Wednesday, 18 November 2020
I will start at the end. I thank Senator Cummins for acknowledging the work of the OPW staff. I have heard a lot of criticism of things that are not done. It is very important to point out the things that are done. It is particularly important to point out that during flooding, on nights when nobody wants to go out, local authority and OPW staff can be found working with the Defence Forces and local volunteers.
Senators Murphy, Dooley and Kyne raised similar issues concerning the devastation caused by flooding. The devastation is something to behold. My own town of Newcastle West flooded in 2008. I remember it well. What I saw in Clifden was absolutely unbelievable. The front yards of people's houses were ripped up and thrown around like confetti. The area looked like a lunar landscape. I was struck by the power of this water and the speed with which it rose and receded. Senators Dooley and Kyne referred to delays and frustrations, many of which are caused by objections. The OPW does not cause these delays for the fun of it. People are entitled to object and they do so. They go through judicial review and take the OPW to court. There are legitimate objections, but we do suffer from a lot of vexatious ones. That wastes significant time. We never hear objections from people who are flooded. It is usually people who are not flooded or who live in towns that object. Sometimes people in County Wicklow will object to works in County Cork. It is remarkable that they have such knowledge and care for those faraway places, but they do.
Senator Kyne asked how we can speed up the process. I do not want to give a short answer. In the short term, I do not know. I want to be able to respond to communities more quickly but as I said at the outset, we have to apply for planning permission. We cannot take a shovel of gravel from under a bridge without it. We cannot remove a tree because it is sometimes designated as a habitat. We cannot touch a river without getting permission. Even when we do get all the correct permits, people accuse us of causing damage and acting irresponsibly. That is remarkable because we cannot do any work without permission.Even when we get permission, people tell us we are acting irresponsibly, which is remarkable considering that the OPW is a State agency set up under statute, are obliged to abide by the law and do abide by the law.
Reference was made to intergovernmental agencies and Departments. This is something I have been keen to explore. I know the Chairman of the Commission and the Commissioners are anxious to do so as well. For instance, we found that part of the issue in Skibbereen - Senator Lombard has left the Chamber - had nothing to do with the Office of Public Works. The problem related to a pipe that was not fit for purpose and which was in the charge of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. The situation went on for ages between TII and Cork County Council. It eventually came to a head when the pipe became blocked, resulting in the road and properties being flooded. I would like to get to a situation whereby the OPW is allowed or encouraged to call out agencies that are not doing what they ought to be doing in terms of making sure people are protected in circumstances involving State infrastructure such as pipes and so on.
Several Senators, including Senator Dolan, asked about drains running through the centres of towns. Many local authorities are getting off the hook for infrastructure that is not being maintained properly, such as surface water drains in many cases. People are charging the OPW with dealing with issues for which it has no responsibility whatsoever. Senator Byrne asked about a particular issue in Wexford. I will revert to him on that. There is support available to local authorities through the minor works scheme and I encourage them to apply to that scheme. Routine maintenance such as ensuring that surface water gullies are being properly cleaned and so on is not the responsibility of the OPW. Senator Wall made reference to this issue as well with regard to towns in Laois and Kildare. I will get back to him with a more comprehensive reply on that. Much of this issue is down to maintenance by local authorities. I am sure that in the Leas-Chathaoirleach's time on Cavan County Council the local authority budget included provision for out a thing called district drainage. That has evaporated. Local authorities do not do it any more. They do not take any responsibility for it. They have to hold their hands up and admit they have a responsibility for this issue as well. They will have to come on board with the OPW to see how we will tackle this issue.
I do not disagree one iota with Senator Garvey that there is a need for a national discussion on this issue. However, that national discussion could take years or a generation. Some towns or communities cannot wait that long. I am thinking of the town of Fairbourne in Wales which will have to be forfeited back to the sea. The inhabitants of that town could become the first climate refugees on these islands. They may have to leave their houses and surrender the town to the sea. We need to come to grips with the fact that towns, communities and housing estates have been built in places that, if today were yesterday, they might not have been built. Maybe they should have followed the example of the Vikings, who built their villages on top of hills for good reason. We cannot fail to protect those areas. Unfortunately, doing so involves hard engineering to keep the water out. There are soft forms of protection as well and the OPW is attuned to that. It is not a case of either-or. Rather, it is a case of ensuring we use both methods. If we remain on the current trajectory, we will have to decide which towns or houses to surrender to the sea or rivers. I do not think anybody wants to make those decisions.
Certain statements have been made, such as that the Arterial Drainage Act or the OPW cause flooding. Nothing could be further from the truth. That Act allows the OPW to actually carry out works in the first place to protect locations. It is the statute based on which we carry out our work. Places in Dublin along the Dodder and the Poddle have been protected under that Act. If we did not have the Act, Clonmel, Waterford city, Fermoy, Bandon, Mallow and certain towns in Wexford would all be underwater. Bandon would probably be under 15 ft of water if it were not for the provisions of the Arterial Drainage Act. It allows the OPW to avoid many of the delays that Senators on all sides of the House have said are causing frustration. What would one do without that Act? One might be able to go by Part 8 planning or the conventional route of a county council application which would go around like Wanderly Wagon for decades. Doing so would just add to the delays people are already experiencing. Certainly it is the case that we may need a modernisation agenda but we cannot just dump legislation that has worked to ensure land, towns, houses, villages and lives have been protected since 1945. We cannot just dump that out the door.
Senator Buttimer is absolutely right with regard to Cork. Cork city is in dire need of protection. It is the second city and the economic driver of the south. The city is at daily risk. Every day there is a southern wind with a surge and a high tide and heavy rainfall, Cork city and its traders are at risk. Not one of those traders will say they want sewage, filth and dirt around their premises every day of the week. The time has come for the city to move on. The lower Lee flood relief scheme is part of a bigger project that will be carried out under the Arterial Drainage Act. Obviously, people will be able to engage with the OPW on that.
I am annoyed and frustrated - I think Senators will sense that frustration - because I do not have an answer for every community that is crying out for a flood relief scheme. I do not have an answer for them because of the delays resulting from environmental issues - which we must go through - planning issues and procurement. It is very frustrating for some communities. I want to be honest about the situation. I do not wish for Senators to leave the Chamber thinking that, with the stroke of a pen, a new Bill for the Shannon would solve the problems there. What it might do is co-ordinate more clear responses, but a new agency confined within the OPW would not keep a single litre of water out of houses in Montpelier, Castleconnell, Clancy Strand or any other strand. To be honest, it is a bit glib to say that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or another party is causing flooding because they are not going down the road of bringing forward a Bill to bring all the agencies with responsibility for the Shannon together. If that was the solution, I am sure Eamon de Valera would have done it 50 years ago and there would be no flooding on the Shannon. It is not that simple. The Shannon is a very complicated body of water that conveys millions of litres of water per second through the centre of the country. It is a complicated issue and there are many agencies involved. It is only by working with them that the OPW will be able to command the change that is needed along that river. The people who live along the Shannon from my constituency up to County Cavan have lived with flooding all their lives and they know very well that simple solutions are simple for a reason; it is because they are simple. If it was so simple, it would have been done decades ago. It is not simple. There are issues in respect of navigation, fishing, land, Irish Water, ESB, turbines and sluice gates. It is incredibly complicated. We wish to put a plan in place for the Shannon to ensure it properly serves the people who live along it.
Fundamentally and most importantly, what I wish to do and am anxious to see from Senators this evening - some Senators made very positive contributions and I will try to respond to each of them individually - is about first making sure that lives are protected and then ensuring the safety of properties, communities, businesses and everything else thereafter. It has been a very informed debate. I will try to respond to Senators individually over the next week or so.