Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Flood Relief Schemes

10:30 am

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to the House and congratulate him on his appointment.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking this matter, which is a very important one. I wish to commend him on his work so far as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works. As the Minister of State is aware, the Lower Lee flood release scheme is a very important one for Cork city, and I want to thank him for his proactivity, not just around Cork city, but around the flooding in west Cork, his availability, interest and activity.

The backdrop to the request for this debate today is the Minister of State's recent visit to Cork to discuss the flood defence scheme, which all of us acknowledge is required. I would like to put on the record my thanks for the work of the Office of Public Works, Cork City Council, and those who may have a different viewpoint. We all want to protect Cork city and to see it as a liveable and working city, free from flooding. This is about the future of Cork city. As the Minister of State is aware, his predecessor, the former Minister of State, Kevin Boxer Moran, visited Cork and made strident remarks that the money could be gone and there is a fear among many of us that the money allocated for this Cork flood defence scheme could evaporate.

It is important that we commence the physical work. The Lower Lee flood relief scheme is pivotal to the development of Cork from an economic point of view in terms of jobs and investment. I have been in the shops and restaurants that have been flooded and in businesses that have been closed. I have been in the homes of flood victims. This is about making Cork a liveable city.As we all know, Cork is vulnerable to both fluvial and tidal flooding, and that is what makes it unique.

Cork, in Project Ireland 2040, is seen as a city complementary to Dublin and of strategic importance. It is important that the investment by the Government in the OPW and the Cork flood relief scheme continue. I am not here to throw stones at anybody, but rather to ensure we receive an update from the Minister of State and proceed so that we can protect businesses and make our city more liveable. It is important to acknowledge the work of the OPW and the officials in the Department. The scheme that is presented to us now is different from how it began 14 years ago. It is a better scheme today because of the public consultation and the willingness to be open. The CFRAM study has done our city a power of good. It is now time, having reflected on the public consultation and having had much dialogue, with changes having taken place, to commence the work to alleviate the risk of flooding, which has happened on many occasions on the island of the city, Morrison's Island, Lower Oliver Plunkett Street, South Mall, Grand Parade, Middle Parish - I could keep going.

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. It is time to proceed. Our city and our people deserve to be free from the threat and worry of flooding.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for raising this important matter, which I feel strongly about. I studied at University College Cork, so I know the city very well and the geography of most of the areas affected. Major flood events have affected the country in the past few months but particularly in counties Cork, Kerry, Galway and Limerick.

As the House will know, I visited many parts of the country in the aftermath of these awful events in August and saw at first hand the impact on residents and businesses in the communities. I express my thanks to the outdoor staff of the Office of Public Works, such as our engineering staff, the staff of the councils, the fire services, volunteers and others who assisted people throughout the affected communities. I took the opportunity of visiting Cork city a fortnight ago to meet the Lord Mayor and the Cork City Council chief executive, as well as representatives of the chamber of commerce and the Cork Business Association. At the meetings, I expressed my support for the city council's public realm project on Morrison's Island, which contains significant flood defences designed to protect that part of the city from some of the worst effects of tidal flooding. It has not gone unnoticed that the city had a lucky escape in late August, when a wind change saved several streets in the city from what could have been a major event with extensive flooding of property and businesses, rather than what actually occurred. I acknowledge my staff at the Office of Public Works for monitoring that event on the night to see whether emergency measures needed to be put in place. It was a matter of luck that the wind changed direction.

I also took the time to inform all the parties concerned of the commitment of the Office of Public Works, me and the Government as a whole to the implementation of the Lower Lee flood relief scheme, which covers the whole city of Cork, up to and including areas such as Inniscarra. During my visit I was struck by the growing frustration over delays to the commencement of the Morrison's Island project following a legal challenge to An Bord Pleanála's approval for the project. This has been well documented in many media outlets, social and otherwise. While I fully respect everyone's fundamental right to object, further delays to the Morrison's Island project would increase not only the risk to both homeowners and business people living and working in the city of Cork but also the risk of people losing their lives in a major flood event. My primary concern is the possible loss of life in Cork city if there is a repeat of the major event in 2009, which is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

I am sure the House will be aware that examination of the flooding problems in Cork city has been ongoing since the Lee CFRAM study, to which the Senator referred, commenced in 2006, and since 2013, this has gathered pace, with the appointment of consultants to develop and design a scheme that will eventually be brought to construction. This has led to frustration. When I mention 2006 to the people of Cork, eyes begin to roll. A great deal of public consultation has been carried out and, as the Senator rightly noted, the scheme has improved as a result. The outline design proposals were formally placed on public exhibition in December 2016, with submissions accepted until 2017. Since that exhibition there has been further comprehensive consultation through engagement with many groups, resulting in many positive changes to the original design.

The OPW is not above criticism; we are not one bit precious. If matters can be made better by engagement, we are all for that. The OPW has addressed every substantive issue raised in submissions received during the consultation phase. One of the most contentious issues raised during the development of the scheme concerned whether a tidal barrier was the solution to the problem for Cork city. One of the many options considered in the project was a tidal barrier and a detailed report was prepared as one of the many reports prepared for the scheme. The conclusion was that while a correctly sited and designed tidal barrier may resolve the tidal problem, it would not solve the more destructive fluvial, or river, flooding problem in Cork. Having lived there for a period, I know that is one of the greatest concerns, as all the traders will agree. Four locations were considered in the report and were ruled out for varying reasons, including environmental impacts, technical difficulties, impacts on the navigation in the harbour, which is one of the busiest in the country, limited upstream storage capacity for flows coming down the river, or inadequacy in terms of climate adaptability.

The Senator's Commencement matter is timely because this matter was addressed on television last night on "Eco Eye", which I am sure he watched. Estimated costs of between €1 billion and €2 billion - massive variations - would be prohibitive at this point and any such project would not be cost beneficial when all the financial benefits are taken into account. The report concluded that a tidal barrier is not currently viable for the city and will not become viable for at least 50 years. I do not believe that the people of Cork city are prepared to wait that long. I am pleased to say the detailed development of the Lower Lee flood relief scheme has continued and the public has been made quite aware of the latest information through the publication of various documents, including an updated design for the scheme. A key point of the scheme is that more than €20 million will be invested in the repair of the quay walls, many of which are currently at risk of falling into the river. Approximately 1 km of new riverside walkways will be provided through the scheme as an amenity and the majority of the quayside defences will be just 2 ft or less, with appropriate railings on top. Judging by some of the criticism, and criticism is warranted, one would swear we were building 10 ft or 12 ft walls, which is not the case in most of the areas I referred to.

I am pleased to say the intention of the Office of Public Works is that the scheme will be resubmitted to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in the first half of next year for formal consent under the provisions of the Arterial Drainage Acts. I sincerely hope the scheme will be formally approved once the Minister has considered all related matters, including an independent review of the environmental impact assessment of the scheme, which we are obliged to carry out. It is anticipated that if the scheme is approved, it will be implemented on a phased basis to minimise disruption to the city's dwellers and businesses, which there is concern about. I reiterate my commitment, and that of the Government, to seeing this much-needed scheme for Cork city and the Lower Lee as a whole implemented to minimise the constant worry for homeowners and business people alike in Cork city.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I am delighted that he is committed to the scheme. I again thank the city manager, the city council and the staff of the OPW. As the Minister of State rightly noted, the office was not immune from engagement or from changing the plan. It is now critical that we put a timeline in place and proceed with the scheme. This is about lives, livelihoods and getting it right. We have a good scheme now. I thank the Minister of State for his commitment and commend him on his reply.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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The OPW also wants to save Cork city. No one has a monopoly on concern for saving Cork city. I have a deep concern and reiterate that now publicly. If there is a high tide with south westerlies, with severe rain, sodden ground and Cork city inside a bowl, we will be back to a 2009 scenario. We know that the process for delivering major flood relief schemes is moving more slowly than the rate at which our climate is changing. We cannot continue in this vein of delivering schemes at the snail's pace of 2006. The people of Cork are frustrated, as is the Office of Public Works. We are leaving vulnerable communities throughout the country to severe flood damage.

This is not for want of money. The Government has money, which has been set aside. Some €1 billion has been allocated over ten years. This House and the other could be very helpful if we had an honest discussion of the processes currently in place for the delivery of major, capital flood relief schemes. We will not be able to protect small, medium and large-scale communities in the country, not to mention address the coastal problem, if we do not have an honest discussion about our sea levels rising.If they rise by 1 m, that might be fortunate. If they rise by 2 m, whole communities will be affected. If we continue on the current trajectory in the context of Cork city, the Government and the OPW will not be able to save it, which is what we want to do. If the Senators want to be helpful to the OPW, as I know they want to be, they should note I would welcome the opportunity to have a debate in this House on the issues that the OPW, as an agency, must address. Perhaps I could articulate some of the problems that we have faced, including in respect of habitats. There is one habitat that was never referred to in much of the discourse, that is, the human habitat. It is about time we had a discussion on it.