Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

10:30 am

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on the issue of flooding. Only two weeks ago, I was pleased to have had the opportunity to hear from Dáil colleagues on flooding matters on the Shannon and across the country and I outlined the Government’s ongoing work in tackling the issues.

I am very familiar with the devastation that can be caused by flooding for individual homeowners, businesses, landowners and communities. Since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, I have visited a number of areas affected by recent storms and flooding, including Kenmare, Skibbereen, Bantry, Clifden, Dunmanway and Kilmallock. I have witnessed at first hand the damage and the distress caused in these communities. I have met and spoken to the people and business owners directly affected by flooding.

The Government understands the plight of these communities and we have a very strong record in managing flood risk in Ireland through a whole-of-government approach. I attended the recent meeting of the interdepartmental flood policy co-ordination group and was impressed by the extent of measures already in place and being progressed to avoid construction in flood-prone areas, protecting at-risk communities and responding to reduce the impacts of flood events.

The catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme is informing the Government’s approach to managing flood risk. It was the largest study ever undertaken of our risk from significant flood events, so-called 100-year floods. Its output of 29 flood risk management plans gave the Government the evidence to progress 150 flood relief schemes in addition to the 46 major flood relief schemes that have been completed.

The additional schemes that are being progressed are underpinned by investment of €1 billion as part of the Government's National Development Plan 2018-2027. This significant level of funding reflects how determined the Government is to protect people, properties, businesses and communities from flooding. In just two years, this funding has allowed the OPW to accelerate from 33 to 93 the number of schemes being brought through to planning, design and construction stages.

This investment is providing real benefits to communities throughout the country. By way of example, the completed schemes are avoiding approximately €80 million worth of damage from floods on average every year, have avoided the flooding of many hundreds of properties during numerous recent events when areas would have flooded and are preventing the societal disruption and distress that many recent floods would otherwise have caused in communities.

Outside the major flood relief schemes, local flooding issues are being addressed by local authorities with support from the OPW under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme. This scheme provides funding for minor flood mitigation works or studies, costing up to €750,000 each, to address localised flooding and coastal protection problems. Since 2009, €39 million from the OPW minor works scheme has gone towards protecting 7,100 properties across 580 projects. Two thirds of these schemes are outside the CFRAM areas. The scheme is a valuable source of funding for local authorities to address local flooding issues. While the funding available under the scheme, following a review, recently increased by 50% to €750,000, I am glad to give consideration to increasing this further to €1 million. I hope to make a decision on it shortly.

The OPW is also responsible for the 11,500 km of river channel, including approximately 800 km of embankments which have formed part of the arterial drainage schemes since 1945. These are kept under proper repair and in an effective condition by the OPW through an annual maintenance programme that protects 260,000 ha of agricultural lands.

The Government’s once-off voluntary homeowners relocation scheme is providing humanitarian assistance to a number of properties worst affected by the floods in 2015 and for which there are no viable engineering solutions. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is introducing a scheme to work with those worst-affected farmers, including considering relocation of farmyards as an option.

In return for its investment in flood relief schemes, the Government expects protected homeowners and businesses to be able to access affordable flood insurance cover. Through the OPW’s memorandum of understanding with Insurance Ireland we are already seeing the level of insurance cover increasing in protected areas from an average of 77% in 2015 to 81% and up to 93% today in areas with fixed defences. However, the level of cover in areas protected by demountable defences remains lower. I have raised this issue with the Department of Finance and I will work with the Minister for Finance to resolve the concerns expressed by the insurance industry with demountable defences and will explore how greater transparency in flood insurance can be achieved.

I will now set out what is being done to address specific issues on the River Shannon. One of the six CFRAM study areas included a dedicated study of the flood risk of the Shannon river basin. The flood risk management plans derived from the CFRAM programme include 34 new flood relief schemes to protect towns in the Shannon river basin district. These new schemes, together with 11 additional schemes already completed, will protect 95% of properties at significant risk from flooding in the future. Of the 34 new schemes to be delivered for the Shannon area, work has commenced on 25, which are at various stages of development.

The Government established the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group in 2016 to both enhance the ongoing co-operation of all State agencies involved with the River Shannon and support the work planned by the flood risk management plans. Senators will recall that the group was established, at that time, following severe flooding arising from a series of storms and a period of sustained rainfall between December 2015 and January 2016.

The Shannon group has representation by the CEOs of all the State agencies with a role on the Shannon, including ESB and Waterways Ireland. It is chaired by the OPW chairman and it has met on 13 occasions to date. On its establishment, a priority for the group was to develop a work programme within its first two months. This work programme highlighted the existing and extensive range of activities and co-ordination by all State agencies in 2016 to jointly and proactively address flood risk along the Shannon. These works are categorised under maintenance, flood relief works, water management, regulation and policy. Each year since then, the group has produced an annual work programme that highlights the ongoing diverse and broad scale of activity, and the proactive co-ordination between the State agencies to manage the flood risk along the River Shannon.

The Shannon group held public consultation days on its work programme and has met representative bodies, including the IFA. I recently met representatives of the IFA and it is my intention to meet all members of the Shannon flood-risk co-ordination working group bilaterally as well as other farming organisations.

The Shannon group has completed targeted maintenance activities at five locations along the Shannon river catchment. Works at these locations involved tree cutting and the removal of silt and emergent vegetation, which helped to improve the conveyancing of the river at these locations. These works required consents which needed to be obtained from the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is not to be forgotten that I am like somebody looking to build a house; I and the OPW need to get permission. I am sure this is an issue Senators will wish to raise.

Lowering the water levels on Lough Allen has been trialled for the past three years. While weather-related, reaching the lower targeted levels agreed with the ESB will provide additional storage capacity during flood events to help alleviate any significant flooding that may occur. The Shannon group has agreed to continue with this trial on a temporary basis pending the completion of a flood-defence scheme for Carrick on Shannon.

In December 2019, the Government noted the studies by the Shannon group that support a programme of strategic maintenance to help mitigate flooding along the Shannon and the removal of the pinch points in the Shannon callows to help to address the summer flooding in the area and lower the navigation level in the area. A total of €7 million has been allocated for these works, which will progress following environmental assessment and planning permission. Waterways Ireland is the implementing body for these works, and it has advised the OPW that it is advancing the various interventions such as tree cutting and silt removal to commence strategic maintenance measures at 12 locations commencing in 2021.

The Shannon group recently completed a study of the cause, rate and degree of restrictions over time downstream of Parteen Weir in the lower Shannon, which can inform the options to help manage the flood risk in this part of the river.

All these measures and activities have been or will be carried out within the exiting powers and responsibilities of the State agencies. Where necessary, agreements and protocols have been established and agreed for delivering new initiatives.

Having met the group in recent weeks, it is my intention to refocus the group to look at short, medium and long-term measures. I am also committed to undertaking an examination over the coming nine months of the Shannon group’s legislative landscape to inform consideration of the establishment of this group on a statutory basis.

Delivering infrastructure, including the planned programme of flood-relief schemes takes time. I accept that progress can appear to be slow. The current regulatory framework is such that progress by my office in advancing its programme of activities is significantly impacted by a broad range of regulatory requirements which must be addressed and complied with. Like all individuals, agencies and companies we are required to comply with the requirements of environmental and planning legislation. We cannot just start digging in a river as some people expect us to do. We need to get permission, and this takes time. That said, my OPW colleagues and I are actively engaged with other Departments to ensure that required flood measures are delivered to communities in the shortest timeframe possible.

Even after planning consent is granted, schemes are still at risk of judicial review, as Cork City Council is experiencing with a public realm project which contains elements of flood defences identified through the lower Lee flood-relief scheme. In the meantime, homes and businesses remain exposed to repeated flooding.

As I said in the Dáil on 2 November, I want to work with Oireachtas colleagues on protecting properties from flooding.My family has experience of what this does to properties and I am open to reforms that Members wish to bring forward, particularly in the area of planning and environmental compliance, that might make our delivery to people and individuals faster. In a roundabout way, I am saying I know about the problems as much as other Members. If there are solutions that they can propose, I am all ears. By working together, I hope we can make positive changes for the communities throughout the country that have been affected so badly and that continue to be ravaged by floods.

I will now address the issue of climate change and its impact on our communities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that for a 1.5°C rise in temperature, the global mean sea level could rise by up to approximately 1 m by 2100. Projections of more intense Atlantic storms could increase surge events and wave heights and Met Éireann has also projected that in Ireland, the autumns and winters may become wetter. It is hard to believe they could get any wetter but there is a possible increase in heavy precipitation events of approximately 30%. The Government’s climate change sectoral adaptation plan for flood risk management for 2019 to 2024 is ensuring that our work today is adaptable to climate change impacts in the future.

The impact from sea level rises and more intense storms increase the risk of coastal erosion. The Government has established a cross-departmental group to address this cross-sectoral issue. I, along with my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, attended the first meeting of this group.

I have given, in the time available, just some detail of the work completed and under way by the Government that is comprehensively managing Ireland’s flood risk. The Government and I, through the OPW, are working hard to ensure that the greatest progress is made on the delivery of am=n ambitious programme of investment in flood defence and flood risk management measures. I am sure that Senators will agree that this commitment will have a positive impact on the lives of individual homeowners in their areas, together with businesses, landowners and communities at risk of significant flooding, particularly those which have repeatedly experienced the devastation brought about by severe flood events. I look forward to working with Senators constructively in the delivery of our flood risk management programme.

I heard a positive contribution in the Dáil the other night from one of the Opposition Deputies. It was said that water does not care what kind of door a person has; it does not care if it is a Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin door. It will go in one door and out the other. This matter is above politics. Members were very cognisant of that in their contributions in the Dáil, and I am anxious to hear suggestions for reform from Senators this evening. If they have specific concerns on specific flood relief schemes, I might not have the answers this evening but I will certainly revert to them.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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To clarify, the contributing group spokespersons have eight minutes and all other Senators have five minutes. We must call the Minister of State no later than 6.09 p.m. and statements will conclude at 6.15 p.m.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing my time with Senator Timmy Dooley. Perhaps the Acting Chairman will give a rattle in case I am not looking at the clock.

I very much welcome the Minister of State's comments and his attitude. I am very much of the opinion that this will be a big challenge for all of us. We must work together. I very much welcome the fact that he is prepared to take on board suggestions or ideas from Senators and I will certainly take advantage of that offer.

We must remind ourselves that the number of serious flooding incidents since 2017 is exceptional. The list includes Clifden, Skibbereen, Youghal, Bantry, Bandon, Kenmare, Sneem and Enniscorthy. If a person lives beside the River Shannon, as I do, he or she knows how we have put with flooding for many years. There is no doubt that it has worsened in recent years. The dredging of the Shannon has been a political topic for many years.

I acknowledge that much work has happened in recent years and it is good to note that the €1 billion annual investment programme for flood relief will continue. There has been much work done in conjunction with the OPW and the local authorities, with 46 flood relief schemes currently progressing and another 151 flood relief projects nationwide. Of these, 90 are either at construction or other stages of design or consultant appointment, whereas the remainder will be progressed as part of the national development plan for 2018 to 2027. I hope these will not be held up. As the Minister of State mentioned, water will go through any door and it does not stop for anybody. It is the reason we cannot have delays and why we must look after the areas that are badly affected and where there is no doubt the position is worsening.

The Minister of State referred to the Shannon flood risk state co-ordination working group that took a decision to lower levels at Lough Allen in Leitrim during the winter to help mitigate potential flood risks. A protocol was agreed between the ESB, Waterways Ireland and the OPW to lower the late autumn and winter minimum lake levels at Lough Allen by approximately 0.7 m, subject to favourable weather conditions. This has worked pretty well. It has not solved everything but it was a good move.

The group has continued the trial on a temporary basis, pending the completion of a flood relief scheme for Carrick-on-Shannon. The scheme must be made permanent and leaving it as a temporary scheme is not good enough if we consider all the difficulties we had. We want to move as quickly as possible with the flood relief scheme for Carrick-on-Shannon, particularly the Cortober area, which has been badly damaged over years.

We have also spoken about pinch points on the Shannon and we have all seen them, particularly between Athlone and Meelick. We all know about the continuous flooding of the Shannon Callows region. There are also pinch points in the system and we must all recognise this and work with the Minister of State and various agencies to ensure those pinch points in the system, as opposed to the river, are removed. Sometimes those pinch points in the system are the real cause of delay.

Flood relief schemes are very good and there is no doubt about that when we see what has been achieved in Athlone. The Acting Chairman is on the Agricultural Panel so I know he has an interest in this. Sometimes we forget the water is being pushed out and is flooding other areas. It is something we must deal with. Schemes are a great idea for saving towns and villages but the water is pushed out and floods more agricultural land or other areas, and it is important we deal with the matter.

When I was a Deputy, I brought a Bill through the Dáil, which, like many others, was held up. It would have amended the 1933 Act that gives the ESB authority over the River Shannon to create power. Nothing has been done to amend this legislation in 87 years, despite all the flooding we have.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I look forward to his ongoing work in the Department. He is a straight talker who says things as they are. He usually gets things done.

The subject of flooding is difficult. Water, wind and fire are the three enemies of every homeowner. Wind and fire must be mitigated by the homeowner but, unfortunately, with water it is very difficult to put defences in place. If these are the three enemies of a homeowner, the delays in the State responding with flood defences is a fourth enemy.

The area I know best in County Clare that has suffered most from flooding is Springfield, Clonlara, in the south east of the county. It experienced two devastating events in 2009 and 2015 and I know every one of the homeowners there personally through working with them on their behalf. We speak glibly about devastation but these people have seen enormous devastation, scarring them to a point where I do not believe some of them will ever get beyond it. There are people with children who have their own difficulties and they have been hemmed in for up to six weeks. They have had to decamp from their homes for a protracted period so that children can attend school and medical appointments. It really is devastating, which the Minister of State will know from his experience.

As a Government and at a time we are investing significant amounts in rebuilding and re-energising the economy, we must use our time and this money well to put in place critical infrastructure. It has taken a long time for the scheme at Springfield, Clonlara, to get the scheme where it is. An embankment has been designed and we understand it is the ultimate solution. It has come through the planning process with An Bord Pleanála effectively clearing the way in the past week.

I do not want another three, four or more years to go by with these people living in greater fear when, in essence, the flag is now up. Red tape, much of it necessary, has been gone through and we have reached a point where planning is in place. The process has still been too long and I hope that in his time in the Department, the Minister of State will try to see what blockages may be alleviated and what can be moved aside.What things can be moved aside and how we shorten a process? We all know that over time when there is a shortage of money, certain Departments use natural constraints in an effort to effectively slow projects down when they do not have the money. Money is now available for key investment in infrastructure. We need to get people back to work. Getting these large-scale infrastructural projects done and dusted is a good use in terms of priming the economy. I appeal to the Minister of State to look at Springfield Clonlara. It is shovel and paperwork-ready and my God, the people there are ready to see some resolution. I have spoken to some of them in the past couple of days as heavy rains have fallen over recent weeks and as the water level in the Shannon has risen very significantly. They are on tenterhooks again. They face the pandemic on the one hand where they are working from home and are now wondering whether they will be locked in their homes and flooded for the Christmas period. Anything the Minister of State can do to advance this particular case would be appreciated. I know there are many others nationally. I have every expectation that the Minister of State will fight for his share of the budget to ensure these projects are resolved as quickly as possible.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to the Chamber and thank him for his work to date in the OPW. I acknowledge the professionalism and work ethic of the OPW in a very important area of defence - a quite technical area in terms of the modelling that is required, which needs to be updated. If one makes an impact on one area, one must model how it will affect another. I acknowledge the work relating to CFRAM.

From some of the Minister of State's visits to some parts of the country, I know the frustration he has felt relating to certain projects. He mentioned Cork city, the delays and the judicial reviews. This delay is the most frustrating thing about flood defence schemes - the frustration all of us feel about projects that go through a number of stages, are delayed and can end up in court. I am sure this must make the budgeting of the Department extremely difficult.

In February 2018, the Minister of State's predecessor announced a €9 million fund for Galway city - the flood defence fund at that time. This was great and certainly welcomed. A report from the city's CEO this month identified the five stages of delivering this project. The most worrying part is that the overall timeframe is 95 months from stage 1 involving the identification and development of a preferred scheme, which is due to start in quarter 4 of 2020 and will take up to quarter 4 of 2022; to stage 2, which involves planning and development consent and will go from quarter 4 of 2022 to quarter 1 of 2024; to detailed construction design and tender, which will take another 18 months and will bring things up to quarter 1 of 2025; to construction handover of works, which will take us up to quarter 3 of 2028. This is a huge elongated timeframe for a very important piece of work in Galway city so I cannot stand here today and say that this is something we would say is correct or proper. The Minister of State might ask me how it can be sped up. I do not have the answer because even with that, we are assuming that there are no serious objections, no court cases and no judicial reviews, as we have seen in other areas. This is part of the problem with regard to some of these capital projects. This is not just the case in the Department. There seem to be inordinate delays in certain projects across the board because of the process. Whether it is at a committee or whatever, we need to know how we can speed up projects like this. Announcing a budget is one thing. We all do that. We will send out our press releases and take the photographs and that is great but people are then waiting to see delivery and the diggers going in. This, unfortunately, is mired in delays and difficulties.

I thank the Minister of State for visiting Clifden in early September. He arrived at short notice and saw the aftermath. He still saw a swollen river but he did not see it in full flow, which was evident in the media reports, news and social media. That was a very unusual event, although it is becoming more common across the country. I know that OPW officials accompanied the Minister of State on his visit, together with the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, Councillor Eileen Mannion and Councillor Gerry King. The flooding occurred on 1 and 2 September and caused the Owenglin river to burst its banks. The flooding in the town was described by locals, the Garda and the fire service as unprecedented. It was a high-intensity rainfall event of up to 50 mm of rain in that period causing flash floods. On our visit, the first port of call was to Clifden Glen where the OPW has plans for a barrier between the homes and the river. The second part is more difficult and concerns the town itself. The third part was the Low Road in Clifden where the Minister of State met three homeowners. I have engaged with the county council. The Minister of State thought the design of the Clifden town storm water scheme was a serious matter. Galway County Council is looking at that. It is looking at the possibility of two to three locations where it can take water away before it reaches that attenuation pond on the Low Road. I may come back to the Minister of State for possible funding for that at some stage because I, and certainly the homeowners, believe that this might immediately reduce the threat of flooding in that area, which is very important. The Minister of State also visited a number of houses. Again, some of them were never flooded before and yet the flooding reached a depth of 2 ft. They live on the river bank and have never experienced flooding yet it reached 2 ft, so it is amazing to comprehend. They will wait for a CFRAM study to be done. The Minister of State and I know that this will take not weeks or months but years. In the meantime, without any of the consultants' planning, can we look at simpler solutions with regard to reinforcing people's front walls and ensuring that flood gates are provided so that if a future event occurs, at least they have that bit of solace and can have that installed where there is a threat to their properties? This is important because giving people peace of mind is a solution to some of that frustration and delay.

The final point relates to my area of Moycullen where a hydrology report has been submitted to the Department. Again, I first had experience of dealing with people in my own parish where there was flooding. It is a hugely worrying time for people who are running around looking for sandbags and trying to find pumps. Where do they pump the water to? It also involves getting the council involved. It is a just a nightmare for these people. In terms of the future development of the village, we have a number of streams that go underground and resurface, some of which were piped in the past, which can lead to issues as well. I ask the Minister of State to follow up on the hydrology report for Moycullen.

I, again, acknowledge the work being done by the Minister of State. I know his vision is to succeed and push these projects on but the delays and the inordinate stages worry me and, I am sure, the Minister of State. It is important that we all work together to see if we can advance them and fine tune that process.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I look forward to working with him on many of these important matters. I reassure him that, unfortunately, flooding does not recognise the many Labour Party doors in the country.I wish to bring a number of flooding incidents to the Minister of State's attention, and I hope to be given updates on a number of flood relief schemes for the area where I live and County Kildare. Over the last few months, I have been contacted by a number of homeowners in Athy and other nearby towns who have been unable to sell their homes because of the need to have flood insurance, which is a requirement for the mortgage drawdown of the buyers of those homes. I am informed that a large number of properties are shown to be at risk of flooding in Athy, particularly in two estates in the town. All these houses were constructed prior to the mapping that is part of CFRAM. I am aware of the public consultation that took place under the CFRAM process, but these homeowners would never have considered that this consultation would affect them until they tried to sell their homes.

I am informed that, as part of the OPW's flood risk management plan adopted by Kildare County Council in July 2018, a flood relief scheme is proposed for Athy, which will provide protection against flooding for all existing properties currently affected. This scheme has been prioritised by both the OPW and Kildare County Council. A brief is being prepared for the appointment of consultants to carry out the design of the scheme. According to the reply I received, the OPW has a framework in place so the timescale is considerably shorter than it would be if an open procurement were to be carried out. I am told there will be an update from Kildare County Council in December. The proposed measure consists of building hard defences. At-risk properties in Athy would be protected by a series of hard defences consisting of flood embankments and walls. These hard defences would be set back from the river channel where possible and would protect from the 1% annual exceedance probability, AEP, fluvial flood event with an estimated average height of 1.2 m and a length of 2.9 km.

There are also flooding problems in the towns of Portarlington, Monasterevin, Castledermot, the areas associated with those towns and across the Barrow basin. I have followed up on these problems with the local authority. A reply I and my colleagues received recently regarding one of the properties stated that while it might seem unlikely that flooding would occur at the property, the level of flooding shown on the OPW mapping is for a 1% AEP event, roughly equivalent to a one in 100 year storm. The 1% AEP event is the standard level of protection for flood schemes and the level of protection required by insurance companies. The property owner was advised to contact the insurance ombudsman, but the advice went on to say that in the opinion of the official not much could be done regarding the sale of the house. Even the perimeter wall in one of the estates was not considered a sufficient barrier. Does the Minister of State have an update on the proposed scheme for Athy and the other towns I have mentioned? It seems unfair for those selling their homes that the work is imminent and they must wait for it. Can the Minister of State suggest any other way to help these owners who are holding on, pending the sale of their homes? It is utterly affecting their daily lives.

I am also aware of localised flooding in many other locations, including roads and housing estates throughout the local authority area in which I live. Many of these problems are historical but were controlled by annual maintenance, such as water cuts and drains clearance. Is the Office of Public Works considering any programmes of annual maintenance in association with local authorities? This is a growing problem. Flooding issues that were under control appear to have been causing many problems over the last number of years. It appears that we have moved away from the historical maintenance programmes. I accept that because of the workload of local authorities, they have had to move away from this programme to bigger-ticket items, but I have always said that there was a reason for these water cuts and drain clearance programmes. It is time we considered reinstating them and using them more consistently.

I wish to bring to the Minister of State's attention a number of problems with drainage works in towns in County Kildare and elsewhere that have been brought to my attention. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the problem, but the condition and, more worrying, the age of drains in these towns are causing many problems. In many cases, they are simply not fit for purpose in our modern age and are causing flooding incidents that affect private and commercial life in the towns. Are the Minister of State and Department considering a programme of works to assist local authorities with the replacement of these networks? I am aware of some premises being flooded numerous times because of the condition and age of the networks. For clarity, their age and condition is the problem for the drainage of surface water.

I thank the Minister of State for making himself available today, and I look forward to working closely with him on these important matters.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan. I do not know if our paths have crossed previously. Last winter was the wettest ever recorded in Ireland. Over 30 towns and villages experienced flooding, with over 600 homes evacuated. Some €48 million is due to be spent by 2021 on flood defences alone. Flooding and storm damage have cost the taxpayer over €3 billion in the last three decades. This is only the tip of iceberg as we face into a very uncertain future with climate change. It is time for a national discussion on how we can work with our natural environment to manage flood risk. Today, I wish to focus on nature-based solutions in conjunction with harder engineering solutions.

Flooding issues are only going to increase over the coming years. Some 66 places along the Shannon alone have been highlighted as being at risk of flooding. We are all fully aware of the scale of the problem, but are we doing enough to deal with it? One in 100 year events are now happening every two to three years. These events cause massive disruption to homes, businesses and infrastructure. Pumps and sandbanks will no longer cut the mustard. Changes in land usage have played a major part in higher flood risks across the country. Peatlands, woodlands, callows and wetlands naturally store water and hold it back from rivers. Removing them has increased the risk of flooding downstream from where they were. River banks have burst that never did so previously. Up to six weeks of rain is falling in one evening. Houses and businesses struggle to get flood insurance. We could talk forever about the ridiculousness of the insurance companies being unwilling to provide flood insurance even after we have spent millions on flood defences in those areas.

Hard engineering is not the only solution. We must look at the sources of flooding. Traditionally, towns and cities were built on higher ground, but as they expand they do so to lower-lying lands more prone to flooding. Clearing vegetation and forest has caused much flooding and cost us a great deal of money for flood defences. When there are woodlands the water soaks more easily into the soil, and when it travels underground it travels more slowly. People do not realise the value we must attach to the speed at which water flows. The slower the water flows, the less flooding there is. We must do everything in our power to slow down the speed of water as well. Undrained bogs have great potential to absorb water, reducing the amount arriving into rivers. Compared with the rest of Europe, we are doing very little on softer and cheaper solutions. There are some excellent examples in the rest of Europe, one of which I will mention momentarily. We must have a whole-landscape approach. It is similar to a sieve full of water. If one blocks a few holes with hard infrastructure, the water will go out through the other holes. It is not going to disappear. It might move from one place, but we have to deal with it in the proper catchment area.

Although there is definitely a need for some short-term hard engineering solutions, and I thank the Minister of State for the support we are receiving for Clonlara, we must also come up with a long-term solution to flood risk management. We cannot continue to put plasters on the wounds as they occur. There must be long-term planning. We have known about this problem for years, and we know it is worse than ever and going to get even worse. We must have proper plans. Our neighbours in the UK have faced the sources of flooding by doing more than just building dams and walls. I will refer to one place. Perhaps we will visit it after the Covid-19 travel ban is lifted or we will invite the people there to visit us. Pickering in England had four devastating floods in the last eight years. It featured on the Irish news programmes. The community spearheaded a project to save the town from flooding. People in the area had been through enough mental anguish and felt it was time they took responsibility and got involved. They were offered flood walls, but they knew these would just cause problems for other villages downstream from them. What a beautiful way to think about it. They saw that it would save their town but make a mess of the next one. We have seen that happen in Ireland. Fair play to the community of Pickering.

The Environment Agency in the UK suggested hard structures, and the people had two responses to that. First, they said it would pass the water problem on and, second, the town is beautiful and tourists visit it, but the hard walls would be ugly. Aesthetics matter to people where they live. The Environment Agency asked the people what solutions they had. Luckily, one of the local lads saw an advertisement in a newspaper from some academics in Oxford seeking to engage with communities on catchment-based solutions. The academics were experts in topography, geography, upstream storage and landscape management.The academics and the locals worked together. Instead of an environmental agency or local authority looking for millions of euro to pay consultants to come up with some ideas which would be imposed upon a community, the academics and locals worked together and what they did was very interesting. They constructed a giant bund to store 100,000 cu. m of water upstream from the town but they did it in a low-lying, grass covered way so that even though it was hard infrastructure, it blended in with the landscape. They also constructed small wooden debris dams along the streams feeding into the river. These were constructed by members of the community using existing wood in the area. They also planted thousands of trees. When I hear Members talking about dredging rivers and cutting trees, it makes me wonder if we understand the cyclical nature of climate change at all. Trees are actually columns of water, their roots hold onto soil, stopping erosion and they also slow down the speed with which the water flows. The community also planted lots of heather bales, another simple way of slowing down water in rivers. The heather was planted along the ditches and the community also rewetted bogs. We all know that bogs are giant sponges. In the context of a climate and biodiversity emergency, we have bogs that can be rewetted. While I fully respect people's turbary rights, we must consider the fact that bogs are massive sponges. We have drains in most of our bogs at the moment, which is contributing to the flooding problem. The aim was to get the water to flow in different ways along different routes and to come up with a holistic plan. Together, all of these elements have created natural resistances and prevented the town from being flooded since 2015. Not only that but it was done at a fifth of the cost of the alternative scheme. It is more beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, everyone is happy and it cost less. Everybody was involved, empowered and engaged. It cost €500,000 rather than €2.5 million.

A combination of hard and soft solutions is what is needed, not all of one or the other. I am not saying that we should just plant trees and that will sort everything out. I am not saying that we should never build walls but we must have a holistic approach. Dr. Conor Murphy of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units has said that wetter winters are guaranteed due to our changing climate, and bad planning means that people are living in flood prone areas. He noted that hard engineering works have been our go-to solution but now we need solutions on a catchment scale. I have a friend who owns 6 acres of land beside the estuary in Querrin which was pure wet. He planted a woodland nine years ago and the impact is phenomenal. He stopped his own farm from being flooded and has a beautiful nature reserve on his land. It is a win-win situation for everybody. He has restored the land and prevented all of his neighbours from being flooded as well. It is time to take an holistic approach and I look forward to working with the Minister of State on this. We have a lot to do.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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As we know, climate change means that flooding is going to be an increasingly frequent issue. The Minister of State has asked us for solutions and I am going to lay out some that are very easily implemented by his Department.

It is regrettable that a review of the Arterial Drainage Act did not make it into the programme for Government because as we all know, most of the issues around flooding and how it is managed stem from that Act. We have cut our rivers off from their natural flood plains and until we address and amend that Act and make it fit for purpose, the OPW will continue to receive criticism. That said, I do have some solutions that the OPW could implement without any change to the aforementioned legislation if the Minister of State is minded to instruct it to do so.

First, I ask the Minister of State to address the lack of transparency around the programme of works under the arterial drainage scheme maintenance programme. Why can the Department not put up on its website a fully transparent portal outlining the programme of works, what works are to be carried out, when they will be carried out, what environmental assessments have been done for those works and the findings of same? Why is it that members of the public and environmental NGOs are forced to go through the FOI process to get appropriate assessment reports? Why is that there is no accountability when appropriate assessment screening is substandard? Why is there no accountability when the OPW does not even do what it said it would do in an assessment? This was the case in Newport, County Limerick. Newport was a disaster zone from start to finish and I know my comrade, Senator Gavan, will want to raise that with the Minister of State.

It appears that the OPW is above reproach when it comes to carrying out works. It prepares reports but faces no sanctions for the poor quality of these reports or for not following through on their contents. If diggers are going to be put into a river in a special area of conservation, SAC, then there is going to be a significant impact. Therefore, a full Natura impact statement should be prepared. We have seen ample evidence online, thanks to the work of citizens and NGOs, of the catastrophic damage being done along river courses by the OPW.

I ask the Minister of State to update us on the progress of the natural water retention plans. I agree with Senator Garvey that we need a mix of hard and soft engineering solutions. Natural water retention refers to measures that aim to safeguard and enhance the water storage potential of landscapes, soil and aquifers, by restoring ecosystems, natural features and characteristics of water courses. The use of green infrastructure allows nature to regulate the flow and transport of water and improves water quality. Studies have shown that when carried out appropriately, natural water retention can slow the flow down and hold the water in the landscape for between 12 and 24 hours. Natural water retention also has knock-on benefits on climate regulation, soil erosion prevention and it enhances biodiversity.

We know that the natural water retention measures, NWRM, working group met three times last year but how many times has it met this year and when will we see proposals come forward? When flood relief schemes are being assessed for their feasibility for natural water retention measures, who is carrying out that feasibility assessment and are they specialists in that field? We know that nature-based solutions are effective in reducing flooding, particularly in our small catchment areas. The cost savings are immense when one takes account of the role played by nature-based solutions in reducing the occurrence of smaller, frequent floods or what they call "nuisance floods" in the United States. Their role in addressing the larger catchments or the once in a hundred year floods is still unknown as we do not have the data but there are promising signs. That said, it is vital that nature-based catchment management projects are community led and that communities are included in the process. This holds true for hard landscaping measures too. Nature-based solutions are not about flooding farmland but about working with farmers to install soft engineering measures. I ask the Minister of State to update us on the progress of the water retention plans.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister of State is very welcome. As he might expect, I want to focus on Limerick. He will be aware of the massive problems with flooding in the city and county as well as in Newport in Tipperary. Three years ago the then Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, arrived in our village of Castleconnell and declared that millions of euro would be spent on badly needed flood defences. That was a very welcome announcement but three years on, we are still waiting for those flood defences to be built or even to be commenced. We are told that works will commence next year and the Minister of State must ensure that there are no further delays.

In March some residents in Mill Road, Corbally, were flooded twice in 24 hours. Flooding was seen again in Limerick city at the weekend and there were complaints that flood barriers were not erected. Large volumes of water could be seen splashing onto the road beside Clancy's Strand. I met representatives of the ESB last week to discuss water management in the Shannon region as it is the main body responsible for three weirs on the river which are used to manage flow. This is something that must be managed correctly because when it is managed incorrectly or when it goes wrong, it can cause devastation.

Sinn Féin put forward a Bill this month which would see a single body manage the River Shannon. This would help to prevent flooding. There are currently informal arrangements among multiple bodies working to manage such actions as flood defences. There are 20 agencies including the ESB, Waterways Ireland and various local authorities involved in water management and maintenance of the river. The Government reaction to the Sinn Féin Bill was to promise to look at it again in nine months. Fine Gael argued 20 years ago for a single authority for the Shannon but when Sinn Féin acts and puts forward a Bill on same, it wants to wait another nine months. This is another example of the lack of delivery from this Government and the previous one. There is a lack of delivery on the ground and where I live, the people are very conscious of that. Home owners do not have time on their hands. Every day they have to wait for flood relief action is a further day of worry about possible devastation from flooding. We are in winter now and people have a winter of the pandemic to fear but those home owners at risk of flooding face a more uncertain future than most.Lands in Montpelier, Castleconnell, Annacotty and Mountshannon-Lisnagry have already been under water this year. People living along the River Shannon are sick and tired of the floods hitting, with politicians coming out on boats, getting their photos taken and saying how awful it is. What we need is delivery.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I wish to make colleagues aware that we have a fairly long list of speakers left and the Minister of State must be allowed to reply, as per the agreed Order of Business, at 6.09 p.m., so Senators may wish to talk to one another about sharing their time. The next speaker on the list is Senator Byrne. The Senator may wish to consider sharing his time; otherwise, we will not be able to fit the last one or two speakers in. That is a matter for the Senators.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I am happy to share time with Senator Dolan. I will take only two or three minutes.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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That might alter the list. The next speaker on the list is Senator Buttimer. Will Senator Byrne share with Senator Buttimer?

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Is that acceptable to both Senators? It is.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I will share time if it will help. I thank the Minister of State. I am glad to hear about the approach, in particular his highlighting of the concerns about climate change. We need to ensure in all our approaches to dealing with flooding that people are educated on the impact of climate change and the effect it is having on our waterways and on erosion.

I wish to raise a specific issue, namely, the case of the Ahare river, which is near Castletown, in north Wexford. When the Ahare river floods, a road becomes impassible and Castletown, the most northerly village in County Wexford, becomes effectively cut off from much of the rest of the county. One has to drive the long way around to access Castletown. The former Minister of State, Kevin Boxer Moran, visited the area. It has been a serious problem for many years because of its scale, and there has been a very active campaign led by local councillor Joe Sullivan to try to address it. Wexford County Council will bring proposals to the Minister of State's Department, on foot of a request from the OPW, within the next few weeks. This is a priority for County Wexford, and I ask the Minister of State to ensure that this happens because Castletown is, as I said, effectively being left cut off.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for his co-operation.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Byrne for sharing time. As an aside, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, the amount of time allocated for this debate is inadequate, given that many of us are from areas where communities are experiencing huge difficulties with flooding. It would be appropriate for the House to review how we do our business. We are the Upper House. We are a bicameral system of-----

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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If I may interrupt the Senator, there is nothing to prevent the Leader from coming into the Chamber to make a proposal.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I am just making the point that every debate this week has been truncated and many of us cannot get in to speak. That is not good enough for the Upper House of the Oireachtas.

I commend the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, on his handling of his ministerial responsibility for the OPW and his courage and bravery in taking on vested interests and putting forward a vision and a plan for the city of Cork to rescue our city from the ongoing threat of flooding. He has done more than many to raise the need for this lower flood relief scheme to go ahead. If we had begun the work on Morrison's Island, 80% of it would be completed by now. I challenge any Member of this House or anyone outside it to visit the city and look into the faces and eyes of the traders and residents affected by flooding, as many of our colleagues have said of their areas. This is not about partisan politics, parochialism or having a monopoly on doing what is best for our areas. This is about ensuring a good quality of life for the businesses and families of our inner city in Cork and ensuring that our central business district can flourish. We can talk about Covid-19 and have all the grandiose plans and alternative arrangements, but the OPW has been involved in flood relief since the State was founded. It is about time people copped on. We have had extensive public consultation across the country, in every region. People should realise that the only motivation of the OPW is to protect and save. I stand four-square with the Minister of State on Cork city. He has my full support. We have had almost 20 years of engagement; it is time we delivered.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for his co-operation. As per the list submitted to me by the party Whips' offices, the next two speakers should be Senators Dolan and Lombard. They may wish to divide their time between them. This is as per the list submitted to me. I did not write the list. Does Senator Dolan wish to share her time?

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I will try to be very brief.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed by the House? Agreed.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. It is great to see him in the House. I am very happy to hear about the interdepartmental groups he is setting up. He has spoken very clearly about CFRAM studies and the funding in place to protect people, property and businesses. If I may speak again about the area I am from, the west of Ireland, we have two of the biggest rivers in the country, the Shannon and the Suck, the latter being the largest tributary of the River Shannon. The River Suck is the county boundary - as with many counties, the rivers are the natural boundaries - between Roscommon and Galway. Senator Murphy will be very well aware of this. We have been impacted by serious flooding in the area. In Ballinasloe we have seen this challenge. The town is one of the nominated priority areas under the CFRAM programme for a flood relief project because over €8 million worth of damage was done to St. Michael's Square, with houses flooded in the middle of the town in 2009 and again in 2015. We got approval in 2019 under this project. It is not moving quickly, however. We have had consultation and it is now moving into the next stage, but the process is slow. A huge issue I have is with planning in flood plain areas. There is a lot of planning. What is the impact on underground waterways and aquifers? There are a significant number of those in the west in particular. I would not know so much about other areas, but the west is a limestone area with a significant number of underground waterways. There is a huge impact on construction and flooding in other areas farther on down from the towns.

I agree that we need to ask multiple authorities to make decisions. The Minister of State mentioned the necessity of this when permits are being sought across Departments. I ask him to imagine what it is like on the ground when one is dealing with two local authorities. If one wants to do work, one needs to make sure that Galway County Council, Roscommon County Council and the OPW or Waterways Ireland are all involved and have approved everything. These are huge blocks, stops and delays to funds that we need to see delivered now. One thing that really surprised me is that the local authorities also have responsibility for the waterways within urban areas. For example, in the likes of the middle of Ballinasloe no clearage or drainage has been carried out for ages. Again, they are pointing to a lack of funding, and this comes under the county council, so a huge array of bodies are involved.

Those are some of the issues, but the question I would like to ask the Minister of State concerns the resources in the OPW and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Are there any increased allocations to deal with the passage of permits between Departments? I might follow this up with the Minister of State separately.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Dolan. Now we are able to offer half her time to Senator Lombard.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Dolan for sharing time with me. The Minister of State is more than welcome. We met during the summer - unfortunately, when many parts of west Cork had flooded. I think of the residents of Rosscarbery, Dunmanway, Bandon to a lesser degree and especially Bantry, which was very badly damaged during the floods in August. The Minister of State came down, was very courteous and met many of the residents and traders. Unfortunately, last weekend Bantry was again hit by tidal flooding and 13 more premises were flooded. It is therefore an ongoing problem we have, but we need to acknowledge the amount of work the OPW has done in my constituency, Cork South-West. Towns such as Bandon have received significant funding. Clonakilty had no flooding issue this summer, which was down to the works carried out on the ground, and the Skibbereen flood defences are nearly finished. Bantry is probably the last town in west Cork that has a significant issue. The culvert, which the Minister of State saw on his visit to Bantry, is a real issue, and how we might work to produce a plan to extend that culvert from the mill all the way to the bay is a priority for the residents of the town. Without that culvert we will, unfortunately, be exposed to the trauma of more floods.

The coastal aspect of my county is well noted.There was tidal flooding last weekend. The proposals for main drainage works or flooding defence in Bantry are a major issue. We need to progress those two major projects as soon as we can.

The other major issue in the county is the lack of river maintenance. The county engineer has told landowners that it is their responsibility but they need to get permits and licenses. We have so many rivers and tributaries. Trees and debris are in the rivers and no maintenance is carried out. Clarity is required in order that we can have some proactive action. Minor maintenance works on those pinch points would mean so much for this community, which has, unfortunately, been plagued by floods over the past decade.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I also welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his proactive approach to his Department. That is how he does his business. He gets things done. That is a great thing to be able to say about a Minister of State. There is a lot of work to do to deal with flooding. Many colleagues have outlined the challenges and difficulties in other parts of the country. I would like to mention the west coast of Clare. On 6 January 2014, significant damage was done along the west coast. I have to give full credit to the OPW for its response at the time. There was a significant interdepartmental response. Millions of euros have been spent on coastal protection works along the west coast of Clare in the past three or four years, particularly around Lahinch. More work needs to be done. I am particularly thinking of the very famous hotel and golf course in Doonbeg that employs 200 or 300 people. Protection work needs to be done there. I would like the Minister of State to examine the progress of that work when he gets the opportunity. Clonahinchy in Quilty is another vulnerable area where houses have been flooded. Engagement and work is ongoing in Clonahinchy and Spanish Point.

Unlike many other European countries, we are an island nation. We are exposed to the sea. Planning decisions have caused property to be built in the wrong areas. That has consequences. The system granted planning permission in those vulnerable areas and, therefore, the system has to protect the people who find themselves living there. In the next ten or 15 years, we will have to consider spending billions of euros on coastal protection works in this country. Prior to the past three or four years the budget for this was particularly low. We need to consider significantly escalating spending on coastal protection works. We need the assistance of our colleagues in Europe to fund that. We need to be able to protect our homes and farms. This affects people who farm and run tourist facilities along the west coast. Farms are businesses as well. We must protect businesses and those who live along the coasts of our country.

The Minister of State is doing a phenomenal job. On several occasions in August he broke off his holidays in Country Clare to visit Cork and other flooded areas. That reflects his character and the fact that he takes this role incredibly seriously. I thank him for what he is doing. I look forward to working with him to solve these problems.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I join my colleague in complimenting the Minister of State on his work in this area. I would like to acknowledge the work that has been done by the OPW in my county of Waterford in recent years. Thankfully, there has been tremendous investment in flood defences. More than €25 million has been spent to protect Waterford city and €1 million has been spent in Passage East. There have been minor schemes in Clonea and works at an outlet in Duckspool, Dungarvan. I would like to put on the record my thanks to the Minister of State, the Department and the OPW for the investment that has been made.

When one is based in a certain area, as I am in Waterford city, it is very easy to forget the devastation faced by communities and businesses. I can recall the devastation in Poleberry when I was the Mayor of Waterford. Sandbags were put in place to stop the tide coming in on a second night of flooding. When I see the watermark on the glass walls along Waterside and the Waterford quayside, I look at the water and realise that if it was not for the flood defences, we would be trying to pump water out of our businesses.

It is important to acknowledge the work that has been done by the OPW as well as looking forward to continued investment. To that end, I note that the council would thank the Minister of State for help with advancing schemes in Aglish and Ballyduff in the next calendar year. A significant plan will have to be submitted to the Minister of State's Department next year. It envisages flood defence works in Duckspool, at Davitt's Quay and at the Lookout as well as additional drainage works in Dungarvan. Perhaps the Minister of State will have an opportunity to visit that area in the new year. It needs investment, as other Members have said about their own areas. I look forward to working constructively with the Minister of State in the time ahead to realise investment in these critical areas. I thank him again for the investment that has gone into County Waterford.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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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.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for his very detailed response. I thank colleagues for the good debate. In accordance with the order of today, the Seanad will adjourn until 10.30 a.m. next Tuesday.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.18 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 24 November 2020.