Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Raising the matter of flooding and flood protection under Topical Issues in the Dáil

Topical Issues debate regarding flooding and the OPW's long-term flood prevention plans
Wednesday, 25th April 2012

Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: I appreciate the attendance of the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, in the Chamber.

I want to bring to the attention of the Minister of State the level of panic heavy weather warnings bring to areas in my constituency and others. My colleague, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, from Dublin South-East has said the same. Heavy weather warnings have been issued for today, but by 2.15 p.m. Dublin City Council had downgraded the threat. That said, areas across Dublin city and throughout the country have major flooding flashpoints whenever heavy rainfall occurs.

In my constituency, areas such as Artane, Coolock and Donnycarney are at risk and in the past 18 months I have witnessed the same families being moved out of their homes on a number of occasions. When we have heavy rain warnings now, panic ensues and people contact local authorities to see what plan is in place. They also contact their local representatives to find out whether there is a plan in place. It is disconcerting that families have to huddle around radios and televisions for the weather forecasts in their worry about where they may end up living the following week.

I accept that the responsibility in this regard falls to the local authority but I hope the Minister of State will address the issue. Is he satisfied that the various programmes that have been outlined by his Department for flood relief and flood risk assessment have been rolled out? Is he satisfied that in terms of the local authority response, his Department and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government give adequate support to that response? It is only when one is faced with the chaos of a flooded street or home that people quickly realise that despite the bravery of local council workers and the fact they work around the clock and they put their own safety in danger, resources and plans should be in place that automatically come into play when these situations arise. Are there weather alerts that will ensure these plans will be activated and that the various agencies will know how to respond?

I am aware the local authorities are responsible for these issues but they are concerned with the long-term strategic view and plan of the Government, which is to ensure that investment is put into infrastructure in local areas so as to ensure when there is heavy rainfall - which may be a climate change issue to which we must get used - local authorities are fully equipped to deal with that. Not alone that, we must ensure the State has taken its responsibility seriously and has made the interventions and investments required to correct any flood risks that exist.

I urge the Minister of State to respond to these points. We cannot allow a situation where some of our citizens are terrified at the prospect of heavy rainfall. This is what I face this week for my constituents. They want to know that they will not have to live under this cloud. There are other implications to this, such as house insurance. The Minister of State has been proactive previously in dealing with the Irish Insurance Federation on this but people whose houses are continually flooded cannot get house insurance. Incoming buyers will not get insurance either, rendering the property effectively worthless. This is the situation I face in my constituency and other Deputies face the same. I would appreciate a response on this.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Brian Hayes): I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to address the House regarding the action being taken to deal with flooding and on the activities of OPW to reduce future flood risk.

The Office of Public Works was designated by Government as the lead agency to implement the national flood policy and to deliver on the requirements of the EU floods directive dealing with management of flood risk. In this role, the OPW works closely with other State bodies, including local authorities. However, the principal response agencies for major emergencies, including flood events, are the Garda Síochána, the HSE and the relevant local authorities. In such emergencies, the OPW provides assistance to these agencies if requested to do so, often in the form of technical input or the supply of equipment. The local authorities and other agencies will have made preparations to respond appropriately and quickly to any flooding incidents arising from the rainfall experienced in the south and east of the country today and with further rain expected tomorrow.

Since the severe flooding event in the city and the east coast in October 2011, a working group of relevant agencies, including the OPW, was established under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, to carry out an in-depth review of emergency response procedures actions and mechanisms, with a view to identifying improvements within the emergency framework. The Government task force in emergency planning has been briefed on the group's draft report which will shortly be submitted to Government for its consideration.

The OPW principal areas of activity for dealing with flooding include (1) major capital works schemes; (2) minor coastal and non-coastal schemes; (3) national catchment flood risk assessment and management, CIFRAM, studies; and (4) arterial drainage maintenance. The total allocation included in the OPW Vote in 2012 for the above flood relief programmes is €60.78 million. Under its major capital works programme, OPW currently has nine major flood relief schemes at construction stage. It is expected that another six schemes will commence construction before the end of 2012, subject to completion of procurement and other preparatory formalities and availability of funding. There are also a further 11 schemes at various stages of design and planning. Approximately €29 million is expected to be expended on all of these schemes during the course of the year.

Under the minor works and coastal protection scheme, OPW provides funding to local authorities for smaller scale, more localised mitigation measures they may wish to undertake in their areas. It is open to any local authority to submit an application to OPW for funding under the scheme. The standard application forms, guidelines and eligibility criteria, are available on the OPW website. Each application will be assessed in accordance with the criteria now in place and having regard to the overall availability of financial resources for such works in 2012. To date this year, funding of almost €1.5 million has been approved under the scheme for 13 local authorities in respect of 36 projects. Total funding of €21.4 million was approved in 2010 and 2011 combined, for 32 local authorities in respect of 265 projects.

The relevant local authority is responsible for the procurement, planning, detailed financial management and day-to-day implementation of all aspects of the projects approved under the scheme. Local authorities are continuing to undertake a number of the projects approved in 2010 and 2011 and are expected to commence further projects in 2012.

In addition to the specific flood relief works, OPW is continuing with a major national initiative to systematically identify, assess, document and report on the most significant flood risks throughout the country. This is the ongoing CIFRAM study. Under the arterial drainage maintenance programme, OPW will continue in 2012 to undertake ongoing maintenance of completed arterial drainage and flood relief schemes.

In conclusion, I wish to assure the House of my commitment, and that of the Government to ensuring that the strategy currently being implemented by OPW and other agencies to reduce national flood risk throughout the country will continue despite the unprecedented budgetary constraints and pressures.

Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: I thank the Minister of State for his reply and I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this matter to be raised. I have some questions about how the OPW is assessing climatory change and the risk of flooding in the future.

I am delighted to note the level of investment at a national level. I know he joins with me in sympathising with residents who are concerned about weather reports. I ask the Minister of State to provide an update on his discussions with the Irish Insurance Federation regarding the difficulties in obtaining house insurance experienced by residents whose homes have been affected by flooding.

Deputy Brian Hayes: I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for raising this very important matter.

I understand the heightened state of fear that exists particularly along the east coast, given the substantial rainfall expected over the next few days and given that last October, this city experienced a flooding calamity in various parts of the city. People are understandably frightened. I wish to assure the Deputy, however, that the Dublin city authorities have taken a number of actions to deal with the situation. There have been recent inspections of all river schemes to ensure drainage systems are operating fully. Closed circuit television systems are used to identify problems in the city. The roads department is monitoring the network and will mobilise if necessary. Dublin fire brigade is on hand to respond if required. Additional staff have been placed on standby. We have learned lessons from the events of last year. Local authorities in Dublin and elsewhere have been working with the Government to prepare an immediate response if this is required.

The Deputy has raised the important issue of climate change. The CIFRAM study will identify 250 hot spots around the country which have experienced historic and more recent flooding. This study is mapping the entire country segmented into six regions. When this is completed we will be in a better position to use resources and to avoid the planning and development mistakes which were made in some of those flood plain areas.

In reply to the Deputy, I have had two meetings with the Irish Insurance Federation and I have instructed my officials and the Irish Insurance Federation to produce an agreement on first principles, particularly with regard to residents who do not have flood insurance but where a flood defence has subsequently been installed. This is not acceptable and I have made this patently clear to the insurers. I hope they will take this opportunity to reach an agreement with the Government on a set of guidelines and principles as has happened in other jurisdictions and with regard to expenditure and the completion of insurance premiums. If people cannot get insurance in areas where a flood defence has been installed, I want to know about it because the Irish Insurance Federation has informed me that insurers do not currently note a demand. Our hand will be strengthened by having more information when negotiating with the insurers.