A LeasCheann Comhairle, I thank Members for the debate. It is clear from the contributions of Alex Attwood and other Members that this is a cross-departmental issue, and the response to it should also be cross-departmental. Nevertheless, in a debate such as this, only one Minister responds, and I will endeavour to answer some of the points that have been raised. However, some points clearly relate to the Rivers Agency, which falls under the remit of DARD; others relate to planning matters and how some of the Housing Executive’s properties were maintained. I will endeavour to answer for the other Departments as best I can. Some specific points have been made, and, if I cannot answer them, I will ensure that a copy of the Hansard report is distributed to the relevant Ministers, and I will ask them to respond in writing.
Comments have been made about the ongoing flooding issues, such as surface water on roads and so on. However, the specific incident is the severe flooding that occurred on 16 August 2008, which was caused by extreme levels of heavy, persistent rainfall. It is estimated that between 60 mm and 80 mm of rain fell during the day, which exceeded the total rainfall that would normally be expected for the whole month. As a result, the design capacity of the drainage network was exceeded, and, in some places, totally overwhelmed. That was compounded by the rainfall, which caused surcharging of rivers and watercourses into which the drainage system would normally discharge.
In retrospect, it is widely acknowledged that no sewerage system could have coped with rainfall of that intensity. Consequently, although Northern Ireland Water will continue to monitor and improve its network to reduce the risk of future flooding, it must be recognised that it is not possible to guarantee that such flooding will not reoccur in similar weather conditions.
NIW has advised that there were two main localised flooding incidents in the Andersonstown Road and Falls Road areas that related to infrastructural problems on 16 August 2008. As Paul Maskey said, I had the opportunity on Sunday 17 August, the day after the flooding, to visit east Belfast, the Beechmount area and the Broadway underpass, which drew most of the media attention. However, the most difficult issues to face were those that involved the flooding of people’s homes. My sympathy is with the people affected. Unfortunately, during the previous summer, I had to visit homes in east Belfast and in the Lower Ormeau areas where flooding had also occurred.
There is a responsibility on all Government agencies and Departments to do everything that is reasonable and possible to ensure that those incidents do not happen again, or, if they do, that it is not as a consequence of the failure of a system that has been put in place by the various Government agencies.
There was localised flooding in the vicinity of numbers 117 to 119 Stockman’s Lane. That general area is upstream of the upper Falls wastewater pumping station, which was overwhelmed as a result of the exceptional conditions on that day. Although attributed to the conditions at that time, the main sewer in Stockman’s Lane, which runs through Shane Retail Park, has since been de-silted as a precaution. It was also found that a parallel road drainage line was heavily silted, and the Roads Service has subsequently addressed that matter.
Alex Attwood gave us fairly graphic details of what happened at Glenhill Park, and my sympathy is with the people affected. NIW was on site following the flooding on 16 August 2008, and an inspection indicated that a Rivers Agency culvert to the rear of the houses in Glenhill Park surcharged and caused flooding in the area. The sewerage system was, in turn, overwhelmed as the flood material entered the NIW system. That area is off the Glen Road and under the shadow of Black Hill, from where the run-off to that river would originate.
I understand that Rivers Agency officials met the residents and their representatives the week after the event, and the emergency interim works proposed to reduce the risk of the recurrence of flooding were carried out within one week of that meeting. Further long-term work is proposed by the Rivers Agency to replace the pipes where the blockage occurred, to which Alex Attwood referred. That work is programmed for June and July 2009, pending approval by the Drainage Council, and I understand the point made by Alex Attwood and Paul Maskey that people expected that work to have happened earlier. I sincerely hope that Drainage Council approval will be forthcoming. However, I will raise the issue with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to try to ensure that the work that residents were promised will be carried out as quickly as possible.
NIW is not aware of any other particular flooding in the Andersonstown, Beechmount, Falls or Westlink areas relating to defects in infrastructure. Of course, if any Member has concerns about a specific location, I will arrange for Northern Ireland Water to investigate and report back to the Member.
With regard to road drainage, the extreme flooding that occurred on that Saturday and Sunday in August was not caused by any failure to maintain the operational effectiveness of the storm water gullies or the road drainage system. The road drainage infrastructure was simply overwhelmed by the deluge of rain that fell on Saturday 16 August 2008. Although the torrential rainfall throughout that Saturday was particularly bad, resulting in some of the worst flooding in recent times, it had been preceded by other spells of very wet weather.
It is also clear that, while a large number of roads were flooded, this was in the vast majority of cases caused by rivers overflowing. As a result, very few of the roads-related flooding incidents were caused by shortcomings in the road drainage infrastructure. Generally, the road drainage infrastructure was fully operational and simply overwhelmed by the intensity and duration of the rain.
The Broadway underpass flooding was mentioned, and I have previously reported to the Assembly that Roads Service has commissioned an independent review of the issues associated with the design and the operational response to the flooding incident. The independent report on the flooding incident at Broadway has been received, and its conclusions and recommendations have been accepted in full. A number of recommended measures have been implemented to ensure public safety. Roads Service, in partnership with the Rivers Agency and the contractor, has also commissioned a physical and mathematical model and study of the Clowney /Blackstaff river system that flows through Broadway to help us understand the river system and identify any additional mitigation measures that could be put in place to further reduce the possibility of a recurrence of flooding incidents. That report is due in June.
Members will be aware that responsibility for drainage infrastructure is shared between my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development through Rivers Agency, Roads Service and NI Water, the three main drainage organisations. The proceedings for liaison and co-ordination of emergency response between the three organisations are set out in the inter-agency flooding information pack.
There is also a shared flooding hot spot list which identifies areas at greatest risk of flooding and the lead drainage organisation for each location. Those organisations also take the lead in the development and implementation of measures to reduce the likelihood of future flooding at those hot spots. In addition, hot spot lists are held by each of the drainage organisations, and they each have their own programmes for dealing with those on a priority basis.
In the case of Roads Service, the problems encountered at flooding locations are not always easy to resolve, as the solution may be prohibitively expensive or not immediately obvious. Even with the most careful and thorough of planning, gullies, road drainage and watercourses can simply be overwhelmed by a deluge of rain falling within a short period.
Roads Service has plans in place to deal with road-related flooding incidents which ensure that a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week response is available. Roads Service co-ordinates with and works alongside NI Water, Rivers Agency and the other responding organisations, including the PSNI, local councils, the Fire and Rescue Service and other statutory agencies as far as possible to ensure a quick and appropriate response to flooding incidents.
In its response to flooding, Roads Service seeks to restore normality to flooded roads, having regard to the safety of members of the public and Roads Service personnel, the prevention of traffic disruption and the protection of homes and property. If Roads Service becomes aware of roads that are flooded, signs are erected, where practicable, advertising the possible risks to road users. However, in the event of widespread flooding, resources are targeted at busier routes which carry a greater volume of traffic.
Roads Service has a programme of planned maintenance to ensure that the network remains safe and serviceable. Priorities are assessed using information obtained from condition surveys, other work programmes and professional engineering assessments by Roads Service engineers. Roads Service also aims to inspect and clean, where necessary, all gullies in urban areas twice a year. That point was raised by Fra McCann. That policy ensures that a reasonable level of maintenance is carried out to drainage systems —