Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 16 Nov 2011

Vol. 211 No. 8

Adjournment Matters

Planning Regulations

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, for coming to the House. He is a regular visitor and as somebody who was a Member of the House, he knows the format and the value of having a Minister or Minister of State replying to Senators' queries. My issue is local to Letterkenny, with a problem immediately affecting four estates. The ESB has written to the residents associations and told them the ESB would switch off power to the sewerage pumps because money has not been paid. The residents made inquiries through the council and by their own research found that the developer had gone bust. The developer was from Northern Ireland and the receiver appears to have abandoned ship altogether. These residents had to go to the ESB and in the past day or two it was indicated that power would not be cut off immediately, although this had been scheduled for 20 November. There has been no indication of who will pay the bill.

The residents and possibly a school would be affected if the power is switched off. These residents bought their properties in good faith and never expected to arrive at such a position. As a member of Letterkenny Town Council and Donegal County Council for many years, I believe the council has a responsibility for residents and must ultimately pick up the tab because of the lack of a system. At a council meeting last year I asked how many bonds had been called upon and only one has ever been used. I question the value of having a bond and the way bonds have been administered in the planning process, which leaves much to be desired. To date nobody has got to grips with when a bond can be called in or if they can be used. There seem to be many conditions attached to calling in a bond.

My experience at the council leads me to believe there is an obligation to take over estates after seven years but in many cases the cost of doing so would be prohibitive. Will the Minister of State clarify the issue? Builders have gone bust in the Minister of State's constituency and the seven-year period is up. In some cases estates may be 25 or 30 years old but the council would not have taken over. At what stage is a council legally obliged to take over the running of an estate? In the Letterkenny case the developer is from outside the jurisdiction and has no means of paying the ESB. Who has to pay it and will it come back to the residents? Some of the houses may be owned by developers or investors with no real interest in the local area. Houses may also be empty. Such people will not pay up and I would not expect a resident to have to pay for a developer's obligation.

I know the financial position of local authorities is difficult but it is more difficult for residents and a family home should be sacrosanct. The previous Administration allowed this get out of hand to such a degree that this is only now hitting home. It is not a tragedy but it is an injustice.

I thank Senator Harte for raising this matter, which is very important in his part of the country and Letterkenny in County Donegal in particular. It is important to the affected residents.

A development which has not been completed in accordance with the planning permission is unauthorised development and may be subject to planning enforcement. These provisions apply to all residential developments, whether they are to be managed by a management company. In so far as the taking in charge of residential developments is concerned, section 180 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 provides that, where an estate is completed to the satisfaction of the planning authority in accordance with the planning permission, and any conditions attached to the permission, the planning authority must initiate taking in charge procedures as soon as possible following a request to do so by the developer or by the majority of the owners. Similarly, where an estate has not been completed to the standard outlined in the planning permission and the planning authority has not taken enforcement action within the appropriate period, section 180 also provides that the planning authority must initiate taking-in-charge procedures if requested to do so by the owners of the units concerned. The decision as to whether an estate should be taken in charge is ultimately one for the elected members of the planning authority.

Section 180 was amended in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 to provide that a planning authority may take in charge an unfinished estate at any time after the expiration of the planning permission, in situations where enforcement actions have failed or the authority has not taken enforcement action. Planning authorities were also specifically empowered in the 2010 Act to take in charge part of an estate, or some but not all of the facilities in an estate. Housing estates and apartment developments not taken in charge normally remain private developments until such time as the owners of such developments take the necessary steps to have the development taken over by the relevant local authority.

Where, as the Senator has suggested, in regard to a number of developments in the areas mentioned, a receiver has been appointed by a financial institution, the receiver assumes the obligations of the developer. In this case, because the receiver has been appointed and given the scale of the development, the receiver in this case is the de facto developer and the owner of the development in law and in terms of the existing planning and development Acts. It then becomes a matter for the receiver and the institution to consider what steps they may wish to take to complete the development and have it taken in charge. This may include the realisation of assets on other sites within the control of the overall group in receivership to fund any necessary works.

I apologise for the absence of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan. I suggest a transcript of the Senator's contribution be sent to him to see what further action, if any, can be taken by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in its dealings with Donegal County Council. In this instance, the first port of call is the local authority. The county council's relationship — of whatever description — with the receiver who, effectively, has become the de facto owner of the site and the units on it still has to be clarified.

The question on the minds of the residents in the estates is: who will ultimately pay the ESB if the company decides next month to cut off the power because of non-payment? The amount is as yet unclear because there are different figures for different areas. Houses have been added and as such, the scale of the problem is unclear. Who will ultimately be responsible for paying the bill?

As I am not aware of the particulars of the case, I am slow to make a judgment on it. In the first instance, one would have to see a report from Donegal County Council to see where the matter stands in respect of unauthorised development. I will ask the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to revert to the Senator to see whether the question can be answered. I am not in possession of information or details on the case as to what action, if any, Donegal County Council has taken in the case. As I said, the county council is the first port of call. I will ask the relevant section in the Department to revert to the Senator on the matter.

Flood Relief

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter and the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy Brian Hayes, for coming into the House to respond to it.

I refer to the flooding in Drumconrath, County Meath, on the night of the large floods on the east coast on 24 October, of which I know the Minister is aware. There was a huge flood in the centre of the village in which a flood had not occurred in decades. A number of houses were completely destroyed and it was heart-rending to visit them, as people could no longer live in them. With all the publicity in Dublin, there was very little coverage of the hardship suffered by some of the families affected in the village of Drumconrath. Some of the houses have been in their ownership for hundreds of years.

The Drumconrath area is covered by the OPW under the arterial drainage Acts. Some works were undertaken subsequent to the floods in 2008. The question arises as to whether the works which alleviated the problem in part of the village contributed to flooding in the other part of the village last month. Reports are due on the matter. I raise the issue in the Seanad to highlight its urgency and the severe trauma that has affected those who have had to move out of their homes. I highlight the lack of the knowledge in the village of what is going on. I also wish to exert as much gentle pressure as possible on the Minister of State to treat the matter with the utmost urgency and to get the reports I believe he is expecting and ensure funding is provided as soon as possible to have the work done. This is an opportunity to raise the issue to show how important it is.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to address this issue in the House; it is one for which I have responsibility, unlike the others to which I have responded.

I am well aware of the hardship endured by the residents of Drumconrath on 24 October and the losses suffered as a result of the flooding of four houses and a community centre in the village. I take the opportunity to express my personal sympathy to and show concern for the victims of the flooding. As the Senator said, it is very stressful to have one's home flooded and belongings destroyed. In the few opportunities I have had to visit other victims of flooding throughout the country, it is evident that enormous psychological damage is done to people when their homes are devastated by such an event. As an organisation, the Office of Public Works appreciates that part of our response is making sure we give people the defences and support they need in recognising the damage done to communities and individual residents.

I acknowledge the tremendous work undertaken locally by the emergency services during the flood event in providing assistance for residents. Two units of the fire brigade and staff from the road maintenance section of the local authority attended until the early hours of the morning. The road maintenance crews provided and filled sandbags and supported the emergency services. Since the flood event, the local area engineer in Meath County Council has met local residents, while a senior engineer has also engaged with them.

Drumconrath was severely affected by the extreme weather event which affected the east coast on Monday, 24 October. To put the event in its historical perspective, 82.2 mm of rainfall was recorded at Casement Aerodrome, the highest daily rainfall recorded for October since records began there in 1954. The Burley Bridge hydrometric gauge on the River Dee, approximately 4 km from Drumconrath, recorded a water level of 3.33 m, the fourth highest level recorded since 1975.

Initial inspections suggest the flooding occurred when the flow in the channel exceeded the conveyance capacity of the channel under the bridge. That is typical of many other cases along the east coast on that evening; that the channel was not big enough, wide enough or deep enough in some cases to withstand the surge of water. The surcharged water flow at this point resulted in the flooding of the houses upstream of the bridge. The surcharged water flow continued across the R165, flooding the community hall, as the Senator is aware. The depth of flooding in the properties was approximately 0.5 m. The flood waters had receded by the next morning.

The river that flooded is a tributary of the River Dee which is part of the Glyde and Dee catchment drainage scheme which was completed by the OPW in 1957. The Office Of Public Works programmes maintenance as required for this scheme and maintenance was last carried out on the river in 2009.

On addressing the immediate flooding issues in Drumconrath, the Office of Public Works will undertake a detailed survey of the area and design remedial works to the channel. Any works will take account of cost/benefit and environmental issues. The works may be carried out either directly by the OPW or by the council under the minor flood mitigation works scheme. It is envisaged that the survey will be carried out in early 2012.

I give that commitment to the Senator. We will complete that survey early next year so that we can set about correcting the problems that emerge, if they are specific to the OPW. There may be other issues which Meath County Council may wish to advance to the OPW by way of a minor works scheme. We would have no difficulty in processing those requirements as soon as possible. As the Senator knows, under the minor works scheme we deal with this issue on a 24/7 basis. The more proposals that come from Meath County Council the quicker we can turn them around.

As a response to the flood events of 24 October, the Government recently set up a humanitarian assistance scheme for which €10 million has been allocated to provide means tested financial support to people who have suffered damage to their homes as a result of the recent flooding which is not covered by insurance. The scheme is administered on the ground by staff from the Department of Social Protection and will provides hardship alleviation assistance, as opposed to full compensation, to householders affected by the flooding. Applications will be prioritised and the most urgent cases will be dealt with quickly. I am not sure this is relevant to the case of Drumconrath. It depends on whether people had insurance. However, it is another avenue of support open to people who have no insurance. I assure the Senator and the residents of Drumconrath of the OPW's commitment to resolving the issues affecting Drumconrath to avoid a repeat of the flooding which occurred.

As the Senator rightly pointed out, the key issue is to get the review done as soon as possible and to carry out the works. We have the funds and the support to do that, once the review is done, as well as any ancillary works Meath County Council want the OPW to do.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and understanding of the issues. The Office of Public Works is an interesting office and deals with very difficult situations.

The Minister of State mentioned the community centre. I thank Fr. Connaughton, from the parish of Drumconrath and Meath Hill, for his leadership on this issue. He has much work to do in the community centre.

The Minister of State mentioned the hardship scheme provided by the Department of Social Protection. This may or may not apply to the residents of Drumconrath. It is interesting and concerning that when I raised this with the residents at a meeting last Friday night, which was some time after the flooding, none of them was aware of the full details of the scheme and none had been contacted by a community welfare officer, which I understood was the Department's policy. They may or may not qualify for the scheme. I do not know their individual circumstances. Perhaps some further work could be done on that matter if there are people who may need to avail of the scheme but are not fully aware of it. The people I spoke to knew about the scheme but they certainly had not been contacted by anyone from the Department of Social Protection.

My understanding is that support is there for people in the first instance if it is needed for specific issues. In my constituency I know of cases where specific equipment was needed quickly and the relieving officers were able to provide it quickly. The humanitarian assistance scheme is intended for people who have no insurance, or did not pay their insurance premiums. My understanding is that the Department of Social Protection will progress those applications as soon as possible, on a means tested basis. We would encourage people, in the first instance to go to their insurers and draw down funds, given that they have been paying premiums for years.

Garda Stations

I thank the Minister of State for his intervention the week before last on behalf of the residents of Melrose Park, Kinsealy in Fingal, who were flooded. His assistance there was very much appreciated.

There is grave concern in Malahide, Kinsealy and Portmarnock about the review being carried out in the Dublin metropolitan policing area. It has been reported that Malahide Garda Station is part of the review list. It is a significant station with 33 gardaí. It has been there since the foundation of the State and was an RIC barracks before that. The population of the area is 25,000, and growing. The closure or restriction of Howth Garda Station is also being talked about. This would mean the entire local authority area of Malahide and Howth, with 50,000 residents, would not have a Garda station.

The only thing I was ever involved in closing in Malahide was a head shop. The gardaí were very helpful in that matter. I assume the Government will not preside over the closure of Malahide Garda Station.

I am aware of the review. The closure and rationalisation of Garda stations has largely been reported as a rural issue. This is not the case. Garda stations in Whitehall, Howth, Malahide and other urban locations are also threatened.

Can the Minister of State confirm to the people of Malahide, Kinsealy and Portmarnock that the station in Malahide will continue as a 24 hour and seven day a week station, that its hours will not be restricted and that it will not be closed and its functions transferred to Swords?

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I apologise to Senator O'Brien for the fact that the Minister is not here to take this issue, in which the Senator has an enormous interest. I thank him for raising it. As with every other public sector organisation, the Garda Síochána will have to manage with reduced resources. The House will also be aware that, under plans agreed by the previous Government as part of its compliance with the terms of the EU-IMF agreement, Garda numbers are to be reduced.

The Garda Commissioner has therefore quite properly been reviewing all aspects of the Garda Síochána's policing model, including the deployment of personnel, the utilisation of modern technologies and the operation of Garda stations, in terms of opening hours and possible closures. The purpose of the review is to ensure that Garda resources are managed and deployed in the most appropriate manner to meet existing and emerging policing requirements and to maintain Garda front line services, which is entirely consistent with Government policy.

Clearly, an examination of the opening hours, and in some cases the viability, of stations forms part of this. In that regard the Garda Commissioner is considering whether efficiencies could be introduced through rationalisation of some Garda stations and revised arrangements for the delivery of local policing services.

A final decision on whether station closures will take place, and if so what stations, will be taken in the context of the Commissioner's draft policing plan for 2012 and will be announced shortly. Therefore, I cannot directly answer Senator O'Brien's question on behalf of the Minister. His answer will depend on the Commissioner's policing plan, which I understand will be announced shortly. The policing plan will also be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. I presume colleagues will have an opportunity to debate the matter at that stage, either in committee or in plenary sessions of the Houses.

Before I conclude I would like on behalf of the Minister to pay tribute to the Garda Síochána. The Minister is fully aware that its members will bring their professionalism to bear on the task of identifying efficiencies and in looking at new ways to maximise the effective use of resources. The Minister is confident that the Garda force will continue to maintain the confidence of the public and operate successfully as it has been doing so effectively since the foundation of the State.

The key objective in this matter is to maintain numbers so that the front line is not affected by an obvious rationalisation or new efficiencies which might be brought to bear. I am sure that is the ambition of us all.

I know the Minister of State gives this response on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality and Defence, and I do not criticise him. However, the answer given does not even refer to the Garda station about which I asked and gives no comfort.

I will continue to pursue this matter. In my area, Garda stations in places such as Skerries have already been restricted. The Minister's reply tells me we will have further restrictions and closures. I would bet my house on that, on the basis of the Minister's answer.

The Minister of State said the draft policing plan for 2012 will be announced shortly. Does he have any information as to when that will be?

Unfortunately, I cannot confirm when that will occur. My understanding is that the policing model for 2012 which will include all the information the Senator seeks will be announced shortly. I will ask the Minister's office to revert to the Senator on what "shortly" means. I appreciate the point made that we need some assurance on this. People need to know where they are going. The Garda Síochána in particular need to know what is in store if they must organise their front line to ensure they maximise their resources. The sooner this happens the better.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 17 November 2011.