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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 Jun 1995

Vol. 453 No. 8

Arterial Drainage (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 1995 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

Before Question Time I had welcomed the Bill. I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment. When this Government was formed I welcomed him to the Ministry of Defence. I wish him well in his new post. It is a Department he will enjoy and find very rewarding. I thank the Minister for his kind remarks and his reference to the fact that I had brought a major portion of this Bill through the Office of Public Works.

I wish to pay tribute to the Office of Public Works for the very valuable work it has done over many years on arterial drainage since 1945. It has made a tremendous difference economically to many areas. It was in my constituency that the last major arterial drainage scheme — the Boyne drainage scheme — took place. The criticisms of the Boyne drainage scheme underline something to which the Minister referred in the course of his remarks when introducing the Bill: the changes in attitudes and circumstances which have taken place.

The Office of Public Works was a drainage authority and probably destroyed salmon and trout fishing along stretches of the River Boyne. At the time nothing was thought of that but with the benefit of hindsight people criticise the Office of Public Works. Its main task was to do a good arterial drainage job, to restore land and ensure it became economically viable. The fact that the fisheries element was seriously affected was not a consideration. I have no doubt, with its record, that the Office of Public Works which has responsibility for wildlife, heritage and so on would have adopted a different approach. I pay tribute to the commissioners and the local staff on the Boyne drainage scheme for their efforts to rehabilitate for fishery purposes the River Boyne and the other rivers in its catchment area. It has done tremendous work over recent years. I wish to praise the Office of Public Works which has committed large sums of money to that rehabilitation.

The 1945 Act resulted from the Browne Commission which advocated a catchment area approach to arterial drainage. There were sound logical reasons for adopting that approach. It is obvious where various drainage schemes were carried out on a piece-meal basis by local authorities and other groups. In many cases they did more harm than good and while some problems were solved other more serious ones were created. The recommendations of the Browne Commission resulted in the Arterial Drainage Act, 1945. For a number of reasons, some of which have outlined, I believe the day of the large arterial drainage scheme has gone. These include the sufficiency of food, particularly in the European Union; the economic return demanded by the European Union before it will allow money to be expended on schemes such as this — and strong environmental reasons. For these reasons and because of the need to relieve localised flooding — the reason most often cited — the Arterial Drainage Act should be amended.

Localised flooding presents a serious problem. Each of us can cite examples in our own constituencies. The list circulated at the time the Bill was published includes Duleek in my constituency where flooding occurs frequently. One housing estate has been flooded on a number of occasions causing major problems for the residents, including damage to property. It is also a health hazard. Residents find that the value of their properties has fallen and that it is difficult to sell them. They also find it impossible to obtain insurance.

Not only is this Bill necessary, it should be enacted as a matter or urgency. I pay tribute to the Minister of State and his immediate predecessors for exerting pressure to have it expedited and brought before the House. I did not check the file but I issued instructions that the office should make inquiries on a fortnightly basis to the Department of Finance to discover the reason for the delay in introducing the Bill. I venture to guess that a number of officials in that Department were not happy at the prospect that a Bill such as this would be introduced. I am glad that it was rescued from the bowels of the Department in Merrion Street.

I wish to raise an ancilliary matter. Under the 1949 Act local authorities have the power to relieve localised flooding and I am glad this is not being interfered with. However, power and money are two different things. I do not know of any local authority which has carried out works under that Act and it is highly unlikely, because of financial constraints, that any of them will.

Will the Minister of State consider inserting a provision to allow local authorities to commision the Office of Public Works which has the necessary expertise and equipment to carry out works on an agency basis to relieve localised flooding? In this context, 89 or 90 locations, where localised flooding presents a problem, were included on the list circulated when the Bill was published. It will take some time to go through it. The Minister of State will find — £2 million is being made available initially — that a substantial number of local authorities would be willing to commission the Office of Public Works to carry out works on an agency basis if it was allowed to do so. This would make the scheme viable for both the Office of Public Works and local authorities.

I welcome section 8 of the Bill which provides for further development following the completion of a drainage scheme. There are works that should be undertaken to relieve localised flooding but which cannot be carried out as they were not included in the initial scheme. Under this section the Minister will have the power to review the position. This will be welcomed by those who are suffering because their areas were not included in the scheme first time around.

Under section 13 local authorities will be obliged to publish an annual report on maintenance works in drainage districts. That will be a slim volume as the number of schemes involving drainage work is small. Nevertheless, this is a good provision and will draw attention to the work, or lack of it, being carried out in a particular area under the Bill.

The process leading to the publication of this Bill was speeded up because of the problems experienced in various parts of the country, particularly Galway. I am not sure, however, if we will be able to solve the underlying problem with this Bill. Deputy Kitt and others put forward various theories on the cause of the flooding but, in so far as it will help to relieve localised flooding, I welcome the Bill. It will perform another useful function: it will help to retain expertise within the Office of Public Works. It will also help the many thousands of householders who have experienced problems, because the Office of Public Works could not previously undertake this work. I welcome the Bill and assure the Minister of our co-operation in expediting it through the House.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment and wish him every success in the Department of Finance. I compliment the former Minister of State, Deputy Dempsey, on his preparatory work on this legislation. I also compliment the Office of Public Works officials, particularly the engineering branch, for their valuable work over many years on our waterways. I compliment them on their part in the restoration of the Ballyconnell-Ballinamore canal, which is not directly related to this Bill but the Minister referred to it earlier. That was an amazing engineering feat. It is an extremely successful project linking the two major waterways in the country, namely, the Erne and the Shannon, and providing a new cruiser waterway.

The Ballyconnell-Ballinamore canal is 62.7 kilometres in length. The canal runs through Leitrim and Cavan and along the Cavan-Fermanagh border to upper Lough Erne. The Shannon system, comprising 300 kilometres of navigable waterway, is linked to the Grand Canal and the Barrow system which comprises 250 kilometres. The Erne navigation comprises 150 kilometres. The linking of these two great waterways provides a single navigable system of more than 750 kilometres of varied cruising water. Compliment must be paid to all the officials who devised and implemented the plan to restore the canal and to the Fianna Fáil Government for making the positive decision to proceed with its restoration. In carrying out the restoration work the Office of Public Works and ESB International had due regard to the need to protect the wildlife, fisheries and the general environment.

For some time the Office of Public Works has been working to advance the Erne navigation project — I discussed this matter with previous Ministers on a number of occasions — which basically concerns the River Erne southwards from Belturbet to Killykeen and Killeshandra and onto Louth Gowna. Preliminary engineering work has been carried out on this project. I was very disappointed to receive replies from the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht that this project is not proceeding with the speed with which it should. It has been relegated in the priority listing. I appeal to the Minister of State to have this matter reviewed and ensure that this cross-Border project is funded, particularly at a time when we are talking about North-South co-operation and when funding is being made available specifically to strengthen the economy of the Border counties that suffered so much for 25 years. This project must be moved forward, and Department officials have been very anxious to progress it.

It is absolutely ludicrous that the inland waterways are now the responsibility of the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. Those responsibilities should have been left with the professionals and the very expert staff in the Office of Public Works who have shown their commitment to our inland waterways systems over many years.

I take this opportunity to thank the former Minister of State, Deputy Dempsey, and the officials in the Office of Public Works for the very substantial funding of £400,000 provided towards additional mooring facilities on the River Erne at Belturbet. I was glad that work commenced on that project last October and hopefully it will be possible to have these necessary facilities provided before the summer is out.

I am particularly concerned about the flooding that occurs on a regular basis in the basin of the Erne river, particularly in the areas of County Cavan such as Lough Gowna, Loughduff, Drumkilly, Lacken, Wateraughey, Crossdoney, Killeshandra, Butlersbridge, Milltown and Belturbet. Agriculture within the Erne catchment is limited to a marked degree by poor drainage, which, particularly in the southern sector of the Erne catchment, is very well exemplified by the statistic that 57 per cent of farms in County Cavan are located on wet drumlin soil.

The Erne catchment varies in width from 8 kilometres in the north-west to 65 kilometres along its most southern part. Within the northern part of the catchment the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture undertook statutory improvement schemes on most of the main tributaries and indeed on many of the secondary streams to the Erne between 1950 and 1975. The Office of Public Works designed the drainage scheme in 1970. If that work had been carried out it would have benefited an area of 100 square kilometres, representing about 7 per cent of the section of the Erne located in the Republic. In that part of County Cavan arterial drainage is essential to improve conditions for the farming community.

The Erne catchment is the fourth largest catchment in Ireland after the Rivers Shannon, Barrow and Ban. Unlike the other major river systems, the Erne has only minimal coastal frontage. The area within the Erne catchment falls under the jurisdiction of seven local authorities, namely, Cavan, Leitrim, Longford, Monaghan and Donegal county councils, Omagh District Council and Fermanagh District Council.

I was disappointed that no specific provision was made to have works carried out at an early date in Longford, Leitrim and particularly Cavan, areas that suffered immeasurably, particularly from an agricultural and social point of view, due to severe flooding in the River Erne basin.

I am glad this Bill has been introduced. It is long overdue and will allow the necessary works to be carried out. Much work was done in an area of County Fermanagh that is literally down the road from my home area, and as a result the agricultural economy has benefited substantially. I hope the Minister will give favourable consideration to the carrying out of work in the areas of County Cavan to which I referred. Once again I wish him every success in the Department. I compliment the officials with whom I have had dealings over the years for their great work, interest and commitment to our arterial drainage systems and inland waterways.

I thank Deputies for their kind good wishes to me, which I appreciate, and also for their interesting and positive contributions to this debate. I assure them that in the implementation of development proposals under this legislation careful consideration will be given to what has been said. It is obvious from all that has been said here today and during the debate in the Seanad, that we are at one in our efforts to deal with serious problems arising from the flooding which continues to occur and which, if anything, has become more persistent in recent years, certainly in 1995.

I am confident that the Bill, as drafted, meets the current needs of the Commissioners of Public Work to deal with these problems in a positive way, and are adequate to deal with the various suggestions made by Members. No doubt more will be said on the subject when we deal with the details of the Bill on Committee Stage. The introduction of this Bill to make the necessary changes to the existing drainage legislation is perhaps the single most important item in our battle against the floods, but it is not the only issue which has held our attention in recent months.

I will refer to the response by the Government to the immediate problems of those individuals who suffered most during the recent floods, particularly in the west. As series of actions has been taken and I am glad to be in a position to place the Government's response on the record. On 7 February 1995 the Government established an inter-departmental committee chaired by the Minister of State at the Department of Finance to co-ordinate a response to the effects of bad weather. Through that committee a national response plan to the effects of bad weather in the event of future occurences is being prepared. The Government also decided in principle at its meeting on 14 March to make funds available for the relief of hardship and distress for victims of severe flooding. It is the intention to channel the funds through the Irish Red Cross Society. An assessment of the extent and scale of the funding required is currently in hand.

Through my predecessor the Minister of State, Deputy Higgins, a sum of 325,000 ECUs humanitarian aid was made available from the EU Commission for the relief of such distress in Ireland. These funds will also be disbursed by the Irish Red Cross Society which has received over 300 claims for assistance to date. These are currently being assessed. Great credit is due to the Minister of State, Deputy Higgins for his pursuit of his goal to find a proper solution to the problems and to give help where it is most needed.

I have heard criticism from certain sources of the decision to use the Red Cross as the conduit through which funds are being channelled. I am satisfied this was the proper course to follow as, apart from anything else, it minimises the bureaucracy involved. It has worked successfully both here in the past and throughout the European Union.

The Government has made available a £2 million compensation fund to cover agricultural losses of stock and fodder arising from the bad weather and payments to date under this scheme have been made to over 500 farmers. A sum of £50,000 has been allocated to Galway County Council for the repair of roads and a further sum of £4 million has been made available for the repair of county roads countrywide.

The supplementary welfare allowance scheme, operated by the health boards on behalf of the Department of Social Welfare, has provision to cater for urgent and emergency situations such as arise in times of severe flooding.

Approval was given to the commissioning by the Office of Public Works of a special multi-disciplinary investigation into the causes of flooding in the south Galway area which will recommend remedies to the problems. Thirty-one submissions have been made by consultants interested in carrying out the study and it is expected a commission will be in place shortly. This is a complex issue and, apart from dealing with the problem of flooding, complex geological and environmental issues must be dealt with. The suggestion in some quarters that it only necessitates clearing some swallow holes is a grave over-simplification of a complex problem. It is not reasonable to expect that instant solutions will emerge from this legislation, but we are determined to get to the bottom of the problem and to devise solutions which will benefit the people. It has been possible to carry out one scheme for the relief of flooding in County Galway and design work for further flood affected areas has been initiated.

An emergency co-ordination centre or one stop shop has been established in Gort, County Galway since March last, staffed by representatives of the Western Health Board, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Galway County Council, the Irish Red Cross Society and the Office of Public Works. Some 500 callers have been assisted in relation to claims for compensation, rehousing and humanitarian aid.

In my previous ministry Army vehicles were deployed to transport school children to and from schools and to provide other assistance as required in the south Galway area. The Army Air Corps using helicopters has carried out over 200 cargo sorties transporting almost 100 tons of fodder, fuel, foodstuff and medicines. That was done under the direction of the Minister of State, Deputy Higgins, who co-ordinated all the State agencies' involvement in the emergency measures.

The Government decided to provide for a Supplementary Estimate this year to enable specified drainage works to go ahead. These will be commenced after the enactment of this Bill.

I am sure Deputies will agree that the extent of all these measures reflect the Government's commitment to the resolution of the plight of all those affected. However, the physical remedying of the causes of the problem must now commence and that will take some time.

With the enactment of the current Bill we will be in a position to commence work on the ground in selected areas. In this connection I have noted with interest the representations made here today and in the Seanad earlier in respect of the many areas which have suffered most. I can assure the House that in drawing up future programmes of work all of these will be considered and taken into account. However, so that some physical progress can be made, in the immediate future it has been reasonably decided to concentrate on a number of areas. The Commissioners of Public Works are at present undertaking the necessary surveys, data collection and design work in these areas under their existing powers and with the goodwill of the landowners onto whose land they had to go. It is, however, essential that they be given the powers proposed before any substantial work can commence.

As Deputies would assume, the criteria used in selecting the priority areas were the severity of flooding and the availability of most of the necessary data, for example, where flow measuring devices have been installed for a period of years or where previous studies had been made. In Galway there are a number of areas where the hardship is particularly obvious. Much has already been said on the proposal for the study of the south Galway area. For the town of Gort, it has been possible to identify some possible solutions and these are being examined. At Belclare near Tuam excavation to lower the level of the existing flooding has already been undertaken successfully, while a scheme for the Williamstown area is also being considered. This, like the South Galway region, is a highly sensitive area and detailed examination of the likely impact of works on the environment is being undertaken in advance.

Consulting engineers have been appointed to design a flood relief scheme for Carlow while in Kilkenny designs prepared by consultants engaged by the local authority are being examined. Designs for schemes for the Cappamore, Newport and Sixmilebridge areas of counties Limerick, Tipperary and Clare are well advanced and the necessary data is being collated at Duleek, County Meath and consultants will be appointed shortly. Options for flood relief in Dunmanway, County Cork will be assessed shortly also by consultants.

The areas involved are geographically widespread and it is hoped to commence work in most of them during this year.

I return now to the Bill itself. The House will note that no provision has been made for payment of compensation to people who may have suffered loss or damage through flooding. It is not considered appropriate to make such a provision for a number of reasons which I will outline briefly and I point out also that the heads of the Bill which we inherited from the Opposition did not contain any such provision.

It would be normal and reasonable to expect that people and businesses would insure against loss due to exceptional events such as flooding and it would be entirely inappropriate for the State on behalf of the taxpayer to say we will assume that responsibility. Furthermore, there is a duty on people to take reasonable precautions to protect their property from damage. I know there are some areas where it may be difficult, and indeed impossible to reinsure property damaged by regular flooding, but I must emphasise that the objective of this Bill is to provide for the removal or alleviation of the risk.

The Government has shown by its response to the most recent flooding incidents that the State has the capacity to provide assistance in monetary and practical terms when and where it is most needed. The House will be aware of the many measures that have been implemented already and the Government has promised to establish a further humanitarian aid fund, the nature and extent of the need for which is currently being examined.

A statutory scheme would be extremely difficult to frame and would probably be too rigid and inflexible and risk excluding some deserving cases which can be assisted far more satisfactorily under the existing regime.

Deputy Dempsey asked if the Office of Public Works, on an agency basis and at the request of a local authority, can undertake works to alleviate local flooding. It can do so and this Bill will assist it in that regard. A number of Deputies spoke about the need to make provision for compensation to individuals affected by flooding. I have already dealt with that matter. Deputy Kitt inquired about the claims from the South Galway Flood Victims Action Group. Claims from people in all areas are being examined and the South Galway victims' submissions is being taken into account in that examination.

A number of Deputies expressed the wish that the Office of Public Works would have power in limited circumstances to undertake works without the need to initiate a scheme. This possibility was carefully considered in the Office of Public Works in preparing the heads of the Bill and during the debate in the Seanad, where the matter was also raised. It was decided on balance not to include such a provision, we are talking about a response to emergency cases. We believe that in the case of schemes not already under Office of Public Works maintenance, local authorities are in a much better position to anticipate problems and to move quickly to resolve them. They have ample power under the Local Authorities Works Act, 1949, to take such action. I assure the House that if either practical or technical assistance from the Office of Public Works is required to support such action from a local authority, it will be given.

There is close co-operation between the Office of Public Works, local authorities and district drainage boards as well as interested groups and individuals and I will encourage the continuation and strengthening of that co-operation.

Deputies Kitt and Treacy mentioned the position in Belclare and Williamstown. I am pleased that work to reduce the level of flooding at Belclare has been completed. Williamstown is one of the areas on which sufficient data is available to enable design to commence and arrangements to start the design shortly are in hand.

Many speakers referred to the environment. There is a statutory requirement to undertake an environmental impact assessment as part of the design of a drainage scheme. I agree with speakers who expressed the view that a balance must be struck between the various interests in this context and I am confident that satisfactory schemes can be undertaken while at the same time protecting the environment.

A number of speakers referred to the importance of providing adequate funding to back up the provisions of the Bill. This is essential and I assure the House that the Government intends to provide a reasonable level of funding, but, as funding is not inexhaustible, it would be impossible to carry out all works at the same time. Deputy Smith expressed disappointment at the fact that there was no commitment to specific works in his area. In addition to the areas already announced, the Office of Public Works will compile a national priority programme and the areas he mentioned will be carefully considered in that context.

In the light of what has been said, I look forward with confidence to the continued support of the House in seeing through the remaining Stages of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.