Blocking of flood relief schemes could cause displacement, warns minister

Patrick O’Donovan says people may have to leave their homes because of opposition to projects, but environmentalists argue for retention of safeguards

Patrick O’Donovan, the Minister of State at the Office of Public Works: ‘Our own citizens are being abandoned.’ Picture: Arthur Ellis

People could be displaced from their homes due to flood relief projects being “blocked and opposed”, Patrick O’Donovan, the Minister of State at the Office of Public Works, has warned.

The Office of Public Works (OPW) has a budget of €1.3 billion to deliver flood relief projects up to the end of the decade for 23,000 properties in threatened communities. However, there have been lengthy delays to some of the projects, such as in Cork city, Enniscorthy in Wexford and Lough Funshinagh in Roscommon.

O’Donovan told the Business Post that people would have to move out of their homes because flood relief projects were being “blocked and opposed”.

“We will have people in our own country who are displaced by climate change because of the planning process. Our own citizens are being abandoned,” he said.

The flood prevention project in Enniscorthy in Wexford has been under development for around 20 years. But the latest plan for the project was rejected by the Department of Public Expenditure earlier this year based on the advice of environmental consultants and advisers. The €140 million Cork city flood relief project was first proposed in 2017 but it has still not gone ahead as its planning permission has been challenged in the Supreme Court.

O’Donovan cited the example of the final phase of the flood prevention project in Ennis in Clare, which he opened last month.

“It took two years to build it. But it took nine years to plan it. We have to have a proper planning process that reflects people’s needs in 2022,” he said.

Paul Gallagher, the Attorney General, is currently carrying out a review of the planning process for the government, which is due to be completed in September.

The design of all flood relief schemes involves an extensive series of environmental assessments. The OPW has committed to designing them in such a way as to balance “biodiversity” with social impacts on communities and to minimise environmental impacts “where they are unavoidable” in its 2021-2026 biodiversity action strategy .

O’Donovan said there were problems complying with European environmental directives when it came to protecting certain species, sand dunes and the pearl mussel in rivers. He said the engineers in the Office of Public Works (OPW) were “beyond frustrated” with the current process.

“There are things we have to do to protect communities that we are not allowed to do. Our biggest frustration is that we are rendered helpless to help people. You can’t put a shovel into the ground,” he said.

The OPW’s €1.3 billion budget for flood relief up to the end of the decade will be targeted at around 150 flood prevention projects. Around 90 of them are in the design or construction phase and €81 million was spent on them last year. However, O’Donovan said he had stopped giving people timelines for the delivery of the projects because they were only “guesstimates”.

O'Donovan said that the flood prevention projects would still be needed in addition to the government’s current plans to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by the end of the decade.

“If they got rid of every bullock and heifer and got every car and truck off the road, the water level will continue to rise,” he said.

However, the Friends of the Irish Environment group, which has taken legal challenges against flood relief schemes, rejected O’Donovan’s criticism of the planning and environmental regulations.

Tony Lowes, a director of the group, said the existing system was important to protect the environment. “These environmental safeguards are there for a reason and they haven't been plucked out of thin air,” he said.

Lowes said that the OPW always had the option to argue under environmental directives that they were acting “in the public interest” to protect communities.

“There is a procedure, but what they're trying to do is short circuit this procedure all the time,” he said.