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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 16 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 6

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Flood Risk Management

I will raise a point of order before I speak to this. I will place on the record my very strong objection to the removal of three of the six minutes allocated to me for this vitally important debate, which was scheduled to be taken on 1 June. As I tried to facilitate the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy O'Donovan, in being present for the debate, my opportunity to put the case forward on behalf of the local community has been significantly curtailed. I want the record to show that.

I am seeking the establishment of a co-ordinated cross-government, cross-departmental and cross-agency task force as a matter of urgency to address emergency climate adaptation measures to protect homes. The first item on the agenda of this new task force should be the authorisation of flood alleviation works at Lough Funshinagh in County Roscommon as a case study. The reason the Lough Funshinagh works should be used as a case study is that the legal barriers which have been highlighted through two court injunctions have very serious implications for many communities throughout this country. These are communities that will sadly, over the coming years, find themselves in a similar situation to that of the community in Ballagh, where its very survival is threatened by our changing climate.

It is questionable whether Lough Funshinagh should have been designated as a turlough under the EU habitats directive. What is in no doubt today, however, is that the lake is not being principally filled by subterranean waters, a key requirement in defining a turlough, and is instead being exclusively filled by surface waters from rainfall, which is falling far more intensively, leading to an accumulation in Lough Funshinagh far quicker than has been the case historically. Therefore, this task force must consider how the EU habitats designation can be repealed.

These legal challenges have also brought into serious question the transposition of EU law and its implications for actions by a council to carry out emergency works under the Planning and Development Act 2000 and the Local Authority (Works) Act 1949 to protect families and homes. The task force must set out how EU environmental laws are expressed in our national laws, and draft amendments to the present Acts of the Oireachtas to allow county councils to take emergency actions to save homes from being permanently flooded.

The work programme of this task force is clearly set out in a letter sent to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, dated 19 May, by the cathaoirleach and chief executive of Roscommon County Council with five very clear asks. We need action on these now, not just for the families in County Roscommon but for other families who will face similar climate-related crises in the years to come.

It is my understanding that Roscommon County Council has issued a letter to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, asking him to take charge of all this, including appropriate assessments, environmental impact assessments, EIAs, and the screening out of works the courts sometimes did not recognise. It is also my understanding that the Minister of State is in the process of putting different agencies together. I want that confirmed. We need to know this.

While we have to do EIAs, screenings out, appropriate assessments and all of this for all these directives that are causing major problems, there is an opportunity and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, needs to get involved. This turlough is dead as a special area of conservation. It can be taken out of designation. The NPWS can and should do that. We are four months away from heavyish rain again. The longer we do not get it, the better for those people in County Roscommon, but there are pumps to try to alleviate houses from being flooded. We need a commitment from the Minister of State that the pumps, their fuelling and the personnel will be put in place because, while we are doing all the screening out and all the different appropriate assessments that have to be done to get this pipe up and running once more, we need to make sure those people are safe. They have gone through torture and we need to solve this.

As the Deputy said, it is not alone Lough Funshinagh. There is also a problem on the Connemara-Mayo border. This will pop up in different places and we need to solve it. Regardless of whether we need legislation, the EU directive cannot destroy the people in County Roscommon.

I thank the Deputies for raising a very important issue. I have had engagement with people who live in Lough Funshinagh and the surrounding areas. I know the stress and strain that is on all the families in that local community. I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, Deputy O’Donovan. He sends his apologies that due to prior engagements he is unfortunately not able to be here today.

The Minister of State is very aware of the significant impact, distress and anxiety that flooding, and the continued threat of flooding, has on communities. His thoughts and sympathies are with all in the area that are being affected by the flooding and the risk of flooding from Lough Funshinagh. He would like to pay tribute to the community for its resilience and strength. I assure all those affected that the Government is fully committed to finding an effective and sustainable solution to address flooding on Lough Funshinagh.

As Deputies will be aware, Roscommon County Council is leading the response to the situation at Lough Funshinagh and is being supported by relevant Departments and agencies. In May 2021, the CEO of Roscommon County Council wrote to the OPW highlighting that he had exercised his powers under the Local Government (Works) Act 1949 to undertake urgent works at Lough Funshinagh, which involved a 3 km overflow pipe to the River Shannon. The decision to proceed with the works was based on an analysis that Roscommon County Council had commissioned, which indicated Lough Funshinagh was not draining as expected. As a turlough, the lake is expected to, and I understand typically did, fill and drain on a cyclical and seasonal basis.

Since 2016, the lake has not been draining in a normal manner and was 2 m to 2.5 m higher in 2021 than it was in 2017. By early 2021, the lake levels posed a significant threat to eight properties, eight businesses and some 300 ha of farmland.

The OPW agreed to a request from the CEO of Roscommon County Council for funding and for the Office of Public Works to act as the contractor for these urgent works on the clear understanding that the council was responsible for meeting all of the regulatory and environmental requirements required for the completion of these works.

A number of legal challenges submitted by Friends of the Irish Environment halted the works in 2021. The High Court order of 23 March 2022 that concluded the legal challenge prohibited the use of the pipeline and associated manholes - some 60% of the total works - already constructed on site. The order confirmed that the pipeline laid could remain in situ and that the council was to complete remediation, or reinstatement, works at the site. These remediation works have commenced and will take some three months to complete.

Roscommon County Council's cathaoirleach and CEO have written to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, setting out a range of policy and legislative issues that they believe need to be addressed before the council can proceed with any further works at Lough Funshinagh. As these are matters for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the Minister of State has referred these policy and legislative concerns to him for his consideration.

As the Deputies know, the Minister of State and his officials have met Roscommon County Council's management and its elected members and has assured them of the OPW's continued support. A further meeting between the OPW and Roscommon County Council is due to take place next week.

The Minister of State referenced two Departments, agencies and the local authority. Unless we establish a multi-agency task force and use the families around Lough Funshinagh as test cases, we will be setting in stone that the only climate mitigation measure that can be taken in any part of the country and has an impact of any kind on a European designated site is to have families relocated and the existing homes demolished. This has major implications across the country and has been highlighted in the correspondence from Roscommon County Council to the Department and the Minister.

In the midst of housing and climate emergencies, such a singular approach to climate adaptation compounds the already monumental challenge that this country faces. The State cannot turn its back on the families involved and must devise a co-ordinated national strategy.

We welcome the Minister of State's statement that he fully supports us and that he will try to resolve this situation. That said, while someone can support a team, winning the All-Ireland is a different matter. These people need a solution. They need dates and times as well as a clear pathway forward. First, they need a pathway for next winter because the pumps and so on will have to go, given that there will not be the various regulatory elements. Second, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, or the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke's planning section therein, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the OPW need to work together on finding a solution quickly, not only for Lough Funshinagh, but for all parts of the country. The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media should be able to take Lough Funshinagh out of designation under Articles 6.1, 6.2, 6.3 and 6.4 of the habitats directive in order to clear the path and bring that solution forward.

I thank the Deputies for raising those specific points, which I will bring to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, and our colleagues in government. Be it a multi-agency task force or a co-ordinated national strategy, I will take the Deputies' suggestions on board.

This Topical Issue matter was directed to the OPW and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan's office. As I outlined, the OPW is effectively the contractor that physically gets the work done after other agencies, for example, local authorities or Departments, agree on how best to do so. We need everyone to work together. I assure the Deputies that we are working across the Government to find a solution for the people of Lough Funshinagh.

The OPW continues to work with Roscommon County Council, and is available to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in assisting the council in any way it can to find a viable solution to managing the flood risk at Lough Funshinagh. When the Minister of State last visited Roscommon, he called to the home of one of the affected residents to reassure him on behalf of the community of the OPW's continued support for the council. We hope that we will be able to find an effective resolution to the ongoing issues at Lough Funshinagh. I am mindful of the Deputies' comments that this situation has wider implications than for that community alone, which is why we are so determined to find a long-term solution. We will continue working on that across the Government.

Regeneration Projects

The old iconic Ballymun shopping centre was the central hub of a thriving and vibrant community. It provided employment and was an important meeting and social gathering place for locals. Its redevelopment was central to the 1997 Ballymun regeneration plan. However, it became an eyesore and a monument to the largest failure of the regeneration project.

The site's redevelopment was beset by problems and delays from the start. It was to be the site of a new town centre and construction was to be begin in 2005, but permission for the development was not awarded until 2009. Work was then scheduled to begin in 2010. Treasury Holdings presented a plan for the shopping centre, under which the new complex was to be the main shopping facility for the suburb’s 18,000 residents. The plan was for the delivery of a development costing €800 million, which was to include an 11-screen cinema, a bowling alley, a public library, a crèche, restaurants and more than 70 shops, offices and apartments.

This regeneration project was never completed due to a lack of investment. In 2013, Ballymun Regeneration Limited, BRL, was wound down. Many community facilities planned for the area were never built and the shopping centre fell into NAMA occupation. The majority of its retailers were gone by 2014. It suffered a major blow when it lost Tesco, its most important tenant. The shopping centre’s derelict and dilapidated outward appearance was disheartening to the locals and an unpleasant site for those passing through Ballymun.

In 2016, Dublin City Council acquired the centre from NAMA under a compulsory purchase order. However, it was not until 2020 that demolition of the former shopping centre finally began. The demolition work was completed late last year.

In accordance with the 2017 Ballymun local area development plan, Dublin City Council has proposed to divide the shopping centre into three separate sites. The council is now the major stakeholder and has a great opportunity to revitalise the centre of Ballymun. Any development on this site should have at its core the idea that the site is crucial to making the area the heart of the community in Ballymun once again. There are plans to incorporate a MetroLink station on the site, but the MetroLink is not expected to be completed until 2034. We hope that that does not change. In the meantime, there are proposals for temporary use, with certain amenities, such as food and craft stalls, at the MetroLink site.

Regarding the other sections of the site, it is proposed to deliver a mix of residential and commercial use in accordance with the local area plan, LAP. It is expected that this will include amenities such as a public house, a children’s play area, a crèche, a gym, a café, shops and so on.

The original social regeneration fund set up by BRL to address community needs amounted to €3.4 million per year. Year on year, however, that amount reduced. It is now just €1.7 million and will be provided by Dublin City Council. We need the Minister of State’s intervention, as this reduction in funding is not sustainable. The fund needs to be restored to its previous level. Otherwise, we will have a collapse in essential community projects.

I am concerned that the site will be left vacant for years. Its development needs to start urgently. The Government needs to be proactive and ensure that the site, which has so much potential, is not left idle, as it was for many years. This is an important and visible site on the Ballymun Road up to the M50. People drive by it. I am sure the Minister of Stare is well aware of it.

I thank Deputy Ellis for raising this important matter. While the redevelopment of Ballymun Shopping Centre is a matter for Dublin City Council, I welcome the opportunity to provide the Deputy with an update. The former shopping centre site is an eight-acre main street one, the development potential of which was reviewed as part of the Ballymun local area plan 2017. The site has been identified for mixed retail and residential use development in the local area plan. The front portion of the site will be affected by the metro north project and Dublin City Council’s housing department and local area office intend to engage with the local area councillors to develop the best development strategy possible for the site, having regard to the proposed metro situation and the economic climate.

As the Deputy is aware, the Ballymun regeneration project has delivered substantial improvements throughout the area. With specific reference to the Ballymun Shopping Centre, I am advised that according to the Ballymun local area plan 2017, Dublin City Council has proposed dividing the land into two sites; site 1A and site 1B. The plans envisage two blocks that would contain 300 residential units facing Sillogue Road on site 1B, while site 1A would see the development of 41,000 sq. m commercial and mixed use buildings, in two blocks, that would face the main street. Dublin City Council has advised that the demolition of the former shopping centre is complete and it is exploring the optimum use for this site. The site is being used to facilitate temporary commercial activities. For example, a funfair was on-site for the May bank holiday weekend.

As the Deputy knows, the Ballymun regeneration programme spanned several years, from 1999 to 2016, and the overall programme is estimated to have expended €972 million. Funding of over €775 million was provided via my Department to 24 projects that were completed. The Ballymun programme represents the largest regeneration initiative ever undertaken in the State. The State's investment resulted in almost 2,000 new replacement homes being constructed for the former residents of the original flat blocks and an additional 1,350 homes were provided via private sector investment. In recent years, regeneration activity has focused on improving the area's environmental performance with various green initiatives and new parks and playing pitches.

The Minister of State says it is up to Dublin City Council and it is the owner but there is also an onus on the Department. We are talking about housing, apartments, building and looking for projects and this is a prime site on the Ballymun Road on the way to Dublin Airport. It is situated in a good spot to access the city and the airport and it is in a good position but it needs a push from the Department and it needs funding to be made available, as was made available under the regeneration carried out by Ballymun Regeneration Limited. This was the heart of Ballymun and I grew up around the area. I know what it is like and I know what it was like when we used to go into the shopping centre. There was a great atmosphere and mixing of the people in the area, which was fantastic. We want to see a village-style effect there. We have the metro coming, which will enhance the area and it will be a vital stop for people in Ballymun and the surrounding areas. It is close to the M50 and we know that further up, in Northwood, the metro will be anchored with its depot, from where it will be built. This area is being massively built up all along the Ballymun Road, on the Northwood side and on the Ballymun side at the shopping centre. As far as I know, my comrade, Deputy McAuliffe, has said the Taoiseach made a commitment to visit Ballymun. I am hoping he will fulfil that commitment because I would like to see him there and to show him the shopping centre and the damage that was done in losing it. It was vital to the community and I would like to press the urgency of this on him.

I thank Deputy Ellis again for raising this matter. It is a matter for Dublin City Council, its members and the public to engage in the public consultation for the development of this site. Deputy McAuliffe, who is beside me, advises that the Taoiseach will be visiting on 11 July and I know from our work in the Department that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is familiar with the site and has visited it before.

On regeneration, the Department has record funding of over €2 billion available for urban regeneration and development in one funding stream in which Dublin City Council has prioritised certain projects to go through the application process. This year another call will come through the Department for that funding stream. We are willing to work with the local Deputies, the county councillors and the local authority to give them any support we can to redevelop the site. These are competitive calls and funding streams that go through the Department and are assessed. The money is there and record levels of funding have been provided. We have committed €1.3 billion already in the last call and we committed €300 million in the call before that. That might be a mechanism the local authority will look at. I am sure that offices higher than mine are on their way to view the site and I look forward to hearing back on that.

Water Services

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of deep concern to residents in Ratoath, as the Minister of State might imagine. There are regular outages there; we had in the region of six significant outages this year and many more instances of low pressure and everything that goes with that in the return, dirty water and the service being unavailable for a period of time. Ratoath is a big and growing community with in the region of 10,000 to 12,000 people living there and with 18,000 people in the wider catchment area who are affected by these outages when they happen. The latest outage was on the bank holiday weekend and in the last 24 hours residents in a number of housing estates were reporting outages and a lack of supply and pressure. I remember that on the hottest day of the year last year there was an outage for the whole day.

The infrastructure is crumbling and creaking, which is acknowledged and not in dispute. There is a plan in place, which is welcome, for investment in the Windmill Hill reservoir and trunk water main. I would like to get an update from the Minister of State on that. My understanding is that works will not commence before the end of the year and that it will be quarter four of 2024 before they will be completed. The Minister of State knows that is a long time away with the current rate of in the region of one outage per month. The impact of these outages is significant. It is a densely populated area with a young and growing population. It has many families with small children and many people with disabilities, including children. It also has restaurants, businesses and venues, all of which are impacted when these outages happen. I ask the Minister of State to give us an update and I want to know if there is any way that works can be fast-tracked. I understand that there are statutory procedures for all of this but what are the pinch points and is there any way the works can be fast-tracked or sped up? What options are being explored in that regard?

At this rate it looks like there could be 30 more outages before these works are completed, based on past performance. We hope this work can be fast-tracked but we need to prepare for that scenario. If that is the case, there needs to be an improvement in communications. The nature of the communications is not comprehensive, detailed or responsive enough. It needs to happen in real-time, it needs to be immediate and it needs to be more than a tweet or an email to local county councillors.

I had to argue to be included on those notices. In addition to that, there needs to be contingency. This is a recognised problem. Can we get tankers on site? Can we have rapid response and bespoke solutions for a list of vulnerable customers who would be contacted and supported? That is the type of response we need.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and allowing me the opportunity to outline the position in relation to Irish Water's responsibility on this matter. The Water Services Acts 2007-2017 set out the arrangements in place for the delivery of water and waste water services by Irish Water, and for the scrutiny and oversight provisions that apply in respect of these arrangements. As the Deputy will understand, the provision of facilities in Meath is a matter for Irish Water in the first instance. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. Irish Water takes a strategic nationwide approach to asset planning and investment, and to meeting customer requirements. The prioritisation and progression of individual projects and programmes is a matter for determination by Irish Water.

My Department has made inquiries with Irish Water on the issue mentioned by the Deputy, and I am informed as follows. Irish Water is progressing plans to increase the storage capacity at Windmill Hill reservoir and replace the existing water main between the reservoir and Ratoath, improving security of supply for residents and businesses in Ratoath and Ashbourne. Irish Water, working in partnership with Meath County Council, is replacing more than 7 km of problematic, old water mains in Ratoath that were prone to frequent bursts and caused water supply disruptions for customers in Ratoath and Ashbourne. The old water mains are being replaced by high density polyethylene plastic pipes which will address low water pressure, particularly in Ratoath, which is encountered during periods of peak demand, and will enable long-term growth in Ratoath and Ashbourne

Irish Water plans to construct an additional storage reservoir at Windmill Hill. This additional infrastructure will mitigate the impact of bursts in the existing water main that supplies Windmill Hill reservoir from Staleen water treatment plant, which is located between Donore and Duleek. Irish Water also proposes to improve the energy efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of the reservoir by installing 212 solar panels to generate clean, renewable electricity. This investment will benefit the local community by improving the performance of the plant and making it more resilient in the event of power outages.

I understand Irish Water has submitted a planning application to Meath County Council for the proposed reservoir and is progressing the procurement process for the construction of the new reservoir and water main. The Government is aware that significant and sustained investment is needed to ensure the continued operation, upgrade and repair of the country’s water and waste water infrastructure and to support economic growth in the years to come. In this regard, as part of budget 2022, my Department has secured funding of over €1.5 billion to support water services nationally, including €1.459 billion in respect of domestic services provision by Irish Water. This overall investment will deliver significant improvements to our public water and waste water services, support improved water supplies right across Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in our rivers, lakes and marine area.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. I will leave the following with the Minister of State. He did not come back to me on the opportunity, if any, to speed these things up and move more quickly. To bring that Q4 of 2024 back to mid 2024 or late 2023 would make a significant difference. I made points on the contingency, the response, the supports for vulnerable customers and users and the quality of the communications.

I will situate the frustration for residents of Ratoath in the context of it being an area identified for significant residential development. There is an strategic housing development, SHD, application in for 452 units that is being considered. There is a local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, strip. I will leave that with the Minister of State as well. Significant taxpayers' money was put into a LIHAF road that the units have not been developed on. The road is not open in Ratoath but there is planning there for in excess of 300 units. That is a significant development and there is deep concern. We want to see units developed and we are in the middle of the housing crisis, but there is concern that our infrastructure is not fit at the minute and we face the prospect of units on top of an already creaking infrastructure. It is a sequencing matter and lends to the argument for prioritisation and that the works be expedited for delivery of that water infrastructure to facilitate the residential developments in a timely fashion, so that residents are not added to the list of people frustrated to be left without water.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this important issue and outlining the significant growth that has taken place in Ratoath. I will follow up with Irish Water on the contingency issue, which can be frustrating for citizens and residents when there is an outage, in terms of the mitigation measures put in place for that period, as well as in terms of communications. It is active on social media but not everyone is on social media and, especially in rural areas, it can be difficult for citizens to have that access. I will raise that with Irish Water.

On fast-tracking projects, we are bound by statutory processes when it comes to planning permission. One is unaware whether there will be objections, etc., as it goes through the finalisation process. Procurement is a significant process nowadays, as well as the fact that when the preferred tenderer is awarded, there has to be a cooling period and it may be challenged. It can be difficult for a Minister to give a commitment to bring projects forward because so many items are out of our control, unfortunately. I will raise the issues with Irish Water.

One of the biggest challenges in this country is our waste water infrastructure. As I travel around the country, I encounter towns and villages that have problems delivering the potential development because the infrastructure is not up to speed. A key factor is that every year as we approach the budget, we are competing for Irish Water with the Departments with responsibility for health, children and transport. All those key issues are now competing and that is difficult for Irish Water. We will do our best and have secured a significant budget, as well as €6 billion in the capital investment programme from 2021 to 2025.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 5.18 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ag 5.22 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 5.18 p.m. and resumed at 5.22 p.m.