmolina when its scheme will start? He will know this has been going on since 2015.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 90 and 107 together.
I refer to the previous updates on this matter I have given to the House regarding the consent process for the Crossmolina flood relief scheme, the most recent of which was on 30 January. As the Minister for public expenditure, I am the consenting authority for flood relief schemes submitted under the Arterial Drainage Act 1945 and the Arterial Drainage (Amendment) Act 1995. In accordance with the European Union regulations of 2019, the OPW has sought consent for the Crossmolina flood relief scheme. Section 7E(4) of those EU regulations of 2019 mandates that there is access to sufficient expertise to examine an environmental impact assessment report. In accordance with these requirements, my Department has appointed an independent environmental consultant to carry out all necessary environmental assessments as required by these directives and to review the submissions received during the periods of public consultation.
An initial period of public consultation was held between December 2020 and January 2021 regarding the proposed flood relief scheme, after which my Department sought supplementary information from the OPW in line with section 7 of the regulations. This was supplied in July 2021. During this period, a decision to confirm the River Bride scheme in Blackpool was challenged under a judicial review. This had an impact on the process underpinning the consent process for Crossmolina, as the Department was required to consider the legal arguments at play to ensure ongoing compliance with the regulations. Following the conclusion of these proceedings in early 2022, the Department sought legal advice on the grounds raised and updated its procedures accordingly.
The supplementary information received contained sufficient and significant additional information in relation to the effects on the environment of the proposed scheme. That, therefore, led to a second period of public consultation, which was then held, that finished in July 2022. On foot of the advice then received from an environmental consultant retained by the Department, additional supplementary information was requested from the OPW in July of last year in order to reach a full, reasoned conclusion of the environmental impacts of the scheme as required by the regulations. The OPW submitted this supplementary information in November of last year and it is currently being examined by the environmental consultants retained by my Department. The supplementary information is being examined by the retained consultants in order to determine whether the information supplied is considered to be significant in line with section 7C(3) of the regulations. The information is also being examined to ensure that it is sufficient to allow a full, reasoned conclusion on the environmental impacts of the proposed scheme.
That is the crux of the problem. When is the Minister expecting information from the consultants to which the Department has given supplementary information for them to assess whether it is sufficient and significant? Will he assure me at this stage that we will not need to go to a third public consultation process once the Department responds to the information given last November? That is the real concern. I know the Minister has to adhere to the law. I would not ask him not to but, my goodness, we should not have to go to another situation where we have further consultation and push it out again. We are already ten years waiting. For a project of this size, we are probably talking about a period of three to four years to build it. We are looking at up to 2030 before this scheme is built, while we see an increasing number of floods all the time. Every time there is a flood or warning of a flood, it means the people in Crossmolina are living in fear and trepidation.
I, too, share deep concerns around ongoing delays to the Crossmolina flood relief scheme. It is completely unacceptable for the external consultancy firm not to commit to clear timelines for a project as serious as this. It received the supplementary information last November. I call on the Department to provide an urgent update on that timeline. While Deputy Conway-Walsh and I understand that consent under the Arterial Drainage Act regulation is very important, and we need to ensure it is done with diligence and meets all the consenting requirements, the length of time it has taken for the external services to make an assessment on this matter is certainly ridiculous. They have had two goes on this. The consultants sought supplementary information and have worked in hand with the OPW. We need to ensure that we assess the performance of this external consultancy firm and find a pathway to progress this project forward. It is very important that this project progresses to the tender process.
I thank the Deputies. I absolutely acknowledge the huge anxiety that the status of this project is causing to the communities both of them represent. It is only fair that I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, has also raised this issue on a number of occasions in the same way and tone they have.
The length of my answer and the references I made to the many consultations and the legal environment around these flood relief schemes show how complex it is and how prone it is to legal challenge. We have to recognise the right to take matters relating to these kind of schemes to the courts. For all those reasons, I have to recognise the independence of the consultants who are doing this work on behalf of the Department. They are currently evaluating whether the information they have received will reach the threshold that will require further consultation to take place. I am aware of the concerns all the Deputies have around this process. While respecting the independence of what is happening, all I can do is communicate to the House that I hope the next phase of this process will be completed shortly and that I will receive an evaluation from the independent consultants. However, this is a planning matter. I have to underscore the independence of the consultant in doing this work and the absolute imperative of ensuring that due process takes place regarding this issue.
I again acknowledge the concern the local community has about the status of the scheme, but I will not serve that community by saying anything that will in any way give an indication that I do not understand and fully respect the independence of the process that is under way, which I do.
I thank the Minister. I think people would ask that he does absolutely everything in his power to ensure that the sign-off time for the phase the project is currently at be cut as short as possible. The Minister can get it through to the consultants that this is an absolute priority scheme. He is right about Deputies Calleary and Dillon. There has been cross-party support and concern in equal measure for years on the need to deliver this scheme as quickly as possible for businesses and residents in Crossmolina.
I thank the Minister for his response. I appreciate he is continuously looking to ensure that this project progresses. As I said previously, the urgency of the matter cannot be overstated. The real issue is around the Department's outsourcing of consultancy services due to the lack of in-house expertise.
We need accountability to drive this project forward and to make sure the Department of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform is effectively overseeing the transition and that outsourced consultancy services are performing to the standard expected. God forbid another flood hits this community before this scheme is implemented. The consequences would be devastating and there would be hell to pay. We need to see progress with this and I know the Minister and Minister of State will see that done.
I thank the Deputy and recognise that this has not become a political matter, as I said in my opening remarks, in recognition of the concerns local communities have about this. I fully understand the desire of both Deputies and of Deputy Calleary to see this matter brought to a conclusion. I am, in effect, representing the final planning authority with regard to this scheme. For that reason, I must take absolute care in the words I use. We have to ensure this work is carried out independently and effectively and that all the law in this area is fully and scrupulously followed. To do anything less than that, or to give any other indication would do a grave disservice to the communities that are anxious for this scheme to move ahead because it would just create further risk and challenge in the future. The independent consultants will fully complete their work. When it is brought back to my Department we will discharge our duties in line with European and national law in this area.
As I have said, I understand the points the Deputies are making this morning and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, on behalf of the OPW is doing all he can to move this scheme forward, as is the OPW. I will certainly keep on board the points made this morning.