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Flooding in Andersonstown and Falls

Part of Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 19th May 2009.

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Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:15 pm, 19th May 2009

I thank the Business Committee for permitting the Adjournment debate to take place, and I thank the Minister for his attendance this afternoon. I am sure that he anticipates that, over the next 15 minutes, I may put three or four questions to him for answer either today or subsequently.

It may be a twist of irony that the weather over the past two or three weeks brings into sharp relief the relevance of the topic. It is a reminder of what people had to endure last year and may yet have to endure this year. I want to articulate some issues and probe the Minister and the Assembly on several matters that have yet to be addressed.

It is important to put on record in the Chamber the narrative of what happened last August, not only in west Belfast but in other parts of the city, so that the acute circumstances that were faced by too many families in the city will be better understood. I asked a Glenhill resident, therefore, to provide a personal narrative of her experience on 16 August 2008. She said:

“I was looking out my window when I noticed a deluge of water coming from the back garden and I knew that we were going to be flooded again. Over a period of 40 years the residents of Glenhill have had 4 floods and numerous scares of flooding, probably over 200. If there was heavy rain we would rush out and open the manholes. You always lived in constant fear that the flooding would reoccur.”

She continues by describing what happened on Saturday 16 August 2008:

“We had less than 5 minutes warning from the street being clear to water entering the house. The water came up to our knees and there was absolutely nothing we could have done to prevent this happening…The damage was extensive to the ground floor with wooden floors being lifted, all the suites under water, all the white goods and kitchen units ruined and electrical goods destroyed. This water was contaminated with sewerage as several of the homeowners had to open the sewerage grates to try and get rid of the water…At the back of our houses there is a small river which runs the full length of the street. This river had been the cause of numerous floods during heavy rain falls and been piped off by the Rivers Agency years previous.”

The resident describes what happened at a meeting that was held the following week:

“The Rivers Agency claimed this had nothing to do with them and it was the responsibility of the homeowners. I asked all the residents individually if they had piped off the river running at the back of the houses. Obviously they all replied they did not. I then asked the representative from the Rivers Agency if they had piped off the river. He said they had so I said it was their responsibility as they had not made the pipes big enough to deal with such a large amount of water. The representative for the Rivers Agency had a map of the river and said ‘I can see the problem already.’ Apparently there is a large pipe at the top of the street which takes the water, the pipe then narrows, and then later splits into 2. The force of the water was that great that the covers had blown 12 feet into the air. Some of the covers have never been found.”

Her narrative continues at length, and I may return to it later.

A similar story could be told by people who live in the Stockman’s Lane area, Rodney Parade, the Beechmount area, York Road, Shore Road, Carrington Street, Orangefield and the Castlereagh Road. Those areas were most acutely affected on that Saturday and Sunday.

In the course of that weekend, 165 phone calls were made by people who were distressed about what was happening in or around their properties. As a consequence of that, 347 emergency payments were made, on top of the 609 that were made in June 2007. However, on the eve of our rainy season and with the Met Office saying that this summer will be warmer, sunnier and wetter than average, the question is whether the flooding and subsequent problems that arose in 2008 will reoccur in 2009.

I want to probe that matter in three ways. As the Glenhill resident outlined, the essential problem there is that a 750 mm river pipe must be replaced with a 1,500 mm river pipe. Last year’s circumstances have led to the Rivers Agency conducting a feasibility study and cost-benefit analysis for doing that. I understand that the Rivers Agency had hoped to complete the work to rectify the pipe problem by the end of the past financial year. However, on 3 March this year, the Rivers Agency advised Glenhill residents that the cost of the work to be undertaken meant that the matter had to be referred to the Drainage Council, which was not due to meet until May or June. Therefore, work in that neighbourhood would have to wait until later in the summer. In my view, that is not good enough.

When there is a problem and the solution to it is clear, how can the acute risk faced by Glenhill be prolonged by a bureaucratic process around the costing and approval of the required work? When a problem has existed for years and when the solution has been identified and clearly acknowledged, why can that work not be done in quick time? In responding to my questions this afternoon, I want the Minister to update the Assembly on where this issue now lies. Will the Minister tell us what can be done to accelerate that process? In particular, will the Minister tell us when the offending pipes, for want of a better term, will be replaced?

The delay in replacing the pipes and fundamentally resolving the problem leads me to the next issue. People in areas of flood risk are having difficulty in securing insurance because companies are now, perhaps understandably from their point of view, asking for details of the permanent measures being undertaken by the Rivers Agency to resolve problems arising from the Blackstaff River in the Glenhill area and in other potential flood-risk areas of Belfast. Some people with a certain level of exposure face the summer without knowing for sure that they will have insurance cover for their properties. As the Glenhill resident outlined, the risk to their property and possessions is enormous.

In July 2008, in response to the flooding problem in England, the Association of British Insurers and the Government agreed to flood insurance being made widely available in both the short and long term. I understand that useful conversations have taken place and are ongoing in respect of the situation in the North. However, will the Minister state where we now are in providing the necessary information on flood risk to insurers? In particular, is it the case that the strategic flood map that is being prepared is not sufficiently detailed and accurate to determine the flood risk to specific properties or locations? Is the strategic flood map fit to be used to identify flood risk to particular properties and, consequently, their insurance requirements? Can it be used to reassure insurance companies about the risk to commercial as opposed to domestic properties?

A broader concern arises — not just in west Belfast, although it is particularly acute there — about overdevelopment and whether the water and sewerage infrastructure in some areas is fit for purpose and whether it can deal with future flood risk. I know that that strays more into the responsibility of the Department of the Environment and the Planning Service, but Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 15, which was issued in 2006, sets out guidance on planning and flood risk. It contains land-use planning policies to deal with the flood risk in parts of the North.

In light of the experiences of the past two years, I urge the Minister for Regional Development to speak to the Minister of the Environment to determine whether PPS 15 is all that it needs to be in relation to the flood risk to properties in Belfast and beyond. Scotland’s equivalent, Planning Policy Statement 7, states that people should err on the side of caution when developing areas of flood risk. I am concerned because there has been such intense development in west Belfast, and there will be more in future, much of which is very welcome because of the need for social and other housing. Is the balance right between erring on the side of caution and allowing developments to proceed? Planning Policy Statement 15 should be looked at in that regard.

Last August, many people and agencies, including the emergency services, worked hard in response to a very difficult situation, and nothing should diminish their contributions in mitigating the acute situation that too many people in this city faced. I also acknowledge that since last August there have been structural and policy developments in central and local government that could mitigate future risk. None of my questions should take away from the positive work of the past 10 months.

The people of Glenhill and of other parts of Belfast had to fight insurance battles because of what they experienced that Saturday afternoon; some people were out of their houses for nine months, returning only in recent weeks. There is a risk in that area and in other parts of the city. Is everything in place or will it be in place by the middle of August to ensure that, as far as possible, every action has been taken to guarantee that there will not be a repetition of what transpired in August of last year in Glenhill and in other parts of the city?

That question lingers, doubts persist, and the risk remains. I hope that the Minister will reassure the people of Glenhill and of other parts of Belfast who, over many years, have suffered the danger of flooding.