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East Belfast Flooding Adjournment Debate Speech 11/9/2012

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Thank you Mr Speaker / Deputy Speaker

I would like to thank the Minister for Regional Development for being in attendance today. I did write to you on this matter and I have also written to the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, whose department has responsibility for the Rivers Agency. The Minister has not had the time to meet with my constituents – the flood victims - but indicated her officials would be in touch with me. I am still waiting.

I deeply regret that Minister O’Neill is not in attendance today, the DARD Minister has a major role to play in the solution to this problem.

The matter is a serious and on-going problem. Many East Belfast householders now fear the worst as a heavy downpour starts.  On the 27th June within the Belfast City Council area there were 720 homes in receipt of £1000 emergency payments and 329 in the Castlereagh Borough Council area of the East Belfast constituency – 1049 completely flooded – and many more that had near misses   Following the Executive’s announcement of 5th July regarding the acceleration of projects there was an expectation from flood victims that additional money would be made available for flood alleviation works. I understand the cost of DARD flood alleviation projects in East Belfast is estimated at £11 million. I further understand the DARD Minister has had discussions regarding the prioritisation of her budget for flood alleviation works.

However, I need to know and more importantly my constituents need to know, what priority she is attaching to delivering the necessary capital schemes. They need to know what level of priority she is attaching to delivering them a solution to their problems; has the Minister recently met with the Finance Minister; how often has she met; what priority is she giving to this crisis; has she confirmed to him the reprioritisation of her budget to deal with the flooding problems.

The Minister - just a few days ago – announced her intention to build new headquarters in the North West. DARDs capital funding is circa £23 million in 2013/14 and £30 million 2014/15. This is not an insignificant amount of money – my constituents will view this as sufficient to deal with their nightmarish type of problems - with plenty left over.

They will just not understand how the Rivers Agency has lost out re funding increases to the NI Rural Development Fund and the new DARD HQ. Prioritising circa £13 million for a new HQ while senior citizens, sick children and disabled are being flooded out shows a low level of concern and bizarre prioritisation. Is this what my constituents should expect; a Minister who puts new HQ buildings before flood victims – is it more important to have posh offices for officials than to invest in flood alleviation schemes. Flood victims will find Minister O’Neill’s prioritisation programme hard to understand.  

The Minister is well aware of the Connswater Greenway scheme and the proposed flood alleviation scheme which is tied in with the project.   Unfortunately due to a contractual dispute, work on the Greenway has been halted and it is now out to tender for a new contractor.  I call on Minister O’Neill to ensure that Rivers Agency has the finance and is prepared and ready to go as soon as the new contractor is in place.  

 Minister Kennedy – there are also many areas that have flooded due to the inability of the water and sewerage system to handle the now frequent torrential rain we are experiencing. There is a strong belief that gratings and gullies are not cleaned often enough – many residents believe once per year is insufficient. The old joint rain water and sewerage systems are well past being able to handle the problems. Investment in infrastructure is required and needs to be bid for.

Minister you know the flood areas within the East of the City.  On the night of June 27th I did not need to be told which areas would flood. There is now a history of flooding. The areas I visited included Clonduff, which has frequent severe flooding, resulting in many homeowners unable to get household insurance. 

One of the flooded homes is a family with a severely disabled child. They were forced out of their home for weeks.  This should not be occurring in the 21st Century. Elderly residents unable to handle the trauma – disabled residents completely flooded out – children moved to the care of other family – and just a feeling of despair among many.      

I also visited the Larkfield area of Sydenham where residents were up to their knees in water.  The same also applies to houses in the Orangefield Park, Cregagh, Clarawood and many other areas.  Once again this should not be occurring in the 21st Century.

1.  Recent announcement of NI Water of profits this year, (NOT ALL CASH) which should be reinvested in the local infrastructure.   

2.  Give local residents the ability to help themselves.  In many cases it is too late when sandbags are delivered - homes are already flooded.  Homes with a history of flooding deserve bespoke flood defence mechanisms. These are inexpensive.   I understand Rivers Agency has commissioned a report into the effectiveness of these mechanisms and I look forward to the outcome of this report. Residents do need swift action. They do not always need or want to rely upon statutory bodies swinging into action (or otherwise) to protect their homes; and their past experiences have not been good. I do welcome Belfast City Council’s decision to stockpile sandbags in areas which are most at threat of flooding – this is a first step. 

  3.  The importance of good communication lines with residents is of the utmost importance. This helps build confidence and trust between the statutory bodies and potential flood victims. On the night of June 27th residents were directed to the flooding emergency line. The Floodline was unable to deal with the high volume of calls.  On the evening of the 27th Government bodies needed to communicate with residents likely to be flood victims - not the whole of Belfast or the greater Belfast area. And in East Belfast the likely flood areas are known. Developing channels of communication needs to be continuous and ongoing work - not only when the flood warnings are announced. Clear lines of communication between statutory bodies and local residents will not only build confidence amongst the local community but will also ensure a much smoother operation will be in place.  

4.  The recent flooding has also shown the need for a joined up strategy between the relevant agencies.  This flooding took many by surprise and it confirmed the agencies were not prepared; there were gaps in the service.        

We need to learn clear lessons from this most recent flooding.  Agencies need crystal clear roles with specific responsibilities identified and robustly tested in advance of such an emergency.      

Finally Mr Speaker we look forward to the conclusions of the operational agencies, following the standing down of the emergency response plans. I believe Roads Service and NI Water have started their debriefing. All other agencies need to complete the process; Floodline is the responsibility of DFP; drainage is the responsibility of Agriculture Minister and the local authorities are within DOE.

There is clear evidence that East Belfast is now the worst affected flood area in Northern Ireland. The hot spot flood areas are well known, not only to local representatives but to the government bodies.

I sincerely hope that today’s adjournment debate will be the last we have on this topic.

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