Coastal Defences

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 28th November 2016.

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Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 28th November 2016

2. Mr McMullan asked the Minister for Infrastructure to outline his Department's plans to improve coastal defences. (AQO 760/16-21)

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for that question, but I will provide some clarification from the outset. In addition to formal or designated coastal defences, there is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, along our coast that performs a coastal protection function. In most cases, that was not the original purpose of their construction.

DFI's Rivers Agency manages a network of designated coastal defences, which are approximately 26 kilometres in length. Those designated coastal defences are designed to protect against coastal flooding and are subject to annual condition surveys carried out by the Rivers Agency. There are no major improvement works planned for the designated coastal defences, but there are ongoing works — such as those in east Belfast to protect properties in the Sydenham area that are at risk from a tidal inundation — that will add to the length of designated defences. A major study has also commenced to determine how to increase the standard of protection against a tidal flood event in Belfast city centre. Again, that may add to our designated coastal defences.

My Department also has to maintain its road and railway network assets and protect them from the effects of coastal erosion and coastal flooding. Storm surges and high tides after Christmas 2013 caused extensive damage to such protective works along the Antrim and Down coast roads. In light of those severe winter storms and tidal surges, a detailed inspection of the road protective works was completed during 2014. In addition, an extensive survey of the coastline around the Ards peninsula, where it abuts the road, was carried out earlier this year. The information from those surveys is being assessed and will inform the prioritisation of necessary repair works.

In recent years, almost £2 million of capital investment has been spent on the installation of new protective works along the coast road in Antrim. That includes £800,000 of work completed during 2016 at seven sites. I am very conscious that prevention is better than cure, so my Department seeks to identify areas where damage may be caused by the ravages of the sea to target our resources. However, it is often difficult to predict where damage will occur.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. Minister, I am sure that you agree that giving the public confidence again is paramount. Have you any plans to increase visits to the coastal flood defences, especially those in my constituency of East Antrim?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his interest in the issue, which is one that we have discussed at length at separate times. I also thank the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, Michelle McIlveen, whom I will meet again next week to discuss the issue. Our officials from both Departments are working tirelessly behind the scenes to compile reports for us to take decisions on the best way forward.

Inspections of flood defences are risk-based. The higher the risk of failure, the more frequent the inspection. All but two of the coastal flood defences are very high consequence; ie substantial economic, social or environmental impact if the defence fails. Defences are given a detailed inspection annually or after each extreme weather event. The other two flood defences are medium-consequence and inspected every three years or after extreme weather events.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Would the Minister agree with me that the Executive need to adopt a new policy to replace the old, outdated and discredited Bateman formula of October 1967 and, further, that we would benefit from a lead Department coordinating coastal management issues?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I do not think that there necessarily has to be a lead Department. We have two Departments in this Executive that have to deal with these issues. To date, I have met my colleague Michelle McIlveen twice on this issue. We are due to meet again next week, so that is three times in the first six months of this Executive. I think that demonstrates our determination to do something regarding coastal erosion. We cannot stop coastal erosion, but we have to manage its effects, and that is something that, I think, the Agriculture and Environment Minister, Michelle McIlveen, and I are keen to do.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

In relation to inland flooding, can the Minister outline what works his Department has completed to improve flood defences in my constituency, particularly along the Callan, Clanrye and Blackwatertown rivers?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

This question is, obviously, about coastal erosion, so I applaud the Member for getting in a question about his own constituency. I do not have that detail to hand. If the Member wants to correspond with me, I am more than happy to reply.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Minister very much for mentioning coastal erosion. Does the Minister intend to introduce legislation to create a framework for managing and reducing coastal erosion and flooding?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

This is one of the issues that Michelle McIlveen and I will be picking up on. Is there a requirement for legislation? Will it be of use, or will it be a hindrance? Will it be effective in what we want to do over the next number of years? As I say, I do not think we can approach this with wanting to eradicate or somehow end coastal erosion. We cannot but we have to manage it, so that is certainly something that we will be discussing next week.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

Minister, you may be aware that, last week, the Infrastructure Committee visited the Ards peninsula. Indeed, the Agriculture and Environment Minister joined us for that visit. We saw at first hand the coastal erosion that is taking place on various parts of the peninsula. I agree with what the Minister said about early intervention being better. It is also cheaper. Will the Minister commit, budgetary pressures taken into consideration, to working with groups like Eric Rainey's in Ards to deal with the issues that are affecting them and those communities where footpaths are being washed away, young children are being left exposed and old people with no lighting —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I think we have the question.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

— going to school or whatever in the mornings?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

Absolutely. The groups and individuals you met, for many a year, have been doing this work tirelessly themselves. They have a passion for it and the local communities, and, to a large extent, they have been ahead of the curve, so I am more than happy to meet those groups.

In my part of the world in south Down, there are activists who regularly plant willow and look to somehow copper-fasten the coast against this. Extensive works have taken place around Rostrevor and Warrenpoint to help this as well. As you say, it is local volunteers in communities who, for a very long time, have been involved in this. Yes, I would be more than happy to work with those people, because, as you say, prevention is certainly better than cure. It is also cheaper than the cure.