Property Insurance: Discussion (Resumed) with Office of Public Works

We will now discuss the difficulties in obtaining home insurance for properties in areas that have experienced extreme weather events with representatives from the Office of Public Works. I welcome Mr. Tony Smyth, director of engineering services, and Mr. Liam Basquille, principal officer in engineering services in the OPW, and thank them for attending.

I draw attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l ) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, you are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise you that the opening statement and any other documents you have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The committee has considered the issue of flooding for several weeks and as this is our final public session with witnesses on the topic, it is appropriate that we should finish with the Office of Public Works. I am very interested in hearing the witnesses' views on the problem of flooding in Ireland and how best it can be tackled. I hope they will address the issues that have been raised by previous witnesses and, primarily, by the Irish Insurance Federation. The federation's submission stated:

It is also important that the OPW communicates reliable information on flood defences to insurers…[I]nsurers need to have confidence in OPW’s review of standards and commitment to maintenance of flood defences once completed as well as…access to comprehensive information on all areas vulnerable to flooding showing the status of remedial works...details of the design standards to which flood defences have been constructed, expressed as the return period of an event which the defence is designed to withstand. The minimum standard required is a return period of 1 in 100 years…maps in GIS [Geographic Information System] format for all vulnerable areas showing likely flood extent…maps showing the protections offered by any remedial works; and…regular updates of all information.

I ask the officials from the OPW to deal with these issues in their presentation. We need to consider the issues in their full complexity and take cognisance of all aspects. I invite Mr. Smyth to make his opening remarks.

Mr. Tony Smyth

I welcome the opportunity to address the joint committee on the important issue of obtaining insurance in areas that have experienced the impacts of flooding from extreme weather events. I thank members for rearranging their schedule to facilitate our attendance at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform shortly. OPW has a specific role in the transfer of information to the insurance industry on flood risk and flood defences. We have no responsibility for oversight or regulation of the insurance industry or to insurance matters generally.

It may be useful if I briefly outline the role and responsibilities of the OPW in relation to flood risk management. Following a strategic review of flood risk policy in 2004, the Office of Public Works was assigned the lead co-ordinating role for flood risk management in Ireland. We deliver services in the following key areas: strategic planning to manage flood risk into the future under the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme in compliance with the EU floods directive and under the Irish coastal protection strategic studies; a programme of capital investment to address existing flood risks to properties and infrastructure through major and minor flood relief projects, in partnership with local authorities; and programmed maintenance of those arterial drainage and urban flood relief schemes completed under the Arterial Drainage Acts. To support these activities we engage in a number of important information gathering exercises, including in particular collection of hydrometric data to improve the estimation of water level flow and to enhance the quality and reliability of flood relief design and mitigation measures. We also developed awareness programmes among the public and businesses of the risks of flooding and provided information on how to plan, prepare and protect against flood risk. We also commission research into areas related to flood risk management activities.

In carrying out its functions the OPW works in close co-operation with other State bodies, principally the local authorities who are the other main players with key responsibilities in relation to flood risk management in the country. In this context it is important to stress that while the OPW and the local authorities work in partnership in many areas, the local authorities are responsible for distinct areas of work in relation to flood risk such as leading the emergency response to flooding, the urban drainage infrastructure and the maintenance of certain water courses and channels.

At the core of the OPW's work is the objective of reducing to the greatest extent possible the level of flood risk to people, property, infrastructure and the environment. At a strategic level it is overseeing the most comprehensive national initiative to systematically identify, assess, document and report on the most significant flood risks throughout the country. These assessments, known as the CFRAM programme, will generate detailed flood maps showing flood extents and other flood parameters such as depth and velocity. They will recommend an integrated management plan and prioritised measures to address flood problems in areas of significant risk in each major catchment in the country. The CFRAM programme will inform the long-term planning of flood risk management measures throughout the country, including structural and constructed flood defences and non-structural measures. Both the flood maps and the identification and outline design of flood risk management measures under CFRAM will consider a range of potential future scenarios, including the potential impacts of climate change, to ensure capacity for adaptation is built into the flood risk management strategy and measures. The output from the CFRAM programme in a recent pilot project included the production of 1,100 maps showing flood extents, depths and velocities. Approximately 250 km of channels were surveyed and more than 275 sq. km. of detailed flood plain modelling was carried out. This project required the development of nine hydraulic models of the river and its tributaries and the production of various reports, including an inception report, a strategic environmental assessment at scoping level and final report stage, a hydrology report and hydraulic reports. Ultimately a catchment flood risk management plan was drawn up.

In more immediate terms the OPW is addressing flood risk in critical areas through its capital investment programme for both major and minor alleviation works. Witnesses at the committee's previous meetings made comments which suggest that the OPW is not spending enough on flood relief works. The figures will show this is not the case. Under the Government's infrastructure and capital investment medium term Exchequer framework 2012-16, a total of €225 million has been allocated for capital flood relief measures over the five-year period of the framework. This allocation, when combined with the amount spent by the OPW on flood relief measures since the introduction of the Arterial Drainage (Amendment) Act 1995 of €320 million, will result in total expenditure of almost €500 million on flood relief up to 2016. This is a substantial investment by any standard, especially in the current difficult economic environment, and expenditure to date on flood relief works has brought significant benefits to communities and towns throughout the country. The OPW estimates that over 5,000 properties have benefited from this investment, with the estimated benefit in terms of damage and loss avoided amounting to almost €900 million. The insurance industry has also benefited from this investment as its large claims payment costs for flooding, which amounted to almost €700 million since 2000, would have been much higher but for the remedial and defence works undertaken by the OPW on behalf of the State and taxpayers.

Under its major capital works programme, the OPW currently has nine major flood relief schemes at construction stage. It is expected that a further five schemes will commence construction before the end of 2013, subject to completion of procurement and other preparatory formalities and the availability of funding. A further 26 schemes are at various stages of design and planning.

Approximately €30 million is expected to be expended on all these schemes during the year. Under the minor works and coastal protection scheme, OPW provides funding to local authorities for smaller scale, more localised mitigation measures they wish to undertake in their areas. It is open to any local authority to submit an application to OPW for funding under this administrative scheme. Total funding of €21.6 million has been provided since 2009 in respect of 400 projects. While it is difficult to know exactly how many properties were protected, we reckon more than 2,400 properties in addition to the ones I mentioned earlier have varying levels of protection from this expenditure.

Under the arterial drainage maintenance programme, the OPW will continue in 2013 to undertake ongoing maintenance of completed arterial drainage and flood relief measures. At some of the previous meetings of the committee on this matter some contributors commented on the delays in getting major flood relief projects off the ground and completed. The OPW appreciates that, especially in the wake of a severe flood event, there can be an expectation that flood mitigation measures can be implemented quickly. It is important to point out however, that major flood relief schemes involve complex engineering and construction operations that can impact on people's living, built and natural environment and therefore require lengthy planning and decision lead-in times.

The process, defined by legislation, requires that OPW follow a number of stages from feasibility through procurement and public consultation to construction. It is important that the work is done correctly and achieves its objectives. Detailed technical analysis is required to establish the most appropriate solution, technically and environmentally, from a range of possible mitigation options. Extensive public consultation is required at various stages to ensure that those affected by a scheme have the opportunity to input into its design and implementation. Ecological and archaeological issues often require in-depth analysis to inform the technical solution and to enable the necessary statutory consents to be obtained. Finally, the process and time scales for procuring consultants and contractors, which is governed by EU law, is onerous and has a prescribed methodology. The OPW at all times strives to expedite and progress capital flood relief works with the minimum delay within the resources available to it.

I mentioned earlier that there may be a need to clarify the nature of the OPW's current engagement with the insurance industry regarding the difficulties some people are experiencing in obtaining flood risk insurance. As I indicated, the OPW has no role or responsibility regarding the oversight or regulation of the insurance industry. The discussions which are taking place between the OPW and the Irish Insurance Federation, IIF, have a specific focus and are concerned purely with agreeing a basis on which information can be provided to the insurance industry on flood relief schemes completed by the OPW and the standard of protection offered by those schemes. The discussions are taking place in the context of a joint OPW-IIF working group which also includes representatives of the main insurance companies operating in the Irish market.

Good progress is being made in the discussions and while there have been many technical details and issues to work through, the group is nearing agreement on the basis for providing information in an acceptable format which will enable the insurance companies to take this information into account when assessing flood risk to property. The information being provided is in a readily accessible geographical information system, GIS, format which will show in digital map files the areas benefiting from completed flood defence works. The initial focus is to provide information on schemes which provide protection for the one in 100 year flood event.

The OPW is satisfied that the insurance industry is engaging constructively and positively in this process and that there is a strong willingness to co-operate to reach agreement on a sustainable system of information exchange. Ultimately, it is a matter for the insurance companies themselves to decide how they will use the information provided on completed flood defence works. As part of the process they are committed to taking the information into account in their assessment of risk and it is hoped that this will facilitate the provision of flood cover in areas that are protected by completed schemes.

Looking beyond the current process, the comprehensive catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM programme to identify and assess flood risk nationally will, in time, provide a level of information which will enable the insurance industry to take decisions on the provision of cover based on the fullest possible assessment of that risk. In conclusion, the OPW is committed to doing all it can within available resources to identify the measures necessary to manage the risks from flood events, through the CFRAM programme to identify those risks and through capital works to reduce the existing level of risk to properties, infrastructure and the environment. I am happy to take any questions.

I ask spokespersons to limit their remarks to five minutes at the outset and other members to three minutes so everybody gets an opportunity to speak before the OPW officials leave for their next meeting.

I want to deal solely with the Shannon Callows flooding. This time last year, on foot of peak flooding at that time, it was agreed that a committee be put in place to make recommendations to the OPW as the lead agency in the management of that issue. That was agreed and put before the House but has not happened. Notwithstanding that, I am sure Mr. Smyth has seen the report. Can he respond to it? We are all frustrated, to say the least, that no progress has been made and no protocol has been put in place to deal with the issue, which arises on a regular basis at this time of year on foot of heavy rainfall. There is no protocol in place for the management of the levels associated with the Shannon, leading to the callows being flooded, which is expected in winter but not at this time or into the summer.

The fodder crisis in agriculture is exacerbated many-fold for those who live in this region. I ask Mr. Smyth to make a detailed response to the recommendations, which an all-party committee put in place. If difficulties arise from it, what are they and how can they be resolved? If there are funding difficulties, how much is it and how can it be resolved? The report has not been placed on the record of the House and the Minister with responsibility has yet to respond in that forum, despite the fact that this report was published last August. Can Mr. Smyth inform this committee as to how its recommendations can be adhered to, or if they cannot be adhered to, why not?

We are very disappointed, annoyed and frustrated that no progress has been made on this despite the OPW's being given authority as the lead agency in this area to formulate a response and put in place the protocols that can gain the respect and agreement of the stakeholders. Of all the stakeholders, those who suffer most and consistently, with their livelihoods being threatened to such an extent, are those callow farmers who live along the water's edge. This is an opportunity that has not arisen in the recent past, despite the fact that we have met the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brian Hayes and discussed this at length. There is unanimity on the part of the members here regarding the recommendations in that report.

I welcome this opportunity to consider this issue. The previous speaker has raised one of the issues I was going to raise and I will be happy to hear the answer to that. I want to raise the issue of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. Sometimes very minor works need to be carried out to alleviate flooding on farmland or dwellings, and the NPWS will impose its requirements and set out what it needs in terms of bird surveys, etc. I have seen it being a problem for local authorities. How much of a problem is it for the OPW? Is it delaying any significant OPW schemes? I have seen it hold up very minor works by local authorities.

While the OPW is the lead agency it seems to be under major restrictions.

The River Shannon was mentioned and there is an issue with the ESB and other bodies there. Would the OPW be happy to have the final say on everything relating to flood relief? In other words, the OPW could trump anyone else who had reasons for delaying works.

Mr. Smyth mentioned the list of rivers for which the OPW is responsible. Could he circulate the list on a constituency basis in order that I can determine which are the responsibility of the OPW and local authorities? At one time, they all came under the old Board of Works. What way are they divvied up?

Every year, flooding causing significant problems but in reply to a parliamentary question I tabled, I was informed there was a €7.6 million under spend in 2012 on flood relief works. I was curious about this given the works needed throughout the State. It is great that €225 million will be available over five years and I welcome that but could Mr. Smyth comment on this? Is there a ceiling on the amount a local authority can apply for?

The two speakers have asked the main questions. I refer to funding which is given to county councils on a certain basis. Roscommon County Council was given €270,000 to deal with the flooding problem in Athleague. When it received the money, officials went off and worked out what they were going to spend it on. Do they not get the money on the basis that they spend it on specific projects rather than subsequently deciding what they will spend it on?

Mr. Tony Smyth

We responded to the committee's report on the River Shannon shortly after it was circulated to us through the Minister. The main points we raised were that much of the work to be done would require the outputs from the CFRAM modelling and understanding of the river flows on the Shannon before some of those issues could be addressed. There is a protocol in place between the ESB and Waterways Ireland for the operation. I understand from all stakeholders such as the IFA and so on that this is not acceptable to them but that is there at the moment and, pending the outputs from CFRAM when we will have a proper model of the river and a proper understanding of the water levels and how the water levels in the lake and the callows are interconnected and so on, we will not be in a position to make any recommendations for changes on those levels. We reported on that and we responded to the committee's report. We appeared before the committee late last year on that and another issue.

We also have frequent meetings with Waterways Ireland and the ESB. The board has agreed to aim to reduce the starting water levels in Lough Ree by 100 mm. at the start of the summer and to have that as its target but that will be dependent on hydraulic conditions, rainfall, what happens on the river and so on. We are not always in control of that because there is a limited level of control. There are only a number of gates in Athlone that can be opened and, therefore, at a certain point the inputs into Lough Ree overwhelm the output and one is not control of the level but we understand the difficulties and our response in a sense is through the CFRAM for that, as it is for other rivers around the country to develop proper warning-----

There did not appear to be a protocol in place in the event of a weather warning being issued and there does not appear to have been any resolution should a similar warning issue now. Met Éireann had issued a five-day outlook and the response was poor. The OPW must abide by the protocol in place - I acknowledge the organisation may be hamstrung - and that is why we wanted that clarified in order that the committee could bring political pressure to bear to rectify that. However, the ESB and other stakeholders are satisfied that the status quo is as good as it gets and the only amendment that can occur is subject to the completion of the CFRAM study. In the meantime, the stakeholders we represent such as the farmers and those who derive their livelihoods from these lands are the only ones left out in the cold with no solution to their problems. They do not agree but they are in the minority and, therefore, they do not have a say.

Mr. Tony Smyth

We deal with all the stakeholders and we have dealt with the farmers, ESB and Waterways Ireland as stakeholders in the CFRAM process. That work is our examination of the flood risks on each river in the country and their concerns will be inputted into that and we will have to see what comes out.

With regard to the Met Éireann warnings, I do not know why they would have changed if they had been issuing those. ESB issues water level warnings to local authorities and, again, I do not know if that has changed over the past few months. I have not heard that it has.

Mr. Liam Basquille

My understanding is Met Éireann operates a text alert system in conjunction with the IFA.

We heard it on the radio. The farmers and everybody else bar the people who lift the sluice gates heard it.

Mr. Liam Basquille

They have weather forecasts and warnings but they operate the sluice gates within their own protocols.

Yes, they do, to suit themselves at the expense of those who-----

Mr. Tony Smyth

The protocol is based on water levels rather than on forecasts of rainfall and they respond in a particular way to that. However, that is within the remit of the ESB and Waterways Ireland and until we have other evidence to say that it should be done differently, we are not in a position to make other suggestions.

Is there not a connection between rainfall and water levels?

Mr. Tony Smyth

The protocol is that they respond to a water level rise rather than to a rainfall forecast. Of course they are connected.

Mr. Liam Basquille

It is important to acknowledge that the ESB has shown a willingness to move by agreeing to a trial reduction of 100 mm. It does not sound like an awful lot but its representatives have a shown a willingness to engage positively and to move on that.

They are left with no choice. The problem is they seem to be the bosses here and think they are doing us a favour. They are not doing anyone any favours; they are doing what they should do.

Mr. Liam Basquille

They have their own view which may not be full agreement-----

Their view is not in line with that of many others. If the OPW is hamstrung in so far as the protocol in place is not for turning, what mechanisms are available to us as public representatives-----

That is a matter the committee should pursue further with the ESB and Met Éireann.

We are 12 months down the line and the same problem is fast approaching again on the basis of conversations I had with people in that locality only last weekend. We have not advanced this. A fine report was prepared, which made eight or nine recommendations that we feel would address the issue, resolve the problem in so far as they can and appease the stakeholders we represent but, unfortunately, it has not been discussed on the floor of the House. Responsibility for this straddles different Departments and Ministers have not had an opportunity to respond. I hope the Whips will engage to bring that to bear. If Mr. Smyth is telling the committee that the existing protocol is as good it gets, our responsibility is to seek to amend it to meet the demands of those we represent whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the dominance of ESB and others.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Deputy Stanley asked about the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

To be fair to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, there is a body of European and national legislation governing what can and cannot be done on environmental studies. As part of our major flood relief programmes we will always carry out a full environmental impact assessment. Environmental consultants would be engaged at the same time as the engineering consultants in order to examine the possible environmental constraints on the various flood mitigation options and as far as possible building those into the design. I am not aware of any significant delays on major works. I am aware that on minor works, certainly in the Shannon area, it has caused delays because there was no economic way to do what locals had requested, which was to move silt and distribute it on the land. There were concerns about damage to the environment and we were unable to proceed with some of those minor works. That tends to be more of a problem with minor works rather than with the major ones where we have the resources to do all the various environmental studies and influence the design of schemes in that way.

I can certainly provide a list of rivers for which we have responsibility. We will issue that to the committee.

Last year's outturn was €7.5 million ahead of the allocation. The allocation was €45 million and we spent €52 million. So it was more than and not less than. We found savings from other things.

I have information that shows differently. I would be happy to share it with Mr. Smyth.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Those are the numbers.

I am happy with that.

Mr. Tony Smyth

It is a plus rather than a minus so it was not under. There was another question on restriction.

It was on the maximum spend for a small local authority schemes.

Mr. Tony Smyth

We set the limit at €500,000 because we believe engineering works costing more than that would certainly have environmental impact and should have proper environmental and cost-benefit studies carried out. The benefit of the minor works is that we have developed simplified criteria for the cost-benefit analysis to ensure we are getting benefit for the cost but without having to go to the rigours and expense of a full cost-benefit analysis as we do for the major schemes. It might run to €10,000, €20,000 or €30,000 to complete a full cost-benefit analysis. In cases where the works will cost €50,000, it does not make sense to spend that kind of money on studies.

Local authorities also go through a strict tendering process.

Mr. Tony Smyth

This is not tendering, but just to see whether the benefit accruing from the expenditure is bigger than the expenditure.

On the question of whether the OPW has the final say, I believe Mr. Smyth mentioned that it is seeking permission from the ESB to reduce the river level by 10 cm, which is 4 inches.

Is the Deputy asking if the OPW is happy to have the final say?

I seek a response on that. Someone needs to have the final say and the OPW, as the statutory agency, should have the final say. In other words it should be able to trump others. Deputy Corcoran Kennedy chaired a committee that produced a very good report on the Shannon with good recommendations. The problem is that the ESB and everybody else seem to be able to call it, with the OPW left merely as bystanders witnessing this. Deputy Cowen outlined the problems for the farmers.

The Deputy should allow Mr. Smyth to reply.

Would the OPW be happy to have the final say?

Mr. Tony Smyth

There is a range of legal and policy issues in that question. When we make a proposal to do that, we bring forward the technical solutions built in with the environmental solution within a particular legal framework. I do not believe anybody can trump us and I do not know that it is appropriate to have a flood-risk management agency having a greater say in some of those other issues. The Deputy is getting into a range of policy issues that I would not be comfortable speaking about. There are policy issues but there are also legal things. There is environmental legislation with which we have to comply when we are bringing forward proposals on those things.

Is Mr. Smyth saying there are legal issues relating to the ESB?

I will allow the Deputy to ask a supplementary question later.

That is the crux of the issue.

The Deputy has had a good run on it.

If there are legal issues regarding the ESB-----.

I want to be fair to the other members who wish to contribute.

Mr. Tony Smyth

It has a legal remit regarding the water levels on the Shannon at present, but we do not have any evidence and have not completed proper models of the river - and will not have until the CFRAM is completed - to make other arguments as to what else might work. Until we get to that point, we are certainly weak on grounds of any logic, evidence or argument we might make.

Deputy Flanagan asked about funding for the local authorities for specific projects.

Mr. Tony Smyth

We have a set of criteria outlining the benefits. The local authorities apply for funding for a particular project and work out for us what the benefit and costs of that would be, and we approve that project for that funding. I think in a particular case-----

Do they get the money first and then engage engineers and consultants afterwards?

Mr. Tony Smyth

No. They get approval to draw down the funding and then on completion of the project or at stages through the project we might pay them interim payments through it. I believe the Deputy is talking about one where some difficulties arose about the particular proposed solution. I would have to refresh my memory on the details of that. Perhaps Mr. Basquille would be comfortable answering it.

Mr. Liam Basquille

When we became aware of the issue we raised it with the council.

Mr. Liam Basquille

In Athleague. I think is that the weir-----

Was that the flooding issue or issue that it got money and went off and worked out how it would spend it?

Mr. Liam Basquille


It is an interesting system, is it not?

Mr. Liam Basquille

We took it up with the council and we pursued the matter with it. The council provided us with an explanation as to why it did what it did. It was able to satisfy us that what was initially proposed on further study was not a viable solution. It then explained to us the basis on which it-----

Could it not have explained that to you before it went and spent the money?

The Deputy should speak through the Chair. I do not want to have any one to ones.

Mr. Liam Basquille

It should have.

What sort of sanction is imposed on it for doing what it did?

Mr. Liam Basquille

We will follow up with it on the matter. We will keep a very close watch on how the money is being spent. The alternative solution it proposed was acceptable and satisfied OPW requirements in terms of its technical viability.

With respect, it is not working. People are very unhappy about it and it is their money.

The Deputy will need to take up the individual case later.

I thank Mr. Smyth and Mr. Basquille for attending. Last year the committee made a number of recommendations that would not have cost much money. The witnesses are tiptoeing around the issue. There were simple solutions that would alleviate considerable hardship for people living in the Shannon catchment area. A simple one was removing the man-made structure in Clondara. The OPW cut what was over the water rather than what was under the water. I know the Minister is frustrated over the lack of joined-up thinking between officials at the top and the personnel on the ground who do not seem to be in line with that thinking.

What efforts have been made to keep the water level 2 ft. below the weir wall in Athlone? Very little effort has been made on the maintenance of the Shannon and its tributaries. The witnesses said that removing silt and preventing it building up were minor works. They are major works for the people in the midlands, because they cause considerable hardship. Removing the debris, including tree branches and leaves that builds up in the river, from the Shannon and its tributaries would prevent a serious amount of flooding in the Shannon basin area. Simple solutions are not being acted upon and I believe the OPW should have senior personnel down there looking at what is happening on the ground. The reports coming back to the OPW do not tally with the reality on the ground. I would really appreciate more effort from OPW senior management and the people working on the ground. It is a joke to see the man-made structure in the Shannon at Clondara Tarmonbarry still not removed.

I know the Minister has been in contact with the farmers, and he is as frustrated as I am that this issue has not been dealt with. Very little effort is being made to remove silt from the tributaries and waters feeding into the Shannon. Some old bridges on these tributaries were closed by local authorities for health and safety reasons and the arches are still blocked off. These bridges were constructed two centuries ago. The possibility of opening them up to allow water flow through has never been considered. The view which came across at every public meeting on this issue which I have attended over the past six months is that not enough engagement or local consultation takes place. The National Parks and Wildlife Service still seems to have more power than the OPW. People are afraid to take it on but it must be taken on. A common sense approach should be taken to dealing with this issue. This is what people want to see. I would appreciate if the witnesses comment on this.

I am not a member of the committee and I thank the Vice Chairman for allowing me raise a question on this very important topic.

The Deputy is more than welcome, particularly as she is the Labour Party spokesperson today.

I do not want the Vice Chairman to feel I am gatecrashing the meeting.

We welcome everybody.

I thank the Vice Chairman.

I represent the people of County Wicklow and I am here to raise an issue with regard to Bray. Flood defence works are being constructed along the River Dargle. I live by the river myself and our house suffered great damage during Hurricane Charlie 27 years ago.

Which Charlie is the Deputy speaking about?

Hurricane Charlie and not the other Charlie. We have been calling for good flood defence works since then and I pay tribute to the OPW and the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, for providing the money last year following our representations.

My concern is with regard to the insurance aspect. I fully understand the OPW has a limited role with regard to insurance, but it is in talks with the Irish Insurance Federation. For the 26 or 27 years after Hurricane Charlie, which was a one in 30 year storm, houses and businesses along the River Dargle had no problem obtaining flood insurance or home insurance. Flood defence works started along the river last year, and it is only in the past year that the insurance companies have stated to people renewing their flood or house insurance that they will not insure homes along the River Dargle. This is ludicrous, because there was no problem obtaining such insurance after the hurricane. During the construction of flood defence works the insurance companies are stating they are not prepared to insure. They state if Bray Town Council or the OPW can come up with an outline of the work being done it might satisfy them. I understand the works being done are to deal with one in 100 year diluvial events or one in 200 year tidal events, which gives us greater protection. One would imagine the insurance companies would state that as this work is being done there will be no problem. I do not have a problem, but my neighbours and people in Little Bray have told me they have been taking out insurance with the same company for years and suddenly they are being told they need to supply this information.

I fully understand the OPW has stated it is looking to draw up plans which can be given to the Irish Insurance Federation once schemes are completed. The work along the River Dargle is in process, and the paperwork has not been done for completed schemes. The people of Bray are desperate to get something from the OPW to describe the works being carried out and what is intended and to state we have not been flooded since Hurricane Charlie. The OPW should tell the Irish Insurance Federation it has a responsibility to provide insurance and just cannot stop doing so. We are very concerned about this. I welcome this opportunity to hear a response.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. Most of my colleagues from the Shannon basin and others have covered much of the ground already. I chaired a committee and presented a report calling for the OPW to be given management powers with regard to the Shannon. What is the opinion of the witnesses on this? While the OPW is the lead agency, it does not appear to have sufficient powers to compel people to take action. While I respect agencies have their own agendas, we felt very strongly there should be one overarching body which should have the power to invite people to discuss on a formal basis future plans for the River Shannon, particularly when bad weather is forecast.

I welcome the fact that the ESB has agreed to let off water at Athlone. People experienced in examining rising water levels felt strongly about this given they were not falling sufficiently there. How will this happen? Who will make the decision on it? Will it be left to the ESB?

How prescriptive will the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, report be? We have received numerous suggestions for solutions, including ideas such as using boglands to hold excess water, abatement works and building up rock armour in particular places along the Shannon. Who will have the power to decide what to do?

The issue with regard to silt has been raised time and again. I understand restrictions exist with regard to transporting silt, but Bord na Móna's railway network has huge potential in this regard. How much consultation has been done with it to see what role it can play? Of course we must bear in mind the big difference between wet and dry silt.

I ask Mr. Smyth to deal with these questions, beginning with the recommendations made last year in the Shannon report which have not been acted upon.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Our main response to the report on the Shannon was that many of its recommendations would be addressed through the CFRAM and until it was completed we would not have a full understanding of the water levels, interconnectivity and the impacts of what changes might be proposed in this regard. It is important to understand that at present the OPW has powers for maintenance on completed schemes under the Arterial Drainage Acts. To get these maintenance powers we need to carry out a scheme under the Act, which means putting it on public exhibition after proper engineering, design, cost benefit and environmental assessments, having it confirmed by the Minister and then constructed. After this, we maintain it.

We do not have the legislative power to do the kind of work in question, namely, take silt or branches out of the river.

Would the Office of Public Works, OPW, be happy to have them?

Mr. Tony Smyth

It would be difficult, as there is other constricting legislation. One cannot just remove silt. We must comply with the body of environmental legislation that has been put in place by the Oireachtas and the EU. Being given powers over one aspect means that we would need to comply with the other Acts of the Oireachtas. A process would then need to be put in place to comply with the various constraints, for example, public expenditure, environmental law and procurement law.

The OPW cannot take-----

To qualify, we are asking for information. Mr. Smyth has stated that laws are in place, but equally laws and an onus apply to the farming community and everyone else to keep the river channel free so that someone else is not hindered. Does the OPW turn a blind eye to that fact?

Mr. Tony Smyth

We do not have enforcement powers. That is the landowners' responsibility.

Surely if the OPW is specific in one area, it should be equally specific in another area. Other people have rights as well.

Mr. Tony Smyth

I appreciate that.

If I may, I will make a helpful point. Mr. Michael Silke, a representative of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, appeared before the committee a couple of months ago. Mr. Smyth's statement that people must keep the channels clear makes sense. As Mr. Silke informed us, though, when a channel near his farm was not cleared for a certain amount of time, a little island developed and became protected despite not having existed 30 years beforehand. It seems that the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, are adopting what would be called in the US a wilderness strategy. That is fine in the US, which has massive tracts of land where there are no people, but we cannot live in a wilderness. This is the problem.

I thank the Deputy for his intervention.

I am sorry, but it is an important point.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Under Acts of the Oireachtas and European law, the NPWS has responsibility for maintaining the environment. I am not in a position to comment.

Deputy Bannon mentioned Clondra, but I am fairly sure that construction is a Waterways Ireland issue, not an OPW one. The matter has been raised with Waterways Ireland.

The OPW committed to removing an obsolete structure.

Mr. Tony Smyth


Mr. Tony Smyth

The OPW committed to raising the issue with Waterways Ireland, which we did.

The OPW cut what was over the river, not what was blocking water in the river.

Mr. Tony Smyth

I am unsure about what Waterways Ireland cut, but we raised the issue with it.

I would appreciate it if an could engineer take a look to determine what was done.

The Deputy can discuss this matter with Mr. Smyth after the meeting.

The Minister, who has seen the structure, believes that it should be removed.

We will not get involved in specific cases.

Mr. Tony Smyth

I am grateful for the comments on the Bray scheme. We are delighted to be there. I do not know why the insurance industry would take that opinion. We can raise the matter when we meet it.

Mr. Liam Basquille

What is happening in Bray is similar to what has been happening in many locations throughout the country. This situation does not necessarily have anything to do with the Bray scheme commencing. When we go through the process with the insurance industry and provide it with information on the scheme, it will have the full details. Information can be provided to residents by way of a letter or directly to the Irish Insurance Federation, IIF, but a letter in and of itself would not be of help. In other cases in which letters were given via local authorities or the OPW, the industry asserted that it needed full, robust information, including all of the technical details, if it was to assess risk properly. An outline of what is being done, even one that includes a reference to a 100-year level of protection, may not carry enough weight with the industry. However, Bray Town Council or we can provide a letter.

That would be good. The council has a good environmental monitoring committee for the flood protection works. Representatives of residents, Inland Fisheries Ireland and the OPW are involved in that committee. The OPW's representative is co-operative and doing a good job.

The insurance companies will eventually be given details on the works, but what will people do in the meantime? It is a difficult situation, but there could be another flood during construction. Contractors have been taken on and cannot worsen the current situation, but there could be an act of God like a hurricane. Some of us who have been living alongside the river for a long time and have been insured. I have lived there for 28 years and have not experienced a problem with insurance yet, as it is not due for renewal. People have been waiting for flood defence works since Hurricane Charlie, yet they are now being told that they cannot be insured. It is ludicrous.

That is more of a question for the IIF.

The IIF is pushing the matter back to the OPW and looking for information from same. I have been told that one of the insurance companies operating in Bray is refusing to provide insurance near Superquinn, one of the sites flooded during Hurricane Charlie. People are worried. Many lost a great deal in Hurricane Charlie and it cost those who did not have insurance at the time a significant amount of money. I ask our guests to do what they can and to impress upon the IIF the severity of the problem in Bray and elsewhere. People desperately want to know what they can do.

Mr. Tony Smyth

The IIF has an appeals mechanism for people experiencing difficulties. The refusals are by insurance companies, but the IIF may be able to do something if the Deputy gives the same explanation.

Failing that, the Financial Services Ombudsman, but let us hope that we do not need to go that far.

Mr. Liam Basquille

The general issue was raised at the committee's previous meetings with the IIF.

The Deputy's specific point was not discussed, that is, insurers are seeking but not receiving information from the OPW.

The insurers claim that it would be helpful. There is no problem, but could the OPW speed the matter along and, at its next meeting with the IIF, mention that the issue of Bray was raised at this meeting? We all must fight for our own areas.

The question on opening the gates and keeping water levels 2 ft. below Athlone's weir wall was not answered. This issue has arisen time and again and commitments were given, yet it has not been addressed.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Regarding Lough Ree, the ESB has agreed to try to for a water level that is 100 mm lower than its target would otherwise have been. However, this is contingent upon rainfall and inputs from the upper part of the River Shannon and the tributaries north of the lake. The ESB does not have complete control of water levels. It can open a number of gates to reduce water levels somewhat, but more enters the lake at certain times than can be released through the gates or over the weir, leading to a rise in water levels that overwhelms the ESB's efforts.

Will Mr. Smyth please respond to the issues raised by Deputy Corcoran Kennedy?

Mr. Tony Smyth

A range of policy issues affect management powers on the Shannon. Many agencies and local authorities that have a remit over planning, tourism, boating and so forth are involved. When we identify a scheme of works, we generally put the plans on public exhibition, giving others an opportunity to comment. We have powers to implement a scheme. Once it is shown to be technically sound, passes its cost benefit analysis and meets environmental criteria, we recommend it for construction.

The catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, process examines flood risk on a river catchment basis and identifies a number of measures, some of which may be constructed flood defences or structural measures and some of which may be non-structural measures.

It will identify a lead body to bring each of those measures forward. If members take a look at they will see what a catchment flood management plan might look like. It includes a range of measures for particular areas, including works that might be done and who might undertake them. In some cases, a scheme will be led by the OPW and in others it will be led by a local authority. That is the process from plan to outline design stage.

Silt remains an issue. Without a scheme that is cost beneficial and can make all of the pieces stack up, it is difficult to invoke powers to do these things. We have not engaged with Bord na Móna in regard to transporting the silt on the network.

Would the OPW be open to having a conversation about the matter? It strikes me as a great opportunity. Bord na Móna has networks all across the midlands and down to the banks of the Shannon.

Mr. Tony Smyth

There are issues around the environmental impact of removing the silt, such as the disturbance of various plants, flora and fauna, which matters are regulated under the habitats directive and its ensuing legislation.

On the habitats directive and the NPWS having a remit to protect it, the farming organisations made clear at a previous committee meeting that the corncrake has been wiped out as a result of silt. Who encourages the NPWS to care for this? There are see-saw affects in this regard in that when on affects one thing it proves life for another. The same applies in respect of turf cutting. A particular breed of butterfly will only survive if turf cutting is allowed to continue on some of the SACs. Who makes these decisions? What did the butterfly and bird do?

Mr. Tony Smyth

The NPWS enforces the habitats legislation.

Ultimately, the CFRAM study is limited by what the NPWS allows the OPW to do, which, in turn, is limited by legislation.

Mr. Liam Basquille

CFRAM includes environmental assessments. In bringing forward a plan, consideration is given to environmental affects.

I thank the delegates for their responses. I have two final questions, the second of which will be dependent on the response to the first question. It was stated that there are nine major flood relief schemes at construction stage and that it is expected that a further five schemes will commence construction before the end of 2013. Perhaps Mr. Smyth would identify those schemes for us?

Mr. Tony Smyth

The nine on site are in Clonmel, Mallow-----

We are familiar with the nine schemes already under construction. Perhaps Mr. Smyth would identify the other five schemes.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Bandon, Ennis, Claregalway, a further phase at the Dodder and, possibly, Templemore.

Reference was made earlier to attempts since 1966 at flood relief management in Templemore. The issue of insurance was also discussed. Lest the people of Templemore think they have been forgotten, we will not allow that to happen. People are annoyed because they cannot obtain insurance. The OPW and Minister announced that the Templemore flood relief management scheme would commence in 2011 but that did not happen. Meanwhile, people still cannot get insurance cover. This demands an explanation from somebody.

Can Mr. Smyth set out the reason for the delay of the Templemore scheme and say if it will commence this year? I hope not to hear the words "possible" or "possibility" in his response.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Elements of that scheme are very costly. We are trying to find a more cost effective way of delivering the same solution.

Why was commencement of the scheme announced in 2011? An engineer from the OPW, Mr. Michael Collins, appeared before the committee and answered questions on the matter. There was then a public consultation process and the scheme was developed and announced. Mr. Collins stated that the scheme would be commenced and would be done by direct labour. Surely, the OPW knew at that stage about the elements to which Mr. Smyth refers.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Certain elements proved more complex when we got into the detailed design, including land ownership, purchase of land and site and moving of petrol tanks and so on.

They were all issues at that time?

Mr. Tony Smyth

Yes. We did not get the full impact of some of the complexities and difficulties that were arising until we get into the detailed design of the process. We are considering a slightly different route now, which has other ramifications for us, including issues of cost. We are working to resolve those issues.

When does Mr. Smyth expect matters to be concluded?

Mr. Tony Smyth

I do not have a date in my mind to do that. We are working on a solution.

Would Mr. Smyth accept as an appalling situation the Templemore community being told in 2011 that the scheme will commence at the end of that year and his now saying that no definite start-up date can be provided?

Mr. Tony Smyth

Issues such as purchase of site and so on are not within the control of the OPW. As such, I cannot give a definite date for start-up of the development.

I do not understand. Why was that not an issue in 2011?

Mr. Tony Smyth

There were difficulties with the exhibited route and associated risks with that route for the construction process which did not fully emerge until the detailed design stage was examined in greater detail. With the benefit of hindsight, we were premature in going to exhibition. The complexities arose after that.

Members will have to table questions to the Minister to find out why people have been let down in this way. The people of Templemore and surrounding areas are upset at the manner in which they have been treated. They accepted for years that nothing was being done about the problem and were then happy to hear it was going to be addressed. As stated by Mr. Smyth, at that stage there had been a consultation process with landowners and so on, following which the people of Templemore were told in the town chamber by the Minister and an engineer from the OPW that direct labour on the scheme would commence at the end of 2011. The situation is unsatisfactory. We will leave it at that.

What efforts have been made to clear the block between Lough Ree and Lough Derg?

Mr. Tony Smyth


Mr. Liam Basquille

Is it a block that is obstructing the channel?

It is a blockage. It is causing severe flooding. Deputy Flanagan referred to the island that is developing in close proximity to a particular man's farm. It is being caused by that blockage.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Is the block located at Meelick weir?

Yes, between Lough Ree and Lough Derg.

Mr. Tony Smyth

I am not aware of it.

The Deputy can discuss the matter with Mr. Smyth following the meeting. Mr. Smyth might then inquire into the matter and issue him with a response.

Mr. Tony Smyth

Yes. I will make inquiries into the matter.

That concludes our discussion. I thank Mr. Smyth and Mr. Basquille for attending today's meeting and for the information they have given the committee.

Sitting suspended at 3.30 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.