Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

6:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht deis a thabhairt dom an ábhar seo a ardú sa Teach. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Mansergh. In welcoming the publication of the catchment flood risk assessment and management study — the CFRAM study — I have to say I accept that the Minister of State has shown an interest and involvement in this matter since the floods in Cork last year. I appreciate that the CFRAM study is still at the public consultation stage. The Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government had a positive experience when it visited Cork last Friday. The members of the committee spoke to residents of the Middle Parish, travelled to parts of north and west Cork and met the city and county managers. The contents of the report are interesting, as are the matters to which the Government and its intermediaries have refused to commit. It is clear that a scheme needs to be put in place to protect Cork city from flooding. We need an early flood warning system. We also need joined-up thinking between the city and county councils, the ESB and the other relevant authorities.

The Minister of State is aware that Cork is prone to tidal and fluvial flooding. That is also alluded to in the report. Cork needs a flood defence system to be put in place. I am disappointed that the Government seems to have ruled out investing in the proposed €100 million flood defence system in favour of a smaller scale version of the system. I do not get any satisfaction from saying the Government has been reluctant to commit to the investment of the €100 million needed. When the Taoiseach addressed the chamber of commerce dinner in Cork last Friday night, he spoke about the flooding in a roundabout fashion. He referred to the Government commitment to provide funding. It is critical and imperative that we invest properly in the long-term defence of Cork city. Having met flood victims, the Minister of State is familiar with the stories they tell. When we met the residents last Friday, they said their nightmares continued to wake them up at 4 a.m. They panic and get upset when rain is forecast, or when it is announced on radio that Cork is likely to experience flooding. They get flashbacks of their memories. Many residents have not yet returned to their homes. I hope the Minister of State will agree that €100 million is very small change in that context.

The CFRAM study suggests the ESB should have a greater role in water management, etc. As far as public representatives and local residents are concerned, the ESB has not yet answered questions posed legitimately. Although its representatives have been very amenable in meeting residents, members of the joint committee and other public representatives, they have refused to answer direct questions. When will they answer these questions in an up-front manner? While I welcome the sections of the report dealing with the management of water, I have serious questions about the role of the ESB in that regard. It is time for an independent water authority to be established. Proper funding is needed if the 15-year strategy mentioned in the CFRAM study is to be implemented. If that does not happen, the people and the city of Cork will be abandoned. In the light of the realities of global warming and climate change, this ongoing issue will not recede — no pun intended. We need to receive a firm commitment in this respect.

I would like to ask a question of the Minister of State who is a very fair-minded person. What damage will have to be caused in the future before we realise the short-term sticking plaster approach to minimising flooding does not work? This minor approach was described by Eoin English of the Irish Examiner as a "smaller scale two-pronged approach". I am not an expert, but I listened to a presentation made last week to the joint committee by Mr. Paudie Barry who is an expert. We need to put things in perspective. Savage bills were incurred in Cork and elsewhere as a result of last year's flooding. I have read the report on the CFRAM study which is a pilot programme. I will make submissions at the end of the process of consultation. It should be a priority of the Government to give the people of Cork a commitment that contains the right answer. When the Minister of State spoke in City Hall, he referred to the need for work to be done to protect the city of Cork and said the ESB should have greater flexibility to reduce water levels in the Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid reservoirs. While I welcome this worthwhile plan, it must be bolstered by a commitment to provide funding for its implementation. I spoke to the city and county managers about this matter last week and will come back to it in a future Adjournment debate. The bottom line is that we do not need a sticking plaster approach — we need Cork's flood defences to be completely remodelled. When the CFRAM report is being implemented, we should adopt the bigger model which requires a commitment of €100 million.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I am grateful to the Senator for raising this matter and bringing it to the attention of the Seanad. I made a similar statement in this respect in the Dáil last week.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to highlight further the substance of this important matter. The Lee catchment flood risk assessment and management study was launched on 1 February as a public consultation document. I am sure the Senator accepts that the plan is in draft form at this time. Critically, the plan for the Lee catchment was substantially produced prior to the flooding of November 2009. The extent and severe impact of that flooding are being assessed in detail for incorporation in the final version of the plan. The substance of the submissions received in the context of the public consultation process which will last until 30 April is also being examined. Nonetheless, it can be fairly stated a preliminary assessment of the flooding of the Lee catchment area indicates that the contents and proposals in this plan remain valid. It has been essential to issue the plan for public consultation to foreshorten the timeline to the progression and implementation of the works proposed to reduce the risks of flooding set out in the plan. As the draft plan is a public consultation document, we welcome any opportunity for public representatives, members of the public and other stakeholders to review and make submissions on all aspects of the plan, including its financial aspects, before it is finalised.

It is important to emphasise the appropriateness of following the CFRAM approach in the context of the Lee catchment and all other catchments. Since 2004 the Government has adopted a policy that shifts the emphasis towards a catchment-based context for managing flood risk, with more proactive risk assessment and management and increased use of non-structural and flood impact mitigation measures. Catchment flood risk assessment and management studies and their products — catchment flood risk management plans — are at the core of the new national policy for flood risk management and the strategy for its implementation. This policy is in line with international best practice and meets the requirements of the EU floods directive. The Lee CFRAM study is the primary pilot project for the national CFRAM programme in Ireland. Among the stated objectives of the study are to assess flood risk through the identification of flood hazard areas and the associated impacts of flooding; to identify viable structural and non-structural measures and options for managing the flood risks for localised high risk areas and the catchment as a whole; and to prepare a strategic catchment flood risk management plan, as well as an associated strategic environmental assessment, that sets out the measures and policies that should be pursued by the local authorities and the OPW to achieve the most cost-effective and sustainable management of flood risk in the Lee catchment area.

The methodology adopted for the Lee CFRAM study has been thorough and to a level of detail appropriate for the development of a flood risk management plan. It has included the collection of survey data and the assembly and analysis of meteorological, hydrological and tidal data which have been used to develop a suite of hydraulic computer models. Flood maps are one of the main outputs of the study and the way in which the model results are communicated to each of the end users. Where flood risks are significant, the study has identified a range of potential flood risk management options to manage these risks, including structural options such as flood walls and embankments and non-structural options such as flood forecasting and development control. The catchment flood risk management plan does not aim to provide solutions for all of the flooding problems in the catchment area, as that would be neither feasible nor sustainable. It identifies viable structural and non-structural options for managing flood risks within the catchment as a whole and for localised high risk areas.

A wide range of options are laid out in the draft plan, many of which are interrelated or dependent on particular strategies being adopted. It is not possible at this early stage to indicate which set of options will be selected for implementation; nor would it be appropriate to do so in advance of the completion of the public consultation and stakeholder review of the draft plan.

At the launch of the draft plan, I highlighted some of the measures set out in the plan. They include works to increase the level of protection for Cork city against tidal flooding and works to protect the city and vulnerable properties upstream against river flooding. The latter measure will provide greater flexibility for the ESB to draw down levels in the Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid reservoirs in advance of a flood, which will reduce the need to discharge high flows necessary to ensure dam safety.

Senator Buttimer raised questions about the ESB. I imagine that, as with all agencies with a degree of responsibility for an event such as a flood, the company is probably circumscribed by legal advice. The Senator probably understands this as well as I do.

Other measures in the plan include flood protection schemes for Midleton, Baile Mhic Ire, Douglas and Togher; minor works funded by the Office of Public Works to reduce risk at Little Island and Crookstown; and the development and implementation of flood forecasting systems for river flooding as well as tidal flooding from the harbour. The estimated capital cost of these measures in the Lee catchment area of Cork alone will amount to approximately €30 million over the period from 2010 to 2015. The further level of financial commitments to be made up to 2022 will be largely for future Governments to provide in light of the financial resources available to them and it would be wrong to pre-empt in precise numbers how these will be distributed given many priority needs around the country.

I would not like to be responsible for underwriting a large headline figure, given needs in the rest of the country, only to find ourselves, for reasons that may arise in the future, in the position of Limerick city where funds are not available for regeneration. I am determined not to raise hopes before disappointing them. While I am committed to Cork city and county where an enormous amount of work must be done in terms of flood defences, I am not prepared to make an open-ended commitment, particularly as there will be a minimum of two subsequent government terms up to 2020.

In addition to these schemes, the OPW is progressing flood protection schemes at Mallow and Fermoy. The feasibility of schemes at Bandon, Skibbereen and Clonakilty will be explored. I and my office have committed in principle to a full flood defence scheme for Bandon. County Cork is absorbing approximately €10 million per annum and will almost certainly require more funding. Current funding for the county accounts for 20% to 25% of the resources available to the country as a whole.

Future Governments will treat the Lee catchment flood risk assessment and management study as an indispensable guide to further work, which will continue over many years and, I hope, provide a stronger system than we have at present. All substantial work undertaken will be subject to cost benefit analysis to ensure expenditure provides best value for money.

I reiterate that work on several of the measures, including the protection of Cork city and Baile Mhic Ire, will begin this year. Some of the works will require more time for detailed design. I will work hard to ensure funding for these works is protected within the overall capital provision for my office.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I understand the Minister of State is in a consultative process and concur with him that substantial work must be done in Cork, particularly in reinforcing the quay walls. The figure of €100 million is small change. The Minister of State indicated he was not prepared to raise and then dash the hopes of residents. People in the affected area are crestfallen and need hope. The Government must provide a commitment that measures will be taken to protect their homes.