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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 27 Nov 2012

Vol. 219 No. 1

Adjournment Matters

Flood Prevention Measures

I am glad that a very understanding and sympathetic Minister of State is taking this matter.

When I raised the issue of flooding in west County Cork about six or eight weeks ago, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, gave me a commitment to give me an updated report regarding what is happening with Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen. Tremendous work was carried out in Bandon, which was flooded in November 2009 to the extent that in some cases properties were flooded to a depth of six or eight feet of water. Work had progressed there but, unfortunately, in recent weeks the contractor left the site resulting in the work being stalled, which is of serious concern to the people of Bandon. On Monday, 19 November, I attended a removal in Bandon and it was almost impossible to get to the funeral home because of the presence of the fire brigade, Garda vehicles, etc., following a flood warning. Thankfully, the projected flood with potentially disastrous consequences did not emerge.

A number of assurances were given and schedules outlined for works in Skibbereen, and every year the works have been delayed or postponed. Last spring, the senior county engineer promised an early warning system, but that has not materialised. Such a system is essential because on two or three nights last week members of a voluntary flood-prevention group in Skibbereen were up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. trying to predict when the high tides and the swollen river waters would converge and cause flooding in the town. Thankfully, only minimal flooding occurred. Why have the scheduled works been deferred? Is there a problem with the money? Why has there been a lack of progress given the commitments made by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, and his predecessor, Dr. Martin Mansergh?

Clonakilty was flooded again recently. This and the previous Government made a commitment that where towns or villages are subjected to increased and constant flooding, no issues would be put in the way with regard to lack of finance. As far as I can gather, that commitment has been reasonably honoured, but in these three towns in my area in different ways and at different times severe flooding has occurred. Following this year's abnormal rainfall resulting in major saturation of the land, I am deeply concerned that during the winter one or more of these three towns will be flooded with major personal losses to individuals in their homes and losses to businesses. There are also concerns of bodies such as Civil Defence, the county council and others that are there to defend it.

In the past 12 months it appears that when the county council office closes at 5 p.m. the engineers and the other staff who are critical to the monitoring and prevention of floods seem to vanish. The continued input by senior staff such as engineers and area managers is not available after that time in the evening, which is ridiculous. I do not know if this is caused by a shortage of staff following cutbacks. The high tides and torrential rain which can lead to flooding are easily predicted and the people who should be in command of these situations, such as the senior engineers, should be available 24 hours a day and seven days a week, as are the people on the ground and the voluntary people. I ask the Minister of State to comment on that.

I thank the Senator for his interesting tour of south-west Cork.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, who is not available. I thank the Senator for raising the matter. I am very aware that these issues are of great concern to the people affected.

The Office of Public Works is working closely with Cork County Council to deal with flood risk in a number of locations in the county including, Bandon, Skibbereen and Clonakilty. In June the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, launched the exhibition of the proposals for the Bandon flood relief scheme, following the study of the flooding problem there for which consultants were appointed by the OPW in December 2010. The proposed scheme comprises the construction of new walls and embankments, the excavation of the channel for a distance of 3.5 km, replacement of the existing footbridge, underpinning of Bandon Bridge, provision of a rock ramp for fish passage along with works to the drainage system and the provision of new pump stations.

The proposed scheme was warmly welcomed by elected representatives and the general public, and it is expected that the detailed design of the scheme will commence very soon. The advancement of the scheme to the detailed design stage was hampered by events outside of the control of the OPW when the project design consultant, WYG (Ireland) Limited, was placed in voluntary liquidation in August. The matter has now been resolved with the water services division of WYG being taken over by Byrne Looby Partners, allowing the project to proceed. A key aspect of this transition is that the staff involved in the Bandon scheme since its inception will continue to work on the project, thus ensuring full continuity in service and design input.

It had originally been hoped construction works would commence in the river during the summer of 2013, outside of the October to May fish spawning period when such works are prohibited. Unfortunately, due to the delay incurred as a result of the situation with the design consultants, it will no longer be possible to meet that timeline. A significant amount of time will be required for the necessary site investigation works, detailed design and the procurement of a civil works contractor. Everything possible will be done to maintain progress on the scheme and it is hoped that land-based works may be possible towards the end of next year, with the river works commencing in the next available environmental window during the summer of 2014.

The Senator has referred to the Bandon sewerage scheme works and the fact that the contractor has left the site. This is not a matter for the OPW, as this is a contract being undertaken by Cork County Council. I understand, however, that the contract in question has been terminated and that the council is in the process of re-tendering the contract. The council has indicated to the OPW that the works are likely to restart in May 2013. The OPW has requested that any works in areas that will also be affected by the flood relief scheme will be programmed to commence at the start of the sewerage scheme contract, in order to avoid any potential difficulties.

In Skibbereen, a flood relief scheme is being developed by Cork County Council with funding being provided by the OPW. There have been two information days where a preferred scheme was presented to the public, with the main proposals including new walls and embankments, some localised channel widening, localised regrading of the channel and some improvements to the local drainage system. The proposals were warmly welcomed and it is expected that the council will bring the full scheme to formal exhibition in the first quarter of next year. Subject to the exhibition process going well, it would be hoped to advance the scheme to detailed design and procurement of a civil works contractor with a view to commencing construction in late 2013 or early 2014.

Clonakilty has been identified as an area for further assessment under the OPW's ongoing south-west catchment flood risk assessment and management study. In light of recent severe flood events, it was agreed with Cork County Council that the OPW would request the consultants for the CFRAM study, Mott McDonald, to accelerate their assessment of the flooding problem in the town including the hydrology, hydraulic modelling and mitigation measures option selection process for the town.

This process is now under way. A public information day was held on 16 October 2012 where the public was invited to provide as much information as possible to the consultants on the flooding events which have occurred in the town. This was well attended. It is expected that a preferred option will be presented for public consultation in summer-autumn of next year. In the interim, I welcome the fact that Cork County Council is proceeding with works to help provide some short-term alleviation to the flooding situation in the town, primarily focused on measures to improve the surface water drainage in the town.

The OPW has made financial provision for flood relief schemes for Bandon, Skibbereen and Clonakilty in its multi-annual capital expenditure profiles from 2013 and the Minster of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, looks forward to progress being made on the schemes and to construction works commencing on the ground as currently programmed, subject to the continued availability of funding in that period.

I am quite certain I can raise the Senator's point on the offices with the Minister, Deputy Hogan. I would say the Cork county manager would provide after-hours services. I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Deputy Hogan who is the line Minister for the county council.

I appreciate what the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, stated and will take it on board. Despite his response, and while I accept he is not the line Minister dealing with this issue, I am concerned that the delays on these issues are of grave concern to the communities in these areas.

Flooding creeps up in the night. It affects people, with water damage to their homes and businesses. It does significant damage. The progress that was promised has not been as effectual as I would like it to be. For example, this exhibition in Skibbereen was to have been held a couple of months ago and they now say it will be next spring. There is a delay every year in different phases of five or six months and over a five year schedule, there could be another year or a year and a half tagged on. I am concerned about the delay.

I do not expect the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, will be in a position to give me a response. I am deeply concerned, particularly about Bandon and Skibbereen which have a history in recent years of appalling flooding, that progress could be certainly much better.

The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, is very concerned. This is a detailed response from OPW. There is no ambiguity at all about this. The company went into voluntary liquidation and there was reappointment. Unfortunately, it is like anything else in that certain matters would be outside of one's control. There is all the evaluation and public consultation. The Senator has been a politician for even longer than me and knows exactly how months can slip by. He can be assured of the commitment of the voted estimate of the Department, that the allocation will be made in 2013 and 2014. There is total commitment within the Government to ensure this matter is corrected.

No doubt the OPW does an effective job, as has been shown in such work that has already been carried out in other areas in Cork. I am confident from the commitment of the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, that this work will move forward as quickly as possible.

On a point of clarification, the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, has stated I have been in politics longer than him. That is probably true, but I am not as prominent.

I shall not adjudicate on that matter.

Courts Service Issues

Táim an-bhuíoch den Chathaoirleach as ligean domsa an t-ábhar seo a ardú ar Athló an tSeanaid anocht. Is ábhar an-tábhachtach é seo maidir le teach cúirte Ceanannais, Contae na Mí.

This is the third time that I have stood in the Seanad to address what I perceive to be the downgrading of the town of Kells by the Government. I spoke on the cancellation of the Eureka school building project, I spoke on the broken promise on the Kells primary health care centre and I speak tonight on the possible closure of Kells courthouse in County Meath. I may well seek to table a further Adjournment matter about the possible abolition of Kells Town Council as well.

Kells is receiving a great many hammer-blows from the Government which relate to the prestige, services and infrastructure of the town. It has come to the attention of the County Meath Bar Association that Kells courthouse may well be earmarked for closure. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, who, presumably, is present on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, to clarify the exact position on Kells courthouse.

The courthouse in Kells is widely used. On one day in November, there were 63 cases listed. This does not merely involve, as some might perceive, a quick courthouse visit in which persons get their convictions and everybody holds their breathe and sees them go to jail. Rather, it brings much business to the town, whether visiting gardaí, lawyers or unfortunate defendants and their families, and adds to the prestige of the town. The business community in Kells is most concerned about this issue as well. It is about the status of the town and the services available in it.

With all of the downgrading of Kells by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, I plead with the Government to consider this decision carefully and not go ahead with it. It would turn a once proud town with many facilities into what would be effectively a village if it does not have a court facility. If there is to be a consultation process regarding the closing of Kells courthouse, I ask the Government to cancel it and to show that this courthouse is needed and the figures are there to prove it. I look forward to a good answer from the Minister. The people of Kells are quickly losing patience with the Government.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As he will appreciate, under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of courts is the responsibility of the service and the Minister has no role in the matter. This was my experience of Ballymoe courthouse in the previous Administration, and was there since 1804. It was closed down as well. It was on the list, and was there for nearly 200 years. Section 4(3) of the 1998 Act provides that the Courts Service is independent in the performance of its functions, which, of course, include the provision, maintenance and management of court buildings.

However, the Minister has had inquiries made with the Courts Service and is informed that in the current financial climate the Courts Service has been reviewing all aspects of its organisational and operational structures throughout the country with the specific objective of ensuring that the service can continue to maintain the delivery of front-line court services and an appropriate level of service to court users. The Minister understands that no court venue has been singled out or, indeed, exempted from the review process.

A comprehensive review of venues has recently been completed, the purpose of which was to establish a general framework within which venues could be considered for closure taking into account a range of criteria such as caseload, proximity to an alternative venue, physical condition of the building, availability of holding cell facilities, etc. The likely impact on other departmental agencies, such as An Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service, is also taken into account. The Minister is informed that the review identified a range of venues nationwide which, based on the criteria applied, could be considered for closure subject to a detailed assessment and the preparation of a business case in respect of each identified venue.

It is worth noting that since its establishment in 1999, the Courts Service has amalgamated over 150 venues while benefiting from a substantial capital investment to upgrade larger courthouses. The policy has been successful resulting in a more efficient use of time for the Judiciary, court users and gardaí. Rather than short sittings in the smaller venues, a full day's list can be dealt with which leads to reductions in delays in the District Court.

The Courts Service has indicated that its priority is to provide the best possible facilities for all court users, including Judiciary and Courts Service staff, bearing in mind the health and safety of users as well as their need for privacy and dignity in their proceedings. The Senator has inquired about Kells courthouse and the service has informed the Minister that it has been identified as a venue which should be considered for closure subject to a detailed assessment and the preparation of a business case as mentioned. The standard courthouse requirements includes basic facilities such as consultation rooms, victim support facilities and holding cells for prisoners which are essential to ensure public safety and efficient use of Irish Prison Service resources.

It should be noted that the Courts Service has advised that the identification of venues as part of the review process does not conclusively mean that the identified venues will close and I can confirm that the Courts Service board will take no decision on the future of Kells courthouse without full prior consultation with local interested parties and court users. The Minister is informed that the consultation process in respect of Kells courthouse has not yet begun.

However, the service assures the Minister that the views expressed in that process will be taken into account in the decision-making process in due course. As I have said, the final decision in this matter will be a matter for the Courts Service board.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Senator for raising the matter and the Minister appreciates his interest in the administration of justice in County Meath. I know the Senator will understand the need for the Courts Service to take the measures necessary to promote greater efficiency in the courts and I hope the constructive engagement involving the Courts Service will result in reasoned and appropriate decisions being made on the venues.

Is oth liom go bhfuil an méid sin á rá ag an Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom cuid dá ráitis a lua. I want to specify part of the Minister of State's speech, where he said, "the identification of venues as part of the review process does not conclusively mean that the identified venues will close". This is reminiscent of the 35 health centres which I raised in relation to Kells. In that case the small print said inclusion on the list of 35 did not necessarily mean a health centre would actually be built. When I raised the question of the Kells health centre in the Seanad it became clear that there is little or no plan to build a health centre in Kells, despite that fact that it is on a list for progression.

I take a similar approach. I must assume that the fact Kells courthouse is on the list means the Government is washing its hands of the matter and passing it over to the Courts Service. When the Minister of State was in opposition he did not accept Ministers washing their hands of decisions and passing them over to State boards for final decision.

I am holding the Government to account and ask it to reconsider. Kells is a large market town covering a big district. The courthouse provides an economic benefit to the town. The Minister can close down all the courthouses he likes but it goes against the Government's jobs strategy. It will take people away from towns because there will be less reason to visit them. Kells does not have a new school, its health care centre has been cancelled and the town council is to be abolished. There will be nothing left.

Does the Senator have a question?

I ask the Government to stop downgrading the town of Kells, County Meath.

I remind the Senator of the legacy the Government was handed. The country is, regrettably, in the hands of the troika and we have no funding. It is all about value for money. The Government must make decisive choices.

I advise the Senator to engage with the consultation process in Kells. No definitive decision has been taken on the closure of Kells courthouse. It is all about engagement and the requirement of the State.

The Courts Service is a separate identity from the Government. In good times, the previous Government closed down courthouses, even when it had money.

Not in large towns.

Yes, I know that for certain. In the good times when the country was awash with money and the Government had no reason to close anything down it closed courthouses.

This matter is in the effective management of the Courts Service. I advise the Senator to engage with the community, the borough council and the Garda Síochána and put a case to the Courts Service as to why the courthouse should remain open. I fully appreciate where the Senator is coming from.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 November 2012.