Thank you, Acting Chairman, for the opportunity to come to the Upper House to brief colleagues on a very important issue that has affected so many people in this country since the first week of January. As we speak, it is affecting people in the south west in particular. There is no doubt that we are going through an unprecedentedly difficult weather period which has affected many homes and businesses across the country. With that in mind, and given the scale of the storms we have had since the first week in January, the Government yesterday made a substantial announcement on the provision of an additional €70 million for remediation measures.
On behalf of the Government I join with many Members of this House and the other House in genuinely thanking the emergency services for the work they have done in the past seven weeks or so. I recently visited Limerick and saw at first hand the extraordinary volunteerism and effort of community groups and emergency services – the HSE, the Department of Social Protection, the Garda Síochána and the Civil Defence. We owe those people a great debt of gratitude because they are the ones on the front line who have been helping communities affected by the dreadful storms.
The Government made an announcement ten days ago concerning the initial additional amount required for humanitarian aid, which is now under the remit of the Department of Social Protection. A total of €25 million has been made available to help people in the most immediate way and also in a long-term way in terms of structural damage to homes where there is no insurance.
My area of responsibility relates to the Office of Public Works and to repairing the damage to flood defences and coastal protection measures. From reports received from local authorities we reckon that somewhere south of €20 million of additional moneys will be required to repair flood barriers and the capital schemes that might well have been breached during the recent storms. The package of money announced yesterday was €70 million across a number of Departments. Approximately €20 million of the €70 million relates to breaches in flood defences, which are the first port of call and the first emergency. Given the fact that high tides will emerge again in the first half of March, it is important that we get going to repair those damaged embankments and flood defences. I especially thank the Office of Public Works. We have more than 300 staff out in the field, as it were, men and women working hard to make sure that we repair that which is our responsibility and helping the local authorities in terms of capacity they need on small schemes around the country.
The first port of call of many local authorities is by way of application to the Office of Public Works by means of the minor works and coastal protection scheme. The scheme was established by the previous Government in 2009. Applications for funding can be made up to the value of €500,000. Since 2009 a total of €29 million has been spent on the scheme. A total of 430 small schemes have been advanced around the country by the Office of Public Works. It is the key scheme for local authorities which now need to repair damaged flood defences. My appeal to local authorities that have been affected by the storms is to get their applications in to us as soon as possible. We have given more flexibility in the scheme this year. I have given a firm commitment that we will prioritise those applications that come from the counties worst affected and we will turn them around within a matter of a week and no more than a ten-day period. The funding is given to the local authority, which then procures contractors locally or uses its own staff to do the work. The task of the OPW is to act as a funding agent on behalf of the State to use the minor works scheme as a means by which we can repair damaged flood defences. I appeal to local authorities today to get in their applications. I appreciate the fact that local authorities are under much stress at the moment, given that they are dealing with the emergency, but the way in which the schemes will be administered is by application to the Office of Public Works under the minor works scheme. We will turn it around and give local authorities the money, and they will get on with the task that is required.
In my recent visit to County Clare I saw in some cases that Clare County Council had started the works. That is fine because I gave a commitment that we would recoup the money to local authorities once the works have been completed. There should be no bickering or lack of clarity about the scheme. Local authorities should procure the work, get on with it and get it completed as soon as possible and we will pay for it even if there is a difficulty with the local authority. I wish to make that absolutely clear.
When people say there is no strategic policy approach I counter that by saying that we are in a very good position when it comes to flood maps in this country. The previous Government and this Government have signed up to the European-wide directive on flood relief. That means that by this year, for each of the six catchment river basins in this country, we will have a detailed map setting out the predictability of flood events for a one-in-50-year event, a one-in-100-year event and a one-in-200-year event. The maps will be published over the summer period, following which we will have a period of consultation on them.
These maps cover over 6,500 km of river channels and 90 coastal communities. Once there is agreement we will submit, by December 2015, a list to the European Commission of areas that require further consideration. We are talking about approximately 300 areas in the country which are at risk of or prone to significant flood damage. When I first took up my post with the OPW and met our engineers in Trim, I asked them how many areas we were talking about and they said there were somewhere between 250 and 300 hot spots. When we lodge our catchment by catchment plans with the European Commission next year, our task will be to set out not only where these 300 areas are but also the prioritisation within them. There is very clear methodology, in terms of a multi-criteria approach, to cost-benefit analyses. These 300 areas will be prioritised from one to 300 and the cost of the schemes attached to each of these areas will be worked out.
We are spending €250 million over a five year period on flood protection measures. Despite reductions in the capital budget generally, this is the one area in which we have seen no reduction. If anything, there has been an increase in capital spending in this area in recent years. In fairness to the previous Government, it ramped up expenditure on flood defences because there was a recognition that we had not spent, over a generation, the kind of money other EU countries had spent in this area. Our envelope is €250 million over five years. If we were able to start work on the 300 areas to which I referred tomorrow, we would be looking at a bill of somewhere between €1.6 billion and €2 billion. At the current rate of expenditure, it will take us just over of 35 years to have all of the necessary work done.
We face a big problem because of poor flood defences and the fact that planning and development took place in such a sporadic way for many years has added to the problem. We are now paying the price for the bad planning decisions made in the past. However, we are in a good position in that once we have the CFRAM maps, the catchment plans and the prioritisation of the 300 areas, we can set about, on a case by case basis, rolling out the necessary schemes, as we have done in other parts of the country.
The news is not all bad. Since 1995 the OPW, on behalf of the taxpayer, has spent almost €370 million. It has developed schemes, both big and small, all over the country. The problem in Clonmel, for example, which flooded regularly, has now been solved by work completed by the OPW. Problems in Ennis, Fermoy, Mallow and Dublin have also been addressed. In 2002 the cost of the damage done in Dublin as a result of the major flooding event was €65 million. As a result of works undertaken on the River Tolka and the River Dodder, the most recent high tide which was higher than in 2002 in Dublin caused damage along the seafront in Clontarf of approximately €100,000. We have gone from having a €65 million bill for flood damage in 2002 to one for approximately €100,000 in 2014. Why has that happened? It has happened because we invested in flood defences in Dublin. For every €1 we spend on flood defences, we get €3 back. I note that Senator Sean D. Barrett is in the Chamber and I expect him to talk about the economics of flood defences. There is a good economic rationale behind such spending. For every €1 we spend, the benefit in terms of dealing with potential damage is €3. Such investment also creates jobs, with 700 people working in the flood defences industry this year, both in the private and the public sector. Even though we have to wait for the CFRAM process to be completed, we have done a lot of work around the country already. By our reckoning, approximately 11,000 homes have been protected by way of the ongoing work being done on behalf of the OPW.
Coastal protection, it must be said, is more complicated. Our coastline is a natural phenomenon; the tide comes in and out, sands move and so forth. Some of what I have seen on my travels around the country in recent weeks and in the past three years has been alarming. Homes have been built right beside sand spits and along very dangerous parts of the coastline, which is absolutely criminal. Such developments are an invitation to problems. We must take a much more holistic view of coastal protection. We can certainly build up coastal defences by growing marram grass and other plants which help in certain tidal conditions. However, nothing we do will help in a situation like the one we saw in the Shannon Estuary two weeks ago. At 6.30 a.m. on a Saturday the poor people of St. Mary's Park and elsewhere were woken by a tidal surge which was 7 ins higher than the highest on record, dating back to 1961. No one could have predicted such a surge, with a combination of high winds, high tides, storms and prolonged precipitation. We need to take a holistic approach to coastal protection and decide on our priorities. The first priority must be to spend money to protect lives. We have seen examples in the past where lives were lost as a result of a significant flooding event. The next priority is obviously homes. We must protect as many as possible in the expending of this money. Third, we must protect commercial business and, finally, farmland. I know this is a difficult message for the agricultural community, but where there are limited resources, we must do what we can to protect the maximum number of homes. That is how we have laid out our priorities in term of the cost-benefit model.
I wish to comment on the insurance industry and I am going to be very blunt in my remarks. I have been sitting down with Insurance Ireland, previously the Irish Insurance Federation, since January 2013 trying to agree a memorandum of understanding, whereby when the OPW or a local authority builds a flood defence, the insurance industry will recognise that work, the capital investment on behalf of the taxpayer and reinsure properties for which it had withdrawn cover. That is a challenge, but I am confident that in the coming weeks we will get that memorandum over the line. That will not give protection to people who cannot get insurance right now, but it will certainly give some measure of comfort to those communities where flood defence investments have been made. There is no reason the insurance industry cannot begin reinsuring again in these communities. If the State puts in the money by way of capital investment, there is an obligation on the insurance industry to recognise that fact and start reinsuring again.
We have committed additional money in the first six weeks of the year. We recognise the damage done and want to use the resources of the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Environment, Community and Local Government, as well as the OPW, to disburse these funds as soon as possible. We want to help the affected communities to get back on their feet again, especially in parts of the west where tourism is such an essential industry, as I noted in my visits to counties Clare, Limerick, Kerry and Cork. We need to make sure that by the summer season, a lot of the damaged infrastructure has been put back in place. I assure the House of the seriousness with which the Government intends to address this issue. There are short-term measures to be taken, but we must also consider the longer term view. We will have to live with this issue. When one looks at the appalling circumstances in the south of England, as well as on the west coast of France, Portugal and Spain, one realises this is a very serious issue with which we are going to have to live, deal and respond to in a comprehensive and sustainable way.