I welcome the Minister of State, who has come to the House at very short notice. As a member of the sub-committee which dealt with this matter, I am fairly familiar with what has occurred over the past months. In a very short period, the sub-committee met with many individuals and groups, both statutory and private, with interests along the Shannon. We went to the Shannon region where flooding has been very apparent, over the past couple of years in particular.
Rather than looking back and criticising the fact that legislation did not get through this or the other House, we should collectively look forward. If we are sympathetic towards and feel pity for the people involved in the flooded regions we should look forward collectively and make a serious and genuine attempt to address these problems in the hope that the Government will produce the necessary funding.
Fragmentation is the most fundamental issue. It was never the intention of the sub-committee to deal with it in this interim report. We had a twofold mission: first, to introduce an interim report as speedily as possible with the resources available to us, limited though they may have been in some instances, and we have succeeded in doing that; second, to examine the overall picture with a view to putting a framework, statutory body or other such facility in place to take total responsibility for the various different interests and groups along the river. The Minister of State has taken a positive approach to most of the conclusions and recommendations in the interim report, which I welcome.
In the course of our deliberations we met with many groups and took into account the many previous reports and submissions that were made to our committee and to previous ones. We examined the final report on the River Shannon flood problem by Mr. Rydell, which has been referred to by the Minister of State. We also considered the IFA report on technical aspects of the Shannon flooding problem, prepared by Delap & Waller, the report of the Office of Public Works in April 1998 on an investigation of flooding problems, especially in the County Galway area, and submissions to meetings of the Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport by Dúchas, the Heritage Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, the ESB and the Office of Public Works. More recently in the course of our deliberations, both at the site of the problem in the River Shannon area and in committee, we met with many other groups, including the Heritage Council, Roscommon County Council, An Taisce, Birdwatch Ireland, Bord na Móna and, on numerous occasions, the IFA, both here and in the Shannon region. From our meetings we concluded that while everybody had limited responsibility, nobody either had or wished to have overall responsibility for the River Shannon. That is the kernel of this problem.
The Shannon is a majestic river. It is the longest and largest in the British Isles and, at a time when we are trying to increase tourism numbers, it has huge tourism potential. By concentrating our minds to address this issue we can attract more tourists to the River Shannon region, where there are many opportunities for them to enjoy their holidays in Ireland.
The provision of access, especially to property and to basic needs, is essential when dealing with the consequences of flooding. We tried to encourage the local authorities in the counties in question to provide funding for access to all the areas in question. A further difficulty arose in trying to identify the number of farms and families that would be isolated at any one time. Various vested interest groups submitted figures to us. The cost of paying compensation or removing people from their farms on a once-off basis could not be considered until we have statistics on the numbers involved and how often their properties are flooded.
We arrived at a figure of between £8.1 and £8.2 million, which is modest by today's standards, to ensure that access can be provided in the following counties that have acknowledged they have a problem, taken time to examine the situation and put a figure on the amount they required: Athlone UDC – £780,000; Clare County Council – £636,000; Galway County Council – £172,000; Leitrim County Council – £1.9 million; Longford County Council – £1.5 million; Offaly County Council – £290,000; Roscommon County Council – £2.5 million; Tipperary North Riding – £190,000; and Westmeath County Council – £193, 000. I agree with Senator Taylor-Quinn that the figure is modest and will probably have to increase. On three occasions we asked the local authorities in question to ensure that as well as raising the roads to give access to the places concerned, other ancillary works would be taken into account. We have been assured this will happen, but it means that in most cases if and when this work is tackled there will be a slight upward adjustment of the money involved.
I agree with Senator Taylor-Quinn that the conclusions and recommendations of the sub-committee are basic in many ways. They are couched in layman's language to ensure they will be addressed. Given the resources at our disposal and the short period of time, we have produced a high quality report. It has less than 50 pages, but it spells out clearly and precisely what we were asked to do, how we approached our task and how we prepared the report and placed it before both Houses of the Oireachtas.
This report will give much greater solace to the people directly affected by flooding than any legislation passed by this House, including legislation passed with cross party support. The Government was wise to ask the Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport to examine this matter in detail. Our mission was twofold: first, to examine how flooding along the River Shannon and flood relief could be addressed, and, second, to consider the fragmentation of responsibility. We look forward to the submission of a full report to the House some time next year. In my short time as a Member of this House this very important issue has been raised on many occasions. I hope those Members who have done so will contribute to this debate.
According to the report, flooding along the River Shannon occurs ever winter and, on average, in one of every two summers. It is primarily due to natural causes, the extremely flat basin of the River Shannon, its inadequate depths and widths in critical areas, apparent increases in rainfall amounts and the possible effects of siltation of the river's channels. All this results in great hardship and considerable financial loss to those affected. When we visited the families involved we saw the tremendous hardship they must endure at times of flooding, including financial loss.
Senator Taylor-Quinn criticised some of the Minister of State's responses to the report's recommendations. I welcome them, especially with regard to sections 7.7 and 7.8 where the Minister of State indicated his intention to reconvene the inter-departmental committee established originally in 1996 to review the effects of bad weather. Apart from reviewing the recent flooding, he will ask the committee to look at flood risk mapping. He indicated that this course of action is essential and that the information will be invaluable, especially for local authorities in dealing with planning applications and their development plans. I agree with that, because whatever about trying to remove people from impossible situations, we should not place them there. If we can map the flood risk areas nobody will be foolish enough to suggest that people be granted planning permission to build there. When the mapping is complete we can perhaps look at lands that are continually under water with a view to making once-off compensation payments.
Given the short time available for the completion of his report, Mr. Rydell did not conduct site investigations, carry out detailed surveys or collect extensive field data. His proposals were of a preliminary nature, especially with regard to his estimated cost of £15 million. He recommended that further site research was necessary before the summer relief scheme could be advanced. If this scheme were to be implemented now, this detailed stage of surveys and investigations would be essential, particularly in light of the lengthy intervening period, the changed circumstances within the catchment and the current climate of critical environmental appraisal of such major drainage schemes. An essential element of the summer relief scheme investigations would be an assessment of its updated estimate of cost and the availability of funding for the proposal.
All the preparatory work and investigations would be likely to extend over a number of years before being completed. Such a protracted period of time before initiation of any flood relief scheme would be unlikely to be acceptable to the population of those flooded areas who suffer regular hardship, inconvenience and financial loss. An earlier solution to their difficulties would result in the raising of regularly flooded roads above flood level, possible resiting of flooded farms and payment of compensation to property owners on a once-off basis for financial loss, provided it is possible to determine the number of farms continually under water.
It has been confirmed by local authorities, which have prepared estimates of cost, that the elevation of roads would cost £8.1 million. The committee strongly recommends that the Minister for Finance should make budgetary provision for this expenditure. I do not mind which Minister makes such provision. I am sure it is the responsibility of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government and I hope he is sympathetic to the cause. When announcing further allocations for multi-annual road plans, I hope he takes cognisance of the fact that this finance is badly needed to provide access to people's property in times of flooding.
Comprehensive information is not available on the extent of past flooding, particularly its geographical limits, numbers of houses, buildings and farm holdings affected and details of roads submerged, together with information on depth and duration of submersion. This information would be essential in the determination of any equitable scales of monetary compensation to property owners. The committee recommends that the Government should nominate an appropriate body to obtain this information in co-operation with the relevant local authorities. The Government should then determine criteria for a once-off compensation scheme based on data obtained after consultation with the insurance industry. An independent body should administer the scheme. It is important to involve local authorities because they know where flooding occurs in their areas on an annual basis and the duration of such flooding.
If it is known that land is prone to flooding or susceptible to extreme weather conditions, the planning authorities must take cognisance of that when making development plans. It is important that more people are not put in the same situation. Although people would like to build houses along the River Shannon or the Shannon basin, we must ensure that people's properties are not prone to flooding when considering planning applications.
Claims that appreciable siltation has occurred over stretches of the river and that repair work is required on some hydraulic controls should be examined and appropriate corrective action taken, if warranted. As regards siltation, the Government should appoint one agency to undertake an immediate survey of the extent of the problem and take early action. Bord na Móna should be invited to assist with this work. The report also recommends that more frequent and assiduous monitoring of the operation of the sedimentation ponds should be undertaken, using currently acceptable best practice procedures, to ensure that the siltation problem on the Shannon is controlled.
Discussions should be initiated with the ESB to maximise storage on Lough Allen and Lough Ree with a view to providing a greater buffer against autumn and winter flooding. There appeared to be constant contradictions in deliberations, particularly with the IFA and the ESB. Many people living in that region were of the opinion that the ESB had a certain amount of flexibility in controlling flood waters and that it had not handled them properly at times. The ESB is obliged to maintain certain levels, which were agreed many years ago. Perhaps it is time to re-examine those levels to help alleviate the flooding.
The committee also recommended that a dedicated annual budget, which should be augmented, if necessary, with a Supplementary Estimate, should be provided to ensure that regular and necessary maintenance work is carried out on an ongoing basis on the channel of the main stream, the tributaries of the river and on all associated hydraulic control structures and installations. It has been brought home to us on many occasions that lack of maintenance work is a contributory factor. Professional bodies may say it is not a major contributory factor but people who live along the river know it causes a considerable problem.
It is a crying shame to see parts of such a majestic river closing in. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to realise that if more room is made in the river by removing siltation or small obstacles along the channel, it will help to alleviate flooding. This would not require legislation or large-scale funding. An annual budgetary sum will be required to provide necessary maintenance on the River Shannon. This will benefit the people living along the river by alleviating flooding and it will help tourism. When Bord Fáilte made a submission to the committee it stated there was a potential to increase the tourism figures for the River Shannon if we had overall responsibility.
I hope the House adopts the report. We should encourage the Government in whatever way we can to ensure the recommendations which can be implemented immediately are done so and that the others will be implemented at the earliest possible date. I look forward to working on the sub-committee with my colleagues from the other House to ensure that we publish a substantial report some time in 2001.