Topical Issue Debate

Garda Resources

I thank the Minister for taking this topical issue on the need for additional Garda resources for County Meath. To cut to the chase, I very much appreciate that the Minister is dealing with the macro issue of putting more gardaí into the system and ensuring the security of our country is strengthened even further. One of the key tenets of the confidence and supply agreement was to ensure an increase in Garda numbers to 15,000. It was good to see in the budget that resources allowing for an additional 800 gardaí have been provided.

When it comes to crime, I know that no matter what Deputy stands in front of the Minister, he will share the sentiments expressed, regardless of the county of origin of that Deputy. There is a particular case to be made for Meath, however. It needs special attention, both from the management of the force itself and the political body here in Dáil Éireann. Owing to the trend of commuting to Dublin from surrounding counties, the population explosion in Meath has been quite pronounced. My topical issue centres on how we are responding to extreme pressures in one area when additional resources become available and on how we spread them accordingly. With the population explosion in Meath comes pressure on housing, infrastructure, health services and jobs. Crime, however, has really spiked in the county over the past year in both urban and rural settings. It needs to be tackled before it takes root.

These issues were raised by me in the Dáil previously and raised directly by me with the then Commissioner, Ms O'Sullivan, at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts before the summer break. I outlined to the former Commissioner some horrendously violent attacks on a business owner in Navan. Footage was captured on a mobile telephone and subsequently replayed on social media. It was also captured by all the national newspapers. News cycles move on, of course. After the summer recess, at the end of September, I attended one of our regular policing meetings with the chief superintendent in Meath. Statistics showed that crime levels had greatly increased in Meath over the past year. Property theft was up by a whopping 59%. Thefts in shops were up by 44%, and criminal damage was up 31%. Property crime was up by 39%, with 1,359 incidents reported up to September. The rate of assault also increased.

The chief superintendent, Mr. Fergus Healy, who came into the job only last year, has been exceptional and really excellent in analysing the threats from gangs coming in from Dublin on the motorway system, attacking areas such as Enfield, Navan, Ashbourne, and Oldcastle. The chief superintendent needs help, however, and he has said that. Just last week, ten additional gardaí were deployed in Meath. They were pictured in this morning's Meath Chronicle with the chief superintendent. Some 12 were deployed earlier in the year but the 22 gardaí that came in allow us only to stand still. There are 313 gardaí in the county, which figure places us below the national per capita average. The chief superintendent attended a public meeting on policing this night last week in Trim. Quite candidly and openly, he said we need additional resources above and beyond this allocation to have a fair chance of tackling the threat. He said we have to fight for our resources in Meath and that one cannot go to the table unless one has facts and figures. He said that, certainly in Meath, the figures stand out and tell their own story. The chief superintendent, Mr. Fergus Healy, a professional, is making the case for our county. Since he made that statement at a public meeting this night last week, it is naturally incumbent on me to fight his corner and that of the people of Meath in the Dáil this week. I ask the Minister to ensure Meath can get the manpower required and the tools the gardaí need to do their job. He should act not only on my words this evening but also on those of the chief superintendent, who is also crying out for help.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Government is committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and deter crime. To make this a reality for all, the Government has in place a plan to achieve an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, comprising 15,000 Garda members, 2,000 Garda Reserve members and 4,000 civilians.

As the Deputy will appreciate, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the distribution of resources, including personnel, among the various Garda divisions and I, as Minister, have no direct role in the matter. I am informed by the Garda Commissioner that in regard to the deployment of Garda personnel, a distribution model is used that takes into account all relevant and appropriate factors, including population, crime trends and the policing needs of each Garda division, including the Meath division, with a view to providing an effective and responsive police service.

I acknowledge what the Deputy said, particularly in reference to the growing population in Meath. He makes a good point in that regard. I am informed by the Commissioner that the Garda strength of the Meath division on 31 August 2017, the latest date for which figures are readily available, was 295. There are also 17 Garda Reserve personnel and 28 civilians attached to the division. When appropriate, the work of local gardaí is supported by a number of Garda national units, such as the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau. I am further informed by the Commissioner that, since the reopening of the Garda College in Templemore in September 2014, close to 1,400 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and have been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide. Forty-six of these have been assigned to the Meath division. In addition, another 200 trainee gardaí are scheduled to attest later this year, which will see Garda numbers, taking account of projected retirements, increase to around 13,500 by the end of the year, an increase of 500 since the end of 2016. I am pleased to say that budget 2018 will support the continuation of this high level of investment in the Garda and ensure that the vision of an overall workforce of 21,000 by 2021 remains on track.

In 2018, a further 800 new Garda recruits will enter the Garda College. An additional 500 civilians will also be recruited to fill critical skills gaps across the organisation and to facilitate the redeployment of gardaí from administrative and technical duties to front-line operational duties. We need to ensure gardaí are doing on a daily basis work they are trained to do, namely, Garda work. There are plans to strengthen the Garda Reserve, with new reserves expected to commence training early next year. The focus on investment in personnel is critical. The moratorium on recruitment introduced in 2010 resulted in a significant reduction in the overall strength of An Garda Síochána. We are now rebuilding the organisation and providing the Commissioner with the resources needed to deploy increasing numbers of gardaí across every Garda division, including the Meath division, over the coming time.

I appreciate that the Commissioner is the person in charge of the deployment of resources. I acknowledged that at the outset. The Minister appreciates that decisions we take here on a planning matter create the communities we live in, particularly the very big communities that were created in the greater Dublin area. That is the case I was making. I was echoing what the chief superintendent said at a public forum last week and seeking to have his words acted upon.

I have raised this issue directly with Acting Commissioner Ó Cualáin when he was before the PAC a few weeks ago. I showed him the front page of that morning's Meath Chronicle, whose headline screamed "Shock Rise in Crime Stats in Meath". I have written to him separately so he knows the score. This evening I would like the Minister for Justice and Equality to back the chief superintendent and the people of Meath in this cause.

One big concern is that any new gardaí coming into Meath will immediately be gobbled up by the big population centres in Navan and Ashbourne. I can understand that. I am from Navan. I know the pressure the area is under and I want to see boots on the ground to reassure the citizens of my town but I am also acutely aware of the serious threats in rural parts of my constituency such as Oldcastle and Athboy that do not have a full-time police presence. Even a growing town like Enfield that has a population of 4,000 only has three gardaí and up the road in Longwood there is only one. That highlights the need for additional resources above and beyond the allocations that are happening at present because if the current level of deployment is deemed acceptable then the opportunity to establish a proper police force in growing areas such as Enfield or rural areas such as Oldcastle or Athboy will never happen.

The issue of resources I raise is not just one of personnel, it is one of physical resources also. In that respect, there is a real need for a new divisional headquarters in Meath and that has been raised by Garda management in Meath also. Consultation is taking place with the local authority to identify a site and a site has been found but we need the OPW to be proactive given its responsibility in terms of the site. Will the Minister use his good offices to try to get the OPW to make progress on this as a matter of urgency, to ensure progress is made on the site and that the new divisional headquarters is built in Meath? The Garda need such physical resources to be able to do its job as well.

In response to the latter point I would be very happy to speak to my Government colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, on that issue. I will revert to the Deputy in early course.

I mentioned earlier the Government's plan for an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 by 2021. That is complemented by substantial investment in resources across the board for An Garda Síochána. I have secured a total budget of €1.65 billion for An Garda Síochána for 2018, an increase on 2017. It should be noted that the Garda allocation continues to benefit substantially from the significant additional funding that was provided in 2016 and maintained in 2017 to fund the sustained response to tackle gangland crime, to fund the continuation of Operation Thor and to ensure that measures to prevent international terrorism can be continued actively.

Some €330 million, including more than €200 million under the capital plan, is being invested in Garda ICT infrastructure over the period 2016-21. That major investment will allow An Garda Síochána to deploy the latest cutting-edge technologies in the fight against crime. We will facilitate progress on important reforms arising from the reports of the Garda Inspectorate on the matter of crime investigation. The capital plan 2016-21 provides for an investment of €46 million in the Garda fleet to ensure An Garda Síochána has a modern, effective and fit-for-purpose fleet. That is in addition to the investment of almost €30 million in the period 2013-15.

I acknowledge the importance of the issue raised by Deputy Cassells. The investment I spoke about will facilitate the provision of more effective policing services and it is to be expected that the Meath division, like all other Garda divisions, will benefit from the new resources becoming available.

Garda Deployment

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue and I thank the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, for his presence. The issues I raise will not be news to him as I know he prioritises this matter as much as I do myself, not only as Minister for Justice and Equality but as a local Deputy also.

In recent weeks a spate of crime has been committed in counties Offaly and Laois, understandably increasing the anxiety of local communities around the number of gardaí available to gather intelligence and investigate each crime adequately. Examples of the type of crime favoured by the criminals are vans being stolen or damaged with tools stolen in Tullamore, Birr, Cloghan and Kinnity. The Bord na Móna workshop in Boora was burgled and it appears that tools were the target. Additionally, cash and-or jewellery was stolen in burglaries in Ferbane, Ballinagar, Clara, Rath and Birr to name but a few. I know the Minister is very familiar with County Laois where, for example, in Rosenallis a house was ransacked, a Bobcat machine and power tools were stolen in Wolfhill and Mountrath golf club did not escape with a car broken into and a laptop and jewellery stolen.

Policing is something that we all rely on to keep society functioning properly. As someone who has been a victim of robbery myself, I acknowledge the brilliant members of An Garda Síochána who provide calm reassurance to victims and make every effort to solve the crime. To that end I acknowledge the successes achieved recently in that there was a cannabis find in Cloghan, a man has been arrested after a Tullamore burglary and another young man was charged with recent break-ins to petrol stations in Laois.

In order for us to prevent and combat that type of activity co-operation between communities, local authorities and members of An Garda Síochána is essential. I acknowledge the community text alert groups that are being established, many as a result of local burglaries, which I outlined. However, I advise local communities not wait to have such an experience but to establish a group as a preventative measure as there are financial supports available to those invaluable local groups as an important measure in support of crime prevention in rural communities. Many communities in my home county of Offaly are very active in using the system for crime prevention and I commend the excellent work of the people involved in helping to safeguard local communities. I know as well as anyone the positive impact text alert groups are having on rural communities and I am aware of the excellent work being done in Offaly by local groups in tandem with the hard work of the local Garda Síochána.

The new CCTV fund announced by the Department of Justice and Equality is certainly an additional method for specific and suitable locations. However, I am getting feedback that the application process is overly bureaucratic. It is vital to ensure that community groups are given necessary supports to assist with the application process if they feel the infrastructure would benefit their area. I have urged local communities to liaise with their local council and An Garda Síochána for assistance to ensure the schemes allow new technologies to fuse with the traditional value of active community engagement to keep Laois and Offaly safe. In order to have continued success with Operation Thor, I welcome the sight of new vehicles in our area also as An Garda Síochána needs the best of equipment in its endeavours to fight crime.

I acknowledge the work of the midlands Muintir na Tíre development office which works closely with An Garda Síochána in the provision of community care, community safety and crime prevention. I also acknowledge the work of the IFA whose members are often targets for criminals. It has developed an annual campaign to increase security awareness among farmers stressing the importance of being safety conscious and marking, photographing and securing property to reduce the chance of a theft occurring. We can all follow its advice whether we are farmers or not.

It is important to take this opportunity to acknowledge the excellent and brave work of the emergency services who have worked and are continuing to work on our behalf in dangerous conditions during the unprecedented Storm Ophelia. I know that members of the services responded to calls and put their own safety at risk to assist members of the public in the Laois-Offaly division and across the country.

It is crucial that members of An Garda Síochána are available on the ground to succeed in combatting and solving crime but we need enough of them, deployed in all Garda stations in rural Ireland to continue to do so.

I thank Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for raising this important matter. I assure the Deputy that I am very much aware of the impact of crime on rural communities, including the serious damage done by organised criminal gangs who target rural areas to engage in burglary and other forms of property crime. As the Deputy is aware, Operation Thor entails a broad range of activities to tackle organised crime gangs and other prolific offenders as well as working with communities in order to prevent crime.

Since its inception in November 2015, there has been concentrated activity under Operation Thor, which is reflected in the implementation of more than 83,260 targeted checkpoints throughout the State and 28,630 searches. There have also been in the region of 5,500 arrests and 6,156 charges covering a range of offences which, in addition to burglary, have included handling stolen property, possession of firearms and drugs and related offences. It is encouraging to note that burglary figures in particular have shown a significant downward trend. The CSO official recorded crime statistics for the fourth quarter of 2016 show a 30% decrease in burglary for the 12 months of 2016 when compared to the same period in 2015, which parallels the implementation of Operation Thor.

Furthermore, it is to be noted that in respect of burglaries the decrease in the Laois Offaly division, referred to by the Deputy, for this period is 7% higher than the national average. The decrease in burglary is of the order of 37%. I compliment the gardaí in the Laois Offaly division under the active leadership of Chief Superintendent John Scanlon on their success in this regard. The Government remains committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and deter criminal activity. To make this a reality for all, the Government has in place a plan to achieve an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, comprising 15,000 garda members, 2,000 members of the Garda Reserve and 4,000 civilians.

As the House will appreciate, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the distribution of resources, including personnel, among the various divisions. I, as Minister, do not have a direct role in the matter. I am, however, informed by the Acting Commissioner that the Garda strength of the Laois Offaly division as of 31 August 2017, the latest date for which figures are readily available, was 325. There are also 17 reservists and 24 civilians attached to the Laois Offaly division. When appropriate, the work of local gardaí is supported by a number of Garda national units such as the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau. I am further informed by the Acting Commissioner that since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014, almost 1,400 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and have been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide. A total of 66 of these have been assigned to the Laois Offaly division. In addition, another 200 trainee gardaí are scheduled to attest later this year. Taking account of projected retirements, this will see Garda numbers increase to approximately 13,500 by year end, an increase of 500 since the end of 2016.

I am pleased to add that budget 2018 will support the continuation of this high level of investment in the Garda workforce to ensure the vision of an overall workforce of 21,000 by 2021 remains firmly on track. In 2018, a further 800 new Garda recruits will enter the Garda College and an additional 500 civilians will also be recruited to fill critical skills gaps throughout the organisation and to facilitate the redeployment of gardaí from administrative and technical duties to front-line operational duties. There are plans to strengthen the Garda Reserve with new reservists expected to commence training early in 2018.

This focus on investment in personnel is critical. I wish to assure the Deputy that we will continue to rebuild the Garda organisation, provide the Commissioner with an appropriate level of resources in order to deploy increasing numbers of gardaí to every Garda division, including the Laois Offaly division referred to by the Deputy, in the coming period.

I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, for his response. I fully concur with his remarks about Chief Superintendent Scanlan. I welcome the excellent news that the figures for burglaries are down in the division. However, one burglary to those affected is one too many. I know that there will always be a drive to keep these figures down.

I also acknowledge that the Garda Commissioner is in fact responsible and not the Minister directly. However, anecdotally I am advised that there are specific numbers of gardaí allocated to certain divisions. I have in mind the west Offaly area in particular. I am keen to ensure that those who are allocated and deployed to cover the area are in fact physically present in the area. I would greatly appreciate any effort that the Minister can make on behalf of myself and the communities who have been affected to ensure that each station is adequately covered by the number of staff allocated. I am keen to ensure that the number allocated to the stations in Ferbane, Cloghan and Banagher are actually deployed there.

I know the Minister will want to ensure that the resources allocated are being allocated and used in a good way that will have a positive outcome. The moratorium on recruitment, which was imposed in 2010 by the then Fianna Fáil Government, has lifted and newly-trained gardaí are stationed in rural towns and villages. I am sure this will instil a measure of confidence in communities because gardaí will be visible on the ground and they will consider themselves in a better position to respond to any of the criminal activities that I outlined earlier.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I mentioned earlier the overall plan on the part of the Government to increase the garda workforce to 21,000. This is complemented by a significant investment in resources across the board for An Garda Síochána. I have secured a total budget of €1.65 billion for An Garda Síochána for next year.

It should be noted that the Garda allocation continues to substantially benefit from significant additional funding that was provided in 2016 and maintained in 2017. Funding will increase again for 2018 in order to ensure: that we are funding a sustained response to tackle gangland crime; that we fund the continuation of Operation Thor; and that measures to prevent international terrorism can be actively continued. In addition, I wish to highlight the importance for the Government of projects involving communities and An Garda Síochána working together. I was pleased to announce in the context of budget 2018 that it is possible to allocate an additional €100,000 for local crime prevention initiatives, including the effective text alert scheme, whereby crime prevention messages, general and specific to an area, are sent out by An Garda Síochána to community groups and are disseminated to members of communities. Some €330 million, including in excess of €200 million under the capital plan, is being invested in Garda information and communication technology infrastructure during the period from 2016-21. This major investment will allow An Garda Síochána to deploy the latest cutting-edge technologies in the fight against crime. It will facilitate progress on important reforms arising from the Garda Inspectorate report on criminal investigation. The capital plan 2016-21 provides for an investment of €46 million in the Garda fleet to ensure the Garda Síochána has a modern effective and fit-for-purpose fleet. The Deputy will be aware of new additions to the Garda fleet in County Offaly and throughout the Laois Offaly division. This is in addition to the investment of almost €30 million in the period 2013-15. The capital plan makes reference to substantial refurbishment to the Laois Offaly division headquarters at Portlaoise. In the period to the end of 2013-17, almost €44 million will have been invested in the fleet with some 2,000 vehicles coming on-stream over that period.

I wish to assure the Deputy and the House that investment will facilitate the provision of a more effective policing service throughout the country. Of course it is reasonable for me to assume that the Laois Offaly division will, like all other Garda divisions, benefit from these new resources becoming available.

I thank the two Deputies for putting down those questions and I thank the Minister for coming in to answer them.

Flood Risk Management

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, to the House. Deputy Calleary, you are going to discuss an issue that is close to my heart, that is, the need to address river cleaning and drainage in advance of winter storms. You have four minutes.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving us the go-ahead to raise this matter this evening. I want to join everyone in recent days who has paid tribute to Met Éireann and the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre as well as our local and national media and everyone who was involved in preparing us for the response to Storm Ophelia on Monday.

I extend my sympathies to the families of the three people who, unfortunately, lost their lives during that event. I believe those losses would have been considerably greater were it not for the response, communications and absolute commitment. The staff of Met Éireann deserve particular acknowledgement for their work. We think of all the crews out this afternoon throughout the country repairing the damage done, including crews from ESB, Irish Water and local authority crews etc.

However, we are now on the cusp of a weekend of two significant rain events. We have a status yellow warning in place for Munster, Dublin and a large number of counties around Dublin. Now, we have a status yellow weather advisory in place for the weekend for the whole island. I am concerned that river levels throughout the country are far higher than they would normally be at this time of year because of the wet summer and the events of recent weeks. While Storm Ophelia was not necessarily a rain-led event, water levels did rise considerably during Monday. There is now nowhere for any excess water to go. This will result in significant and severe flooding either this weekend or at some stage during the course of the winter. What plans are in place to deal with that?

It continues to be a source of enormous frustration in my area and places like Crossmolina that the OPW will not clean riverbeds and will not do basic maintenance on parts of the River Deel in a manner that was done years ago before we had the technology available now. That was done regularly and ensured a water flow.

The basics of ensuring the drains are cleaned of leaves need to be dealt with, especially after Monday's tree falls and the number of leaves that fell on Monday. Have local authorities in all areas affected by weather advisories ensured that drains were kept clear? It seems that many blockages on roads come from small things not being done properly. Particularly in a week where our local authorities are stretched, we want to make sure that work gets done, not just tomorrow but every day in advance of what is going to be a difficult winter with regard to weather, but hopefully not with regard to flooding.

The Minister of State is one of the planners for flood defences in the Department. I have raised Crossmolina with him. We are still waiting for information from the OPW about the plans there and similarly for Ballina. All over the country, communities will be afraid tonight and tomorrow of what is to come this weekend. Communities and groups such as the Crossmolina Flood Group are out, as we speak, putting sandbags down, working with Mayo County Council and the OPW staff on the ground trying to put defences in place already ahead of both tomorrow and Saturday. They need to know that they have the support of the Government and that the practical measures that will make their job much easier will be done in advance of the weekend and on an ongoing basis throughout the winter to come.

I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin "Boxer" Moran. I concur with the expressions of sympathy to the families of those who suffered bereavement and the three fatalities in Waterford, Tipperary and Louth, and also commend the work of the State, local authorities and Office of Public Works. I also acknowledge the work of Met Éireann on ex-Hurricane Ophelia.

Maintenance of rivers and other watercourses can have a positive role to play in preventing the deterioration of channel conveyance capacity. The Office of Public Works carries out a programme of arterial drainage maintenance to a total of 11,500 km of river channel and approximately 730 km of embankments nationally. These maintenance works relate to arterial drainage schemes completed by the OPW under the Arterial Drainage Acts 1945 and 1995. The OPW has a statutory duty to maintain the completed schemes in proper repair and effective condition. The annual maintenance programme typically involves some clearance of vegetation and removal of silt build-up on an average five-year cycle. Each year, work is carried out to approximately 2,000 km of channel and approximately 200 structures around the country. Maintenance of all drainage schemes carried out under earlier Acts, known as drainage districts, is the responsibility of the relevant local authority.

However, it is important to understand that maintenance on its own will not protect towns and would have had no beneficial effect on extreme flood events as experienced recently in Donegal. Maintenance is only one aspect of Ireland's approach to dealing with flooding. It is important to place on the record of this House the Government's plans and preparations to address flood risk. The Government investment in flood relief capital works since 1995 is yielding significant benefits and is already protecting 14,000 properties. The cumulative value of the benefits from major and minor schemes is estimated to be in the region of €1.5 billion. This investment includes the 39 major flood defence schemes already completed, providing protection to 8,000 properties as demonstrated during the floods of the winter of 2015 and 2016. There are ten new major flood defence schemes under construction with further schemes at design and planning stages. When completed, this programme will provide protection for an additional 12,000 properties.

Since 2009, over 600 projects protecting 6,000 properties from localised flooding have been approved for funding under the Office of Public Works' minor works scheme. The OPW will continue to provide important funding to local authorities to deal with localised flooding issues. The current priorities of the OPW are to publish and implement flood risk management plans to address significant flood risk for 300 communities throughout Ireland and to deliver the capital investment programme of major flood defences that will protect thousands of properties during severe flood events. The Government's ongoing commitment to tackling flooding is witnessed from the €430 million six-year programme of capital investment in flood defence measures as part of the Government's overall capital investment plan for 2016 to 2021. During this time, the annual allocation for flood defence schemes will more than double to €100 million to deliver the existing and proposed projects. This significant allocation for flood risk management was confirmed in the mid-term review of the capital plan published recently by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The flood risk management plans also emphasise the importance of non-structural measures and support the whole of Government approach adopted to tackle flood risk management.

The OPW chairs the interdepartmental flood policy co-ordination group and the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group. Progress is being made on a broad range of policies and measures. For example, planning guidelines have prevented building on flood zones since 2009. Work to develop a national flood forecasting and warning service is progressing and some flood alert systems are in place in the interim. The OPW and Mayo County Council are progressing an individual property protection pilot project in Crossmolina. This initiative will provide protection to up to 76 properties and, together with another pilot project in Kilkenny, will inform any future feasible assistance by Government to homeowners for individual home flood mitigation. State agencies continually monitor and, where possible, control river levels within their areas of responsibility, including on the Shannon. The Shannon working group is trialling the lowering of levels in Lough Allen to complement existing water level protocols in place for Lough Ree.

The OPW and Geological Survey of Ireland are collaborating to assess the areas potentially at risk from turlough flooding, both now and into the future, and to determine if potentially viable measures exist to manage this risk, where it is significant. A once-off targeted homeowners voluntary relocation scheme has been introduced for those primary residential properties that flooded from 4 December 2015 to 13 January 2016. The national Be Winter Ready campaign in the winter of 2016 and 2017 focused on creating greater awareness for the public to plan for a flood event in their homes and businesses.

While the OPW has a lead co-ordination role in flood risk management, local authorities are designated as the lead agencies for responding to severe weather events, including flooding. Emergency planning at both a national and local level is reviewed to ensure a rapid and effective response for any future events.

That response was given to me three or four weeks ago. I am asking the Minister of State about the current situation, in the context of what is ahead over the next few weeks, months and indeed days and the weather advisories being given overnight. I welcome the individual property protection pilot project in Crossmolina which involves the installation of flood gates in homes in the town. It still has to be completed. A number of homes still have to get that protection. Will the Minister of State come back to me and let me know when it is done? It has been a very good investment and I welcome it. The homeowners voluntary relocation scheme does not apply if a flood relief plan is in place in an area that is affected, even if there is not a timeline on the delivery of that flood plan. Homeowners who were affected by the flooding events from December 2015 to January 2016 have been told that they are not entitled to apply for it because a flood plan may be in place. I ask the Minister of State to review that, particularly in cases of extreme hardship where there have been multiple cases of flooding.

I emphasise my concern for the days, weeks and months ahead. Given the unprecedented rain levels this summer, acknowledged by Met Éireann as being particularly high, and the events of the last few days, our water tables are no longer able to cope with any more heavy bursts of rain. What plans do the Government, local authorities and OPW have to deal with that now rather than at some stage in the future when the capital plan funding comes? Will the basics of river maintenance, drain clearage and things that cause floods that do not need to happen be dealt with?

There are many issues there that I will take back to the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, with regard to the issues in Crossmolina. I will ask for further updates on that and also on Deputy Calleary's query on the review of the home relocation scheme. I will also ask about local authorities and the work that they have done on what could appear as rather simple work in removing leaves and ensuring that gullies are fully cleared before the most recent storm. There is clearly ongoing assessment and preparations for storms within local authorities and the lead Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The Deputy mentioned the urgent need for river-cleaning in the title. As Minister of State with responsibility for inland fisheries, I can say that Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, is the statutory authority tasked with responsibilities for the conservation, protection and development of inland fishery resources and recreational sea angling. I know the accusation is continuously made that the IFI is somehow blocking work.

It is not blocking work.

I often hear that IFI is in some way blocking cleaning. What I would say is that Inland Fisheries Ireland writes every year to every local authority reminding them of their responsibilities in relation to works on rivers. In general, that work should be carried out in the period 1 July to 30 September. Clearly, we are past that date now.

It is important that local authorities, where they need to carry out emergency works, can apply under legislation. Under the Local Authorities (Works) Act 1949, they notify the IFI and it can turn around requests quite quickly, within less than a week in emergency situations where emergency works have to be carried out. It is important, because I hear that quite often, that IFI has a role. IFI does not stop, and generally tries to assist and advise, local authorities from undertaking river drainage. Clearly, there are other bodies, whether it be OPW or the National Parks and Wildlife Service, that also can have a say, but in regard to IFI's work, it tries to be helpful and assist local authorities in relation to their rivers.

I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, to revert to the Deputy in relation to the issues that he has raised.

Coastal Protection

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, for taking this question. Unfortunately, it is not the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin "Boxer" Moran. Arklow, like a number of towns in County Wicklow, is susceptible to serious flooding, and there have been some very serious flooding events in Arklow over the recent years, both in terms of river flooding and coastal flooding. Thankfully, after a number of years, there is now talk of putting a flood defence along the Avoca River. That is at design stage.

There was some limited flooding along the Avoca River at South Quay during Storm Ophelia. Thankfully, it was not of a serious nature, but there is another serious problem on North Beach in Arklow. It is an historical issue. In 1989, after a very serious flood and storm event, thankfully, flood prevention measures were put in place. They were completed in November 1990 at a cost of £2.2 million. That was 27 years ago.

Over those 27 years, North Beach has taken a hammering, and there has been serious damage caused to the flood protection measures there. The work that was carried out there in 1990 was supposed to be the first phase of a two-phase scheme. The second phase never happened. That would have protected the existing flood protection measures that are there. It would have consisted of a number of sea groynes going out into the sea and that would have created the replenishment of the beach area in front of the current flood protection measures, and that would have broken the waves away from the sea wall, and taken the pressure and the power from the waves but that never happened. We have a situation now where the waves are crashing into the rock armour at North Beach on an ongoing basis, and as I said, serious damage has been caused to those measures.

Wicklow County Council, in February of last year, commissioned a report on the condition of the flood protection measures in that area. It was carried out by J.P. Byrne Consulting Engineers. That report was presented to Government along with a number of applications for funding.

The issues identified in that consulting engineers' report make grave reading. It talks about weak areas developing in the base of the flood protection works. It talks about open areas of the rock armour that have been literally torn apart and opened up. It states there are areas completely undermined extending for 50 m in one section. It talks about other areas that are completely undermined and weakened as a result of consecutive storms.

In Storm Ophelia, North Beach took a hammering with waves not only bashing into, but overtopping, the rock armour. A number of things have happened. The pedestrian walk along the top of the rock armour has essentially been washed away. There is a caravan park in the local area and it caused extensive damage in that caravan park.

A number of applications have been submitted to the Department seeking funding, not only to carry out essential remedial repair work to the existing flood protection measures but also to carry out the second phase which, unfortunately, never happened. That would give effect to protecting the first phase of work.

Hopefully, the Minister of State will have a positive response. Extensive work has gone in to this project by the engineer in Wicklow County Council who has submitted a number of applications. Consultant reports have come in. I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, on the issue yesterday. I briefly outlined the matter to him. I have to give the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, a more thorough report and he has said he will come to Arklow to have a look at it as well. I hope the Minister of State will have a more up-to-date report on it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am taking this Topical Issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin "Boxer" Moran. I will start by assuring all communities, whether those at risk from river flooding or those in coastal areas at risk from tidal and sea flooding, that the Government is fully committed to finding viable solutions to manage that risk.

I understand from the local authority that there was wave overtopping and that the revetment or retaining walls sustained some damage at this location during Storm Ophelia but that, fortunately, no flooding of properties occurred. Coastal erosion is a natural and ongoing process which takes place around the entire coastline of Ireland. Coastal erosion may threaten human life and infrastructure such as roads, and may undermine and cause damage to properties.

The primary objective of Government policy on coastal protection is to ensure that in areas identified as being at greatest risk of damage or loss of economic assets through coastal erosion or flooding, appropriate and sustainable measures are identified by local authorities to protect those assets and, where such measures are economically justified on cost benefit grounds and compatible with all required environmental and other statutory requirements, they are implemented subject to the availability of resources.

It is important to stress that it is a matter in the first instance for each local authority to identify, investigate and address priority areas of their coastlines considered to be under significant threat from erosion.

The OPW operates the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme, which was introduced on an administrative basis following the severe flooding in 2009 under which applications for funding from local authorities are considered for flood relief and coastal protection measures costing up to €750,000 in each instance and which meet a minimum benefit to cost ratio of 1.5 to 1.

Under the scheme since 2009 over 6,000 properties have been protected from localised flooding in over 630 locations at a cost of €33 million, with funding of approximately €1.5 million approved for projects in County Wicklow.

The management of problems of coastal protection in the area indicated by the Deputy is a matter for Wicklow County Council. This is a primarily a localised matter and as such it is for Wicklow County Council to identify an appropriate, sustainable and viable solution to the problems at North Beach.

Three applications have been submitted by Wicklow County Council under minor flood mitigation and coastal protection scheme for works to North Beach in Arklow. The applications submitted proposed the reconstruction of damaged areas of revetment and the raising of the revetment at some locations.

I am informed that the OPW completed a review of the applications and determined, on the basis of the information supplied, that the applications could not be considered in their current form as the majority of the proposed work is maintenance of the existing structure and that element of the work has not been costed separately. Where proposed works are identified it is important that maintenance works are differentiated from capital works and that the respective cost-benefit analyses are made clear. The technical issues here are complex and merit more rigorous consideration such that more sustainable solutions are identified and explored.

Given the nature of the problem, the OPW notified Wicklow County Council that it may be more appropriate for the local authority to seek funding for a more detailed study of the processes involved. This more detailed coastal erosion risk management study would be required to fully investigate, substantiate and demonstrate the merits of any measures being proposed. Such measures usually require the investment of substantial amounts of public funds. In order to ensure value for money, it is considered best practice to carry out a study in advance of undertaking any measures. In addition, a study will ensure that due consideration is given to the full range of management options.

It is a matter for the local authority to progress this matter and I am assured that the OPW will consider the proposal in full when it is received.

I listened with intent to the Minister of State's response. Clearly, the local authority has identified this as an area of grave concern. While there was some limited flooding in the area during Storm Ophelia, there are commercial and residential properties in it that are at risk of serious flooding. There are several problems, one of which is the fact that the current structures are being continuously undermined by wave action and storms. I am a firm believer that a stitch in time saves nine. Unless immediate action is taken to carry out remedial works on the existing structures, we will be dealing with a much more costly flood protection scheme in the future. We will be looking at completely replacing what is there already, as well as enhancing the flood protection measures.

The Minister of State has outlined the procedures that need to be followed, but I fear that the process involved will be lengthy. Three applications have been submitted by the local authority, but at no point was it outlined to it that the applications were inappropriate and that it would be better off taking an alternative route. It was only after the third application was submitted and deemed to be unsuccessful that some progress was made. I know that the engineer is dealing extensively with an official from the Office of Public Works and that the council is willing to go down that route, especially as every other door has been closed in its face.

This is a critical issue for the people of County Wicklow and Arklow, in particular. It is not good enough to simply repair what is there or increase the height of the existing flood protection mechanisms. We need implementation of the second phase, which is the critical element. A sticking plaster approach is not going to work. Returning the flood defence system to its previous state will not work either. The second phase needs to be looked at again. We need to determine what is financially viable and would be most cost-effective. Essentially, the second phase needs to be progressed. We need a natural replenishment of the beach area in front of the flood protection measures in place. That would give the best form of natural defence. I hope work can begin quickly in terms of the further analysis needed and the submission of a new application to the Department. However, we do not need that application to gather dust on a shelf like all of the other reports and applications submitted, particularly from the Arklow area.

I spoke about the Avoca river and the need for flood protection measures. That has been ongoing for decades and it is only now a little bit of work is being undertaken. Unfortunately, people in Arklow know only too well what it means to be at the end of a very lengthy list. I hope the Minister of State can give assurances to the people of County Wicklow and Arklow, in particular, that the Government is serious and that there will be funding for the next phase of works to be carried out by the council. We do not need to see any more resources being wasted. We do not want to see a further waste of manpower in submitting more applications that will ultimately be rejected and thrown back at the local authority.

Nowhere in the response I read does the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin "Boxer" Moran, say funding will not be available. He is trying to be helpful in his reply in outlining the best process to advance this important project. The Deputy has highlighted the fact that it is hugely important to the town of Arklow and the wider area. I am not familiar with the area, but I accept that serious damage has been done in the past and that there were plans for a second phase of flood defence works. I will certainly speak to the Minister of State about the matter. The Deputy said he had spoken to the Minister of State yesterday. The Minister of State has agreed to visit Arklow and I am sure he will bring with him the relevant personnel from the Office of Public Works to meet the relevant individuals in Wicklow County Council to ensure the project will be progressed. It is stated in the reply that certain elements of the project can be classified as maintenance works which should be costed separately from the capital works. Obviously, everything done by the OPW in spending on coastal defences and flood protection measures is based on cost-benefit analyses. There are criteria projects must meet to ensure they represent best value for money. I do not doubt, from what the Deputy has said, that this project is hugely important and I certainly hope progress can be made. I will certainly speak to the Minister of State about it. I will ask him to expedite his visit and continue the liaison on the project through his offices with Wicklow County Council.

With the Acting Chairman's permission, I thank the Minister of State for approving the provision of funding of €36,000 for the maintenance of river banks, vegetation removal, the cleaning of swallow holes and the construction of a 150 m embankment at the sports ground in Clonbur, Connemara, County Galway. The funding is much appreciated, for which I thank the Minister of State. I will certainly bring to his attention the issues raised by the Deputy.

Sitting suspended at 6.05 p.m. and resumed at 6.45 p.m.