Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

10:30 am

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I wish to thank Senators for affording me the opportunity to address the Seanad on the severe weather which affected the country over the past weekend and into this week. At the outset, I join all Members of this and the Lower House in conveying my deepest sympathy to all those who have been affected by the flooding. I have seen, at first hand, the devastating impact that flooding can have on people's lives and livelihoods and I want to assure all those affected that I, the Government and the Houses of the Oireachtas will do everything we can to assist people in getting their properties and lives back to normal again as soon as possible.

Storm Desmond, which affected the entire country, but particularly the western seaboard and the River Shannon, was a severe weather event dominated by record high-intensity, short-duration rainfall, together with storm force gales. The greatest impact from the storm was experienced along the western seaboard from Donegal to Cork. Some parts experienced almost a month's worth of rainfall in 24 hours on the back on a November that was one and a half to two times as wet as November 2014. The short-term impact of this extreme rainfall was predominantly pluvial flooding of roads, transport networks and hard surfaces in urban and paved areas. As the road drainage and urban drainage systems became overwhelmed, the flooding extended to a fluvial event and affected properties in multiple urban centres of the north west, west and south, including, among others, places such as Ballybofey, Sligo, Crossmolina, Craughwell, Ballinasloe, Bandon, Skibbereen, Kenmare and Tralee.

The national co-ordination group for severe weather, which is chaired by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, has been meeting on a daily basis since last Friday, initially to assess the forecast and the associated risks and later to deal with the aftermath of the storm. The rising levels in the lower Shannon are a particular concern and the group has met twice today to ensure that it is kept fully informed of the evolving situation and can take whatever action is required in good time. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, who has responsibility for the Office of Emergency Planning, and I will also be meeting the chairman of that group this afternoon.

All relevant agencies are fully engaged in monitoring the situation on the Shannon and the relevant local authorities have emergency plans in place. The Defence Forces, to whom I want to pay tribute, are assisting the local authorities where possible in mounting temporary flood defences and providing assistance to homeowners or helping to evacuate people. Members of the Defence Forces are on the ground in Counties Limerick, Clare, Galway and Westmeath with the towns of Clonlara, Castleconnell, Ballinasloe and Athlone being of particular concern due to the rising waters. I wish to inform all Senators that the Defence Forces are on standby and willing and ready to assist local authorities should they feel the need to request that assistance.

The ESB is also monitoring the situation and, under its responsibility for operating water levels on the Shannon, has warned that it may have to increase flows from the Parteen Weir again. This will have an impact on properties and towns downstream. All local crisis management arrangements through local authorities were put in place last Thursday and the full services of Civil Defence and fire services as well as local authority staff were deployed at the weekend. All local authorities were informed last Friday to activate their severe weather protocols. I want to take this opportunity to extend my appreciation to all the emergency responders and volunteers in local communities who worked tirelessly over the weekend and commend them for their enormous efforts to deal with a very difficult situation. We are hearing about the very difficult flooding situation and it is right and proper that our attention is on that. However, I want to put on the record of this House the many potential incidences of flooding that were prevented or reduced owing to the hard work of our fire services, gardaí, emergency services, mountain rescue people and volunteers all working together. I have heard many heartening stories. In Donegal, 97 Civil Defence volunteers were out working to help local communities, accompanied on occasion by the Northern Ireland fire service. There has even been a cross-Border dimension in terms of assistance. I want to pay tribute to them for their tireless work and enormous efforts, which are continuing.

As I said in the Dáil yesterday, the Government is fully aware of the problems of flooding and attaches huge priority to the need to find effective and workable solutions to the problem on a national basis. In this regard the Government is starting the final part of its proactive planning programme to develop feasible flood risk management solutions for those 300 areas across the country at most significant risk from flooding. Through the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, the Office of Public Works has completed extensive and systematic hydraulic modelling and hydrological examination for each of these 300 areas, including 90 coastal locations, and has produced approximately 40,000 individual flood risk maps. The OPW, informed by the draft maps, is currently and actively engaging with local communities towards developing feasible options for both structural flood defence schemes and non-structural solutions to address the known fluvial and tidal risks. It is important to point out that CFRAM is not a report to sit on a shelf. The CFRAM process is about making sure Ireland complies with the EU floods directive and, most importantly, that in the context of the 300 areas in the country that our experts have predicted are at risk of flooding, engineering solutions are identified and published by this time next year so that we can get on with the job of having a national flood plan for the first time. I will get to funding in a moment.

I want to assure Deputies that the following areas are being assessed by the CFRAM programme: Donegal town, Ballybofey-Stranorlar, Killygordan, Castlefinn, Lifford and Glenties in the north-western study; Charlestown, Swinford, Newport, Westport, Westport Quay, Castlebar, Ballina, Foxford, Oughterard and Clifden in the western study; Ballylongford, Moneycashen, Listowel, Banna, Abbeydorney, Tralee, Castleisland, Dingle, Milltown, Killarney, Glenflesk, Portmagee and Kenmare in the south-western study; and Castlerea, Ahascragh, Athleague, Ballinasloe and Portumna in the Shannon study.

The flood risk management plans will include a prioritised list of feasible measures to address flood risk in an environmentally-sustainable and cost-effective manner. Decisions on the best solution will be taken on an objective basis having regard to social and environmental factors as well as economic criteria. That is the plan. That is where we need to get to as a country. We do not want to find ourselves in this situation where we continually have an emergency and are always one winter away from the next series of floods. I am not being partisan on this. It was started by the previous Government and progressed by this one. We all need to drive it. If we do not have a national plan and are not proactive, we will find ourselves constantly reacting to situations as they arise.

Another central and key element of the Government's strategy to deal with flooding is the comprehensive flood projects capital investment programme which the OPW has been implementing since 1995. There is no point having plans if there is no money behind them. Since the capital programme began, over €400 million has been invested by the OPW in constructing flood defence schemes in some of the major urban centres in the country including Dublin, Mallow, Clonmel. Kilkenny, Ennis and Fermoy. The OPW estimates that up to €1.2 billion in benefit has been derived from that investment to date in terms of properties protected and flood damages and losses avoided. This is a major achievement and it is the Government's intention to continue to build on this major achievement and to prioritise investment in flood defence schemes. On 29 September, I and the Government announced details of a €430 million six-year programme of capital investment on flood defence measures as part of the Government's overall capital investment plan 2016 to 2021.

This country will spend more on flood relief capital plans in the next five years than it has in the past 20. That is right and proper as we are seeing more severe weather and know of the risk of climate change. We have to really invest. Nor are we sitting on our hands waiting for the CFRAM process to be concluded. Work is continuing. There are currently up to seven flood relief schemes at construction or substantial completion stage. There are a further 27 schemes at various stages of design which includes such areas as Cork city - which will be the largest flood relief scheme ever undertaken in the State - Bandon, Skibbereen, Crossmolina, Claregalway, and Enniscorthy among others. All these schemes must be subject to a rigorous consultation process and they need to be approved under planning legislation, whether under the Arterial Drainage Acts or Part 8 or Part 10 of the Planning and Development Regulations and may be referred to An Bord Pleanála for final approval if required. We have got to level with people in terms of telling them the truth about how long a flood relief scheme actually takes. There is a process and it is an arduous process because we have to get the schemes right. We get one shot at this. We cannot go back and retrofit a flood relief scheme. We have to carry out the studies and consultation, obtain the lands we need, get the planning permission and, often, deal with challenges that come from a variety of sources.

Most major flood relief schemes are carried out under the powers given to the Commissioners of Public Works in the Arterial Drainage Acts 1945 to 1995.In some cases, flood schemes are undertaken on behalf of the Office of Public Works by local authorities using their powers under the planning and development legislation. The consent authority for schemes carried out under this Act is my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. These schemes and the associated environmental impact statement must go through a formal public consultation or exhibition process before they are finalised and submitted to the Minister for confirmation or approval. This usually takes place over a four-week period and allows people affected by the proposed scheme to make comments and observations on the scheme and raise any concerns they may have. The OPW then takes all such comments into account in the finalisation of the scheme and it must also consult with a range of statutory consultees, including the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Inland Fisheries Ireland. Issues arise from time to time during the public and statutory consultation process but in general, the level of pre-consultation engagement, which is a credit to the OPW, minimises these lengthy delays at exhibition stage.

When a scheme is submitted for approval to the Minister, he is obliged to carry out an independent review of the environmental impact statement. This is a relatively new requirement arising from EU regulations and, to date, only two schemes have been submitted for approval under the new requirements. The first such scheme was that proposed for the Clare river and I acknowledge that the independent environmental impact statement review took a lot longer than expected. However, this was the first that had to go through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and it is not something of which it had experience before. I am confident that the Department has built up the expertise to ensure those processes can be carried out as quickly as possible.

Proposed flood relief schemes being carried out by local authorities are subject to the normal planning regime and where a scheme is referred to An Bord Pleanála - such as in the case of the proposed scheme for Dunkellin - the process involved is no different than that which applies to any development works. The local authority must engage with and adhere to that process in the same way as any proposer for a development. I am aware that An Bord Pleanála has a heavy workload but it is committed to determining the bulk of all planning cases within the relative statutory objective period.

As Members are no doubt aware, we are in the aftermath of a storm and its consequent damage. There are options for funding available today to local authorities. The OPW operates a minor works scheme for which any local authority can submit proposals for which cost amounts to less than €500,000 and that could be of great assistance in the coming months for areas that have been badly affected by this storm. The local authorities are well aware of the criteria. I often get representations from around the country seeking funding for certain projects for which funding has not been sought before. I encourage people to use the minor works schemes and engage with the local authorities. Councillors should engage with communities and where a scheme fits the criteria, as not all will do so, it can be used. The details are on the OPW website and councils are aware of it. The OPW may grant-aid local authorities up to €500,000 per application to try to help complete relatively minor works that could make a very impact in small towns, villages and communities around the country. That may be of significant assistance in the coming months to a number of towns and villages badly affected by Storm Desmond.

As Members are also aware, the Government agreed yesterday to establish a fund of €5 million to assist businesses that have suffered flood damage to their property. The fund will be administered by the Irish Red Cross according to criteria for payment and assessment currently being worked out under the auspices of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Coveney. I warmly welcome the creation of this fund and I am pleased we could get it through Cabinet yesterday. It sends an important message to the business community. There is an existing humanitarian aid scheme that has been in operation for some years, operated by the Department of Social Protection, to assist householders with immediate needs and requirements. This has not been available to small businesses, however, many of which are small family-run enterprises in towns such as Bandon and Crossmolina which have been badly affected by the floods. The Government has now closed this gap in support and every effort is being made to get the fund up and running as quickly as possible, especially as we are so close to the busy Christmas period.

I welcome the comments of Mr. Tony Lawlor and the Irish Red Cross, which I heard in the media this morning. He stated that he hoped to have the criteria finalised in consultation with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in the coming days to ensure that this scheme can be the least bureaucratic it can be while ensuring accountability for public funds. We need this in operation as quickly as possible and that is why the Cabinet made the decision yesterday. I thank the Irish Red Cross for the role it intends to play in that regard. I conclude by assuring the House that the Government will continue to ensure that measures to deal effectively with flooding through the development of the proactive catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme and plans and the continued significant investment in flood defence capital schemes will receive the highest priority and attention now and into the future. We are not just talking the talk and we have put significant resources behind this.

The Taoiseach and I, along with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the rest of the Government are acutely aware that it is an extraordinarily difficult time for many towns and villages. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I will be briefed by the national emergency co-ordination committee at 4 p.m. today to see how things are currently. I would like to say the worst of the weather is behind us but it is simply not the case and some of our rivers have not yet peaked. We are continuing to do what we can. I thank the Defence Forces, in particular, for the work it has done along with so many volunteers and local authorities to try to minimise the impact. I thank the people for their resilience and the efforts of individual home owners and business people to try to protect their property. The Government will do what it can to support that and that is why we took a number of decisions yesterday. The minor works scheme is available to local authorities. Although we cannot stop the rain, collectively and in a non-partisan sense, we can all pull together and do everything possible to help these communities.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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On a point of order, may I ask what is the purpose of this item on the agenda?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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That is not a point of order. It was decided on the Order of Business.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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The Minister of State addressed an audience of less than a dozen in the House. It is unlikely to be covered in the national media. I just wonder about the significance of making a statement to fewer than a dozen Members of the House.

Photo of John GilroyJohn Gilroy (Labour)
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That is not the Minister of State's fault.

Sitting suspended at 2.55 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.