Seanad Éireann - Volume 146 - 29 February, 1996

Adjournment Matters. - Wicklow Coastal Erosion.

[1145] Mr. Ross: I wish to share my time with Senator Roche.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Ross: There is a real danger of a disaster with coastal erosion just outside Wicklow town at the Murrough, which is a place of great recreational value and declared a special amenity area. It is threatened by coastal erosion because of storms which have been particularly prevalent in recent months. I had the frightening experience last week of seeing the damage done by recent storms and I was shocked by it.

Up to January this year there was a steady but slow erosion but since then the erosion has become swift and serious. About ten metres has been removed in the last ten years but most of that has happened in the last few months. I cannot overemphasise to the Minister of State the seriousness of this matter.

I know there are problems with public funds and the Minister of State may plead that there is a limited amount of money, some of which has already gone to Bray. However, the problem with coastal erosion is that it is forever — it would be very difficult to reclaim the land which is so important to the people of Wicklow and further afield. The possible extent of this disaster could be considered a nightmare.

One cannot know that the rate of erosion will continue at the same pace as in the past — it may speed up. There is a serious danger of the railway being undermined in a short time and that would be far more expensive to put right than spending an emergency £600,000 which is now necessary. Houses will be threatened if storms continue and the Veha factory is a short distance from the site. I urge the Minister of State to regard this as a potential disaster [1146] for an amenity area and a threat to houses and public transport in the area. It will be cheaper in the long run to provide funds now than if major repairs have to be made in the future.

At present about 500 metres are affected but the main problem extends over only about 30 metres. The problem should be tackled at this stage before 500 metres becomes badly affected. There is a potential for £10 million worth of damage if the road close to the shore is eroded, if buildings are removed and compensation has to be paid, the buildings replaced and if at least one factory is swept away. To preserve this amenity for the people of Wicklow and to save public money in future, I urge the Minister of State to act on this potential disaster immediately.

Mr. Roche: I thank Senator Ross for sharing his time with me. He has graphically demonstrated to the Minister of State the consequences of inaction at this stage. The Murrough is a unique area because it has an extraordinary ecosystem. It has the potential to be a tremendous nature reserve. It shares two major uses at present — it is the area where most of the industry in Wicklow town is sited and it also has an important role as a recreational area for the people of Wicklow town.

As Senator Ross said, there has been a frightening increase in the level of damage along the Murrough in a relatively short period of time. There have been problems with coastal erosion along the coast of Wicklow from Bray through Greystones and Kilcoole as far as the Murrough where the coast is volatile. However, the coastline at the Murrough is particularly volatile because it is made up predominantly of gravel material.

A few years ago the tide inundated a part of the north beach in Arklow which is similar to the Murrough. The surge of the tide caused a bigger breach and it cost millions to immediately carry out repair work. If the repair work had not been carried out many more millions of [1147] pounds worth of damage could have been caused in Arklow. We face the same situation now with the Murrough — the loss of a valuable community amenity area, a recreational area and a potential area for development as a nature or wildlife reserve in the future.

In terms of the economic life of Wicklow town we face the loss of its industrial heartland. One could argue that industry should not have been sited on the Murrough but the industry is there. Some years ago an engineer, for reasons best know to himself, decided it was where industry would be sited and that is where it is. There are many houses — and huge capital investment — on the Murrough. I urge the Minister of State to make the investment now because if we do not do so we will have to invest infinitely more money later.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. Allen): I thank Senators Ross and Roche for raising this matter. Ireland has one of the largest coastlines in Europe. At 5,800 kilometres our coastline is larger than that of France. Our coastline is a resource of great value in economic, environmental, ecological and sociological terms. It is a fragile resource and, in many instances, non-renewable, and the systems operating in the coastal zone will significantly depend on the preservation of the coastal environment. Erosion is one of the major threats to the coastal environment.

The loss of sand dune systems, for example, can disrupt the natural habitat of a number of birds and other animals. In certain circumstances, erosion can pose a social threat to isolated coastal communities. Apart from the obvious economic disruption, erosion threatens the communications and transport links for these communities. Being cut off from the mainland would have serious and potentially catastrophic consequences for these communities.

A study by the national coastal erosion committee of the County and City Engineers' Association, undertaken in [1148] 1992, estimated that 490 kilometres of the coastline required immediate attention at an approximate cost of £125 million. Primary responsibility for coastal protection lies with the property owner, whether that be a local authority, a group or a private individual which has a vested interest in protecting his or her own property.

The main function of the Department of the Marine is to assist in the overall management of the coastal zone and, where appropriate, the Department will provide a foreshore licence to facilitate protection works. The Government is conscious of the threat posed by erosion and the need for coastal protection. In 1994 the Government first decided that the EU Structural Funds should be made available to help address the serious erosion problem, and allocated moneys from the Operational Programme for Environmental Services 1994-99, amounting to £5.1 million, to tackle priority erosion problems in that six year period.

The aim of the investment programme is preservation of the State owned foreshore, local authority owned property including county road networks, tourist amenities including beach and dune systems, and natural habitats and their ecology. Such preservation works support rural development, tourism, environmental protection and other activities which contribute to increasing the economic potential of coastal regions.

The County and City Engineers' Association estimated that £125 million is required to tackle all the most urgent erosion problems. Given that funding under the Operational Programme is limited to £5.1 million, it was obvious that priority projects for possible funding under the programme needed to be identified. To draw up a targeted programme of priority coastal locations, consultations were held with coastal local authorities and submissions detailing their top four priority proposals were sought. Given the limited funding available and demand levels, all the local authorities were advised that [1149] value for money from investments in coastal protection schemes must be achieved. In other words, the cost of undertaking any scheme must be considered against the benefits, tangible or intangible, arising. Such benefits would include property, infrastructure, transportation, livelihoods, community concern, conservation value and commercial value. These proposals are now on hand in the Department and works being undertaken to the end of 1999 will be chosen from among the priority proposals submitted.

A number of the projects identified by the local authorities have been aided by the Department during the past year. In 1995, £773,000 was invested in protection works at ten locations — the Maharees Peninsula and Waterville in County Kerry; Courtown and Duncannon in County Wexford; Inishboffin and Roundstone in County Galway; Bertra Beach in County Mayo; Killiney, County Dublin; Laytown, County Meath; and preparatory work in Bray, County Wicklow. I am sure Senators Ross and Roche will understand that the funding available in any one year is limited and as a result it is only possible to undertake a small number of works in any year.

The submission from Wicklow County Council detailed the protection proposals in order of priority. The first priority was Bray promenade and sea front which needs a rock groyne, breakwater and nourishment of the beach. The estimated cost is £2.4 million. The second priority is north beach, Arklow which requires the construction of a rock groyne and offshore breakwater. The cost is estimated to be £700,000, subject to study and design. The third priority is Greystones which wants a sea wall along the clay cliff running between La Touche Hotel and Carrigeden. The cost would be in the region of £150,000. The fourth priority, to which the Senators referred, is the Murrough, County Wicklow which needs additional gabions and rock armour to the area north of the existing works. The cost is approximately £342,000.

[1150] As many Members are aware, there is a long-standing commitment to undertake a major protection scheme at Bray. Planning for this scheme has been under way for some considerable period. The Department of the Marine, in conjunction with Bray Urban District Council and Wicklow County Council, intends commencing this scheme during 1996. This major protection scheme which will cost £2.4 million will be undertaken in a phased manner over two to three years. The overall cost of the project represents almost half of the moneys available for coastal protection under the Operational Programme and will use the bulk of the funding available over the next two years. In these circumstances it is difficult to see how additional funding can be directed to projects in County Wicklow pending completion of the works at Bray. In the meantime, Wicklow County Council, in conjunction with local property and business interests, should undertake whatever remedial works are required to stabilise the present shoreline recession.

I assure the Senators that the points made will be borne in mind. As the Members will realise, when we are talking about coastal protection we are dealing with huge sums of money. In view of this, the Department of the Marine would be willing to talk to local authorities, including Wicklow County Council, to ascertain if community employment schemes could be utilised for such works. Such an approach may enable some immediate works to be undertaken which, while perhaps not of the Rolls-Royce type, would halt further erosion pending more moneys being made available in future to undertake a more substantial long term job. In the meantime, the major works planned under the Operational Programme will continue.

In view of the dramatic and graphic description of developments in the erosion process recently, I will relay the Senators' comments to the relevant officials in the Department and ask that the matter be examined again.

[1151] Mr. Ross: The Minister would not expect me to be satisfied with his reply because he does not take into account the recent emergency and damage. Will the Minister take this matter a step further? Instead of saying the Department of the Marine would be willing to talk to local authorities, including Wicklow County Council, to ascertain if community employment schemes could be utilised for such works, perhaps he could assure me the Department will take the initiative now and talk to Wicklow County Council about such schemes in this area.

Mr. Allen: I am not the Minister responsible for these matters. However, the Senator's comments will be reported to the relevant Minister and they will be taken into consideration.