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banks of the Lee

Building barriers: How plans for the largest flood scheme in Irish history became so divisive

Cork controversy throws up major questions about how Ireland approaches flooding relief in the face of growing climate change threat.

DESPITE THE EXCEPTIONALLY wet November, Mrs Gibney was not too concerned that flooding at her home was imminent.

Making her way to work, she could see no signs of overflow in the Lee Fields between Ballincollig and Cork City that tended to flood well in advance of land beside her family home at Inniscarra Bridge.

That evening, things had changed dramatically as she sat down for dinner with her husband and their two visiting daughters. Opening the door for the family’s Alsatian, Mr Gibney was greeted with half a foot of water in which the family’s other dog, a Westie, was floating. By 10pm the family were trapped upstairs awaiting rescue by the fire service.

  • You can support the ongoing work of the Noteworthy team through their general fund with a monthly or once-off contribution. 

At the same time, a University College Cork (UCC) staff member was up to their chin in water trying to rescue art from the Glucksman Gallery basement. Shops and homes across the city would soon be inundated with water, as the city faced the biggest flood event in decades. This was Thursday 19 November 2009.

The events of 2009 and the fate of the Gibney family were detailed in High Court testimonies in relation to a case over damages sought by UCC from the ESB over the impact of the release of water from Inniscarra dam. They also serve as a reminder to the people of Cork that they live and work in a low-lying and intertidal city built on a cluster of small reclaimed marshy islands.

Cork Flood 1 Earth Horizon Productions Flooding on the Lee fields Earth Horizon Productions Earth Horizon Productions

Now, over a decade later, a controversial flood relief scheme led by the Office of Public Works (OPW) is in the final stages of approval, with some community groups strongly opposed to the plans. These centre on the use of embankments and flood walls downstream of Inniscarra and into the city, together with advanced flood forecasting and revised dam operational procedures to lower reservoir levels in advance of flooding events.

Many of those in opposition are concerned with the potential impact of the flood walls on the architecture and heritage of the city centre. Some also feel that decisions were made without the meaningful participation of the people of Cork in the development of the plans.

Over the past two months, Noteworthy have examined the Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme (LLFRS) in detail, combed through hundreds of pages of documents, many obtained through freedom of information (FOI) requests, and spoke to people from all over the world. We reveal:

  • Despite ongoing controversy, the scheme’s project team said it is happy with its public consultation and will “not be recommending any alternative to LLFRS now or in the future”.
  • The project’s steering group decided that alternative options put forward by the public on natural flood management and tidal barriers should only receive a cursory desk-study level treatment
  • The project team claims the main reason the public consultation was extended was due to the large amount of interest in the scheme, but the minutes of the scheme’s steering group meeting from January 2017 state that the consultation deadline was to be extended as various reports were “not yet in the public domain”.
  • Experts in climate change, human geography and natural hazards say that the public may not have been involved in the scheme’s design process early enough and this is a key factor in some distrust of the Cork city scheme.
  • No independent review was launched on the controversial scheme in spite of two Cork City Council motions calling for one. This decision was backed by Minister of State for the OPW and Flood Relief, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran.
  • Last October, the OPW and Cork City Council made a rare move by issuing a statement directly discrediting campaign group Save Cork City’s proposal in a brochure that cost €28,285.
  • An Irish-Dutch collaborative project found that “about 80% of the sites studied in Ireland were using walls to stop the water”, according to one of the architects involved, who feels this “is not a sustainable solution moving forward”.
  • Costs will rise beyond the original estimate of €160 million “due to inflation” for this, the largest investment in flood relief in the history of the State.

We also talk to Irish and international experts about best practices in flood management and how Irish policy needs an update.

A 14-year-old plan

Plans from the OPW were already afoot as far back as 2006 to set out a long-term strategy to manage flood risk along the Lee catchment that would heavily influence the make-up of flood defence plans for the city.

The Lee Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAM) plan was the pilot case in Ireland and the proposals outlined in it now form the bedrock of the LLFRS.

Kicking off the design process back in 2013, it was originally planned to commence the first phase of construction by September 2020. However, the original timeline hit a snag when opposition arose to the scheme’s design which was presented to the public at large exhibition displays in the city over Christmas 2016.

The main concerns raised at this stage were the height of the proposed walls in the city centre, how this might change how people would interact with the river and the conservation of the historic quays. 

It was during this phase that the seeds of the most vocal opponents of the plans, Save Cork City (SCC), were planted. John Hegarty, one of the community organisation’s leading figures, said it originally formed to raise awareness of the plans and “represent people that felt that they were never represented”.

“I think the attitude was that it was a process that [the OPW] had to go through… The decisions were made, the designs were done,” he added. The group soon picked up a strong social media presence and is now a registered CLG which can receive donations. It lists numerous local businesses and people as its supporters, many of which display ‘Love the Lee’ discs outside their premises.

BanksLee-14 Local artist Declan O'Mahony Niall Sargent Niall Sargent

Local artist and filmmaker Declan O’Mahony also found the public consultation process and communication of the OPW plans to be lacking. He said that within months of the public exhibition period, the atmosphere had soared and “escalated into a battle zone”.

“It was a fight at that stage,” he said. Through a project, he has documented the local planning battles about the Lee over the course of the past 16 years and the toll that it took on people. “What happens is that those voices, those people that are concerned, their lives are so impacted negatively it eventually turns your blood to acid.”

Did the public have all the information they needed?

Save Cork City’s campaign gained traction and played an important role in the number of submissions received by the OPW that eventually totalled around 1,200. This was the largest number of public submissions ever received according to the agency.

In January 2017, according to minutes released to Noteworthy through an FOI request, the scheme’s steering group discussed the “negative submissions and comments on social media” in relation to the exhibition and agreed that the situation would be “monitored”.

In relation to SCC opposition, Ezra MacManamon, the OPW’s project lead, told Noteworthy that the agency is “not generally accustomed to having significant levels of organised opposition” but that it welcomed “input and commentary” on its plans.

In this light, the OPW said that the period for submissions was extended by 11 weeks to “enable as many people as possible to make submissions”. However, at the steering group’s January meeting it was agreed to extend the deadline as various reports were “not yet put in the public domain”.

Ken Leahy from Arup, the main engineering consultants developing the scheme, clarified to Noteworthy that all required statutory documentation was available at the exhibition stage and that additional technical reports were later made available following “very significant interaction at the public days”.

Several professionals and retired academics in the fields of engineering, climate change, geography and geology also sent letters that raised concerns or alternative options to the proposed flood defences.

Leahy told Noteworthy that while many of the professionals were making comments “proactively” to ensure that important issues were addressed, they were “obviously making comments on the basis of a far lesser amount of data and knowledge”.

He added that “there has been absolutely an openness to take on board the views of other professionals where appropriate, but ultimately OPW, as the agency with a mandate to deliver this scheme, and Arup, as the designer, has to take forward the best scheme based on all of the scientific engineering evidence”.

OPW ‘not sure we would have done anything differently’

The OPW is also adamant that the consultation process went above and beyond statutory requirements over the past 14 years. They cite meetings with interested parties, including landowners and business stakeholders. The Cork Business Association and Cork Chamber are both largely supportive of the LLFRS. 

Lawrence Owens of the Cork Business Association said they “called for a lot of changes” in the initial stages but the “collective input from so many sectors” resulted in the OPW delivering a better product. In a statement, Cork Chamber said “as a result of consultation and engagement, the flood defence scheme has advanced considerably”.

The OPW’s MacManamon said that the agency’s experience is that public engagement “has very much grown as the projects have grown over the years and developed”.

“[The OPW] is always very genuinely seeking the input and the commentary from the people that are affected by the scheme and the people that are interested by this scheme. And that is true, right up to the last major public consultation event that happens in any scheme, which is the statutory public exhibition.”

He added that “he’s not sure we would have done anything differently” when asked by Noteworthy if he would make any changes if the OPW was to go through the public consultation again.

Noteworthy / YouTube

Earlier participation is key

During his research on the decision-making process around flood and climate risk assessment, NUI Galway’s Dr Thomas McDermott found that an important element of any successful flood relief scheme is to engage with various stakeholders at an early stage.

In terms of the overall risk assessment process undertaken by the OPW for Cork, he said that it “fits very well with some of what you see discussed in the literature in terms of best practice”.

There was an extensive effort [of] public consultation but in spite of that, the outcome seems to have still been controversial so you have this concerted campaign now against the proposals and quite a bit of controversy around the proposed flood relief scheme.

While there may have been room to engage the wider public more directly at an earlier stage, McDermott said that it is “difficult to get people’s interest at an early stage in these processes”.

Dr James Jeffers, a geographer at Bath Spa University who has studied the conflict around the scheme over the past three years, agrees that a key challenge in all flood schemes rests on how to carry out wider, more engaged public participation at an earlier stage.

He found that the OPW did undertake a fairly extensive stakeholder consultation, as well as attempting some public consultation that just did not manage to engage a wide range of interested parties.

This is a really difficult thing to do, he said. “Forming a consensus on the way forward would be difficult or potentially impossible,” he said, given the wide range of interested groups and individuals who bring forward a diverse set of values, beliefs and expertise to the process.

“But debating these diverse viewpoints in an open way early in the decision-making process should allow all viewpoints to be expressed and explored, in order to determine the best way forward,” he added.

BanksLee-9 River Lee running through Cork city Niall Sargent Niall Sargent

‘An underlying distrust’

Dr Alexandra Revez of University College Cork, whose PhD focused on the role of public participation in flood relief schemes, said that detailed public participation around flooding is often lacking in Ireland.

“I think there’s a definite problem with legacy,” she said, with a more statutory public consultation process in which the public have a set time to engage with plans rather than a more participatory approach where they have a say in the design from the get go.

This is especially problematic as the complex nature of flooding makes it difficult for people to access information and to get their heads around the wider problem, she explained.

I think we need a much deeper discussion on public consultation and not just the sort of more superficial way in which consultation is being done at the moment. It’s about the fairness of the process as well in terms of how some of these decisions are made.

She said that there were “issues with the level of consultation that was allowed, and the manner in which this consultation happened,” in Cork.

“There was an inability to respond adequately and to engage with what became a growing dissatisfaction with plans from the OPW so much so now that there is an underlying distrust and lack of understanding as to the plans that the OPW has put through,” Revez said. “It is a shame that we’re into this impasse where you can’t use the resources when the resources are there.”

‘The public should have a say’

The Lee project is not the only example of an OPW and local authority-led flooding scheme that has run into objections and communication difficulties with locals.

One scheme with a recent public consultation process is the River Poddle Flood Alleviation Scheme. This river follows a winding route through the southwest of Dublin before joining the Liffey in the city centre.

According to the scheme’s website, it has “overflowed its banks at a number of locations”. South Dublin County Council’s €7 million plan aims to “prevent reoccurrences of such flood events”.

As part of the planning process for the scheme, statutory consultation events were held on 10 and 12 March this year, the same week that schools were shut due to Covid-19. “People were afraid to come out of their houses at that stage,” said Roisin McAleer of Save the Poddle.

The deadline for submissions to An Bord Pleanála was extended a number of times due to the pandemic. The final deadline was last Thursday.

Over the past few years, McAleer has tried to raise awareness of the plans in the community and says that the council and OPW need to do more to get the community involved.

When Noteworthy checked the ‘Public Engagement’ section of the scheme’s website on 15 May, it said “details of upcoming Public Exhibitions will be uploaded to this page as they’re arranged”. Though details of information days were listed in the website’s ‘news’ section, no information was listed on this page at the time. 

Poddle Scheme - Public Engagement Page - 13 May 2020 Screen capture of the Poddle FAS website from 15 May

This page was updated with a list of public information days that had already taken place, as well as details on how to make submissions to An Bord Pleanála about the scheme, soon after Noteworthy sent a press request to the OPW stating that the “public engagement page has very little information”. 

The website does not include a brochure or other material that would be easily digestible to the public. Detailed plans submitted as part of the planning application are available on the site, but the planning reference number needed for a submission to An Bord Pleanála is not readily accessible.

The OPW told Noteworthy that the public were kept informed through the updating of social media sites, fixed site notices and newspaper notices. They also asked local politicians “to share this information through their local networks”.

Having to make a submission through this process is not an inclusive way to consult people, according to McAleer, as it costs €50 to object to the planning authority. 

“We have a right under the guidelines to meaningful engagement [which] means public input”. She felt that “the public should have a say in the design” and added “that helps create a sense of political advocacy”.

Call for an independent review quashed

In the case of the Lower Lee, the OPW did update its plans to address some concerns raised in submissions. However, Michael McCarthy of the Lee Engineering and Environment Forum (LEEF), an offshoot of Save Cork City, said that the changes were “very cosmetic” and only addressed public realm concerns.

McCarthy, a chartered quantity surveyor, said that LEEF is pushing for an independent review of “serious concerns” that his group have with costs and engineering design that have “potential catastrophic consequences on the built environment in Cork”.

The OPW is clear that its additional reports address any potential issues raised by public submissions, reports by retired academics or reports commissioned by Save Cork City.

Despite the OPW’s reassurances and a “generally well received” presentation to elected members of Cork City Council according to minutes of a steering group meeting in November 2017, several councillors called for an independent review in two motions that passed the following May.

A month later, the Council sent a brief one-page letter to the OPW about the motions. The Minister of State for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, was quick to shoot down the idea.

6231 Law Reform Bill 2018 Minister of State for the Office of Public Works & Flood Relief, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

In August 2018, in a three-page response written on OPW-headed paper released to Noteworthy under FOI regulations, Moran concluded that there is “absolutely no requirement for a further review, which would only bring significant delay to this much-needed investment in Cork”.

Opening his letter by expressing his “disappointment” that councillors would call for such a review, he said that it was also “unfortunate that a lot of misinformation has been put into the public domain by some opponents of the proposed scheme”.

He said that all possible options were addressed through “detailed scientific and engineering study,” that the approach meets international best practice and that he was satisfied the OPW has listened to and addressed public concerns “in a positive and constructive way”.

In a statement, the OPW added that calling for a review after 14 years of rigid analysis is “simply postponing, perhaps for years, the urgent implementation of a flood defence scheme” for the city.

Categorically, OPW will not be recommending any alternative to LLFRS now or in the future.

The motions passed by the Council also called for a review of a tidal barrier option, the costing, location and need for which has also been the subject of much debate and contention.

Would a tidal barrier work?

The tidal barrier option is a cornerstone of Save Cork City’s alternative flood plan alongside the repair of historic quay walls and upstream catchment measures. Tidal barriers are heavy gate systems that temporarily close off bays and estuaries to protect from coastal flooding and can also alleviate river flooding.

In a May 2017 steering group meeting, the OPW advised that further work to explain why alternative measures such as upstream natural flood management measures and a tidal barrage “are not currently viable” was needed but “should be limited to a desk study level only”.

The OPW determined that these options were screened out “with good reason” and that “extensive additional work was not warranted”.

Noteworthy / YouTube

The OPW told Noteworthy that they are satisfied with this appraisal and that it “would not have been prudent use of taxpayer’s monies” to carry out further study of “unviable, and significantly inferior” alternatives.

The OPW analysis, according to Arup’s Ken Leahy, highlighted several other issues beyond cost, including potential impact on protected nature sites, limited storage capacity for fluvial flooding, and a change in currents that would make it unsafe for ship navigation.

[A tidal barrier is] being offered as a type of panacea, which it’s not really. It’s the wrong type of defence concept for the moment, it’s not [in] a suitable location, and it’s not the right time for such a solution.

Last October, the OPW and Cork City Council made a rare move by issuing a statement directly discrediting SCC’s proposal. This was followed by a summary of its position in a brochure released to the public. The printing of this cost a total of €28,285 excluding VAT, according to Cork City Council.

According to SCC’s Hegarty, the OPW went “one step too far” by publicly singling out a community-based campaign group for criticism. He added that some people stepped back from the campaign because of the amount of stress that it caused. “It was a very unpleasant time,” he said.

“The real advantage for a tidal barrier for Cork is to protect the city centre as it is now, to let us develop it as a historic place and also what it would mean for the protection of the larger city downstream and the docklands,” he added. “The tidal barrier is viable and it can be done economically if we want to do it.”

Why all the walls?

Many of the other objections to the Lee scheme are due to the various types of barriers and walls proposed. “Impact of proposed walls on heritage and visual” was the top ranked concern in the scheme’s report following the public exhibition in 2017. 

This is not unusual for the state body, according to Patrick McCabe, who worked with the OPW and a number of council representatives, including Cork City Council, on a collaborative Irish-Dutch project, Irish Rivers 2040.

McCabe is a landscape architect at REDscape Landscape and Urbanism, a firm with branches in both Ireland and the Netherlands. He said that as part of this project the team found that “about 80% of the sites studied in Ireland were using walls to stop the water”.

They examined 43 areas of flooding marked for improvement. The final report states: “the clear majority of the projects being proposed under the current process comprise structural flood protection solutions”.

McCabe said that “although we understand that there’s an extreme and urgent need for the walls, we also realised that they are not a sustainable solution moving forward. As water rises, then the only solution to progress on top of them is to build the walls higher and higher.” 

As part of the Irish River 2040 project, two teams looked at flooding issues in Cork’s inner city and the docklands. Self-moving walls, water stairs, water storage in car parks and sports centres as well as a transformative car-free zone on the quays were proposed.

McCabe said that the OPW were very open to new approaches but “despite the fact that it put a lot of time and effort into [them], it discovered that it kept getting the same solutions”. 

He “recommended strongly” to the OPW to test their design-led approach around a series of pilot projects “to give a safe environment to the OPW and stakeholders for testing, learning and assessing”. However, he said the “OPW stated that these potentially infringe on tender rules”, different to his experience in the Netherlands where it is “common practice”.

“Not only are they very often unattractive, it’s extremely expensive to implement some of these downstream solutions, the construction of walls and quays through urbanized areas,” McCabe said, adding that they can also “create a lot of conflict with the public”. He felt new approaches need to be addressed in public policy flooding policies.

BanksLee-2 River Lee at Inniscarra Bridge Niall Sargent Niall Sargent

Making room for the river

One very different approach used in the Netherlands was a major flood improvement scheme, Room for the River. Representatives from Cork City Council visited the Dutch scheme last year and Hans Brouwer, programme manager of river management at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure & Water Management, was there to show them their results.

“At one level, [flooding] is a local problem but it should be combined with a river basin approach and we did that with Room for the River,” explained Brouwer. This scheme consisted of 34 individual projects which “form a kind of chain of pearls”. It was completed on time and on budget in 2015.

When there was a problem with flooding, the Dutch response was always strengthening and heightening dikes and walls, said Brouwer.

What we did for centuries is height against water. We learned that you can fight but in the end, you can never win.

Instead, they looked towards ecology where ideas had emerged to build with nature instead of fighting it. By examining the whole river as one system, they found a way to accommodate extra water but not let it lead to a higher river level by “spreading the water over a bigger distance” or giving more room for the river. 

This approach took time and planning, and required all 34 projects to be completed to work. The team were also working against a backdrop of urgency following a series of tidal storm surges and river floods.

The most severe was in 1995 when 250,000 people were evacuated from the central parts of the country which left a lasting impact, explained Brouwer, who said there were queues of cars similar to what you would see in a disaster movie.

After this, “the first reaction was heightening and strengthening dikes”, but this halted after the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which predicted sea level rises. After this, the project was re-evaluated in order to respond to climate change.

Natural measures considered

The OPW told Noteworthy that all options, including nature-based and ‘making room for the river’ type solutions were considered but “proven not to be effective at sufficient scale to be viable for Cork”.

It added that making the floodplain available to the river is being done as part of the LLFRS in areas upstream but in terms of Cork city,“it is not particularly effective” due to tidal flood risk and high density areas.  

Banks of the Lee - GIFs Designs for the Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme OPW OPW

Click this link to view this GIF, if it is not working for you. 

Arup’s Leahy said that “defenses on the quayside are low level. The majority of defenses are no higher than knee height and the highest ones are around belly button or navel height.” He added that “the scheme has been amended following public consultation”.

In a follow-up statement, the LLFRS project team clarified that the only locations where proposed walls are higher than this is at a private property in the western part of the city as well as some lengths along Sunday’s Well Road and the Lee Road.

Transforming communities into co-designers

The river basin approach was evident in Room for the River. Giving an example of this, Brouwer explained that the river level was reduced by around two feet in one town in order to subsequently reduce the level in a downstream town by one foot. 

Homeowners and farmers now living in a floodplain were given the option to sell their property to the Government at a non-flood risk price or be compensated for any flooding. This was met with some resistance, according to Brouwer, but their “bottom up approach” was key.

Normally, we would have one goal: flood protection. Now we had two goals: flood protection and improved spatial quality of the river area. Looking back, that was a very wise step because that gives the possibility for us to get knowledge about the history, use and ambitions of the area.

They worked with communities from the start with the dual goal of improving the area as well as constructing flood protection. This transformed communities “from consumers of policy into co-designing the policy”.

Though Brouwer felt others can be “inspired by the approach”, he added, “it’s very based on our culture and our physical geography”. Each flood scheme needs to be adapted to the local physical characteristics and one of “the basics is getting knowledge about the area”.

‘Lay knowledge is undervalued’

One way of obtaining this local knowledge is through co-design and co-production. These are not only beneficial in terms of reduced conflict with local communities, but also can reduce overall costs, according to Dr Sarah Fitton, director of Aurora Engagements.

She conducted her PhD research on co-production in UK flood schemes. In her research, which was sponsored by Arup, she argues that “schemes tend to focus on technical solutions, with the social impact, including needs and concerns of the local community, seen as secondary”.

LeeFields Lee fields in Cork city Niall Sargent Niall Sargent

She also explains that co-production isn’t simply allowing communities to have a design input. Instead, it brings local communities and professionals together to work on design and even construction and management.

Fitton also found that project teams in the cases she studied would have saved time and money if they had engaged with communities earlier. One scheme she studied in Manchester was planned in the middle of allotments that the community valued and “there was little consultation as to what the local community wanted”.

These plans were overturned and a new design was created with new consultants which resulted in an immense amount of “abortive work and wasted money”, she said.

That’s not necessarily the fault of the environment agency or the consultants that worked on it, it’s just the way that the process is geared up. Lay knowledge is undervalued. The focus wasn’t talking to the community first. It was designing something that technically provided flood protection.

Putting plans ‘in the melting pot’

A group calling on the OPW for this type of community approach is Dodder Action. One of their members, Victoria White, who is married to Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, hopes the next phase of the River Dodder Flood Alleviation Scheme will not involve walls as previous phases have.

Works have already been done or are in progress from the Clonskeagh Bridge through Donnybrook and past the Aviva Stadium.

As you move up the Dodder, there’s less population and there’s just no excuse, in my view, to wall the river in, in any shape or form.

She feared that this public benefit “is not quantifiable” within the terms of reference for these projects. “You’re talking about one of the finest city rivers in Europe and a wildlife corridor of huge significance.”

The OPW has told her they’re putting the plans “back in the melting pot” and she is really hopeful that is the case due to the “new way of looking at rivers in the era of climate change, making room for the river”.

Balancing the benefits

Dr Sebastiaan van Herk, partner and director of Bax & Company in Barcelona, has come up with ways to quantify benefits not normally included in the cost benefit analysis of flood schemes, including health benefits, reduced crime rates, and biodiversity.

To do so effectively, the project team needs to be made up of different non-technical members from various domains and organisations, including community groups, according to van Herk. This makes it more complex but “these people can have good ideas [and] contribute.”

When conducting the cost benefit analysis of the “preferred scheme” for Cork city, the OPW stated in the Options Report that the benefit of the flood works is “the reduction in risk of flooding to land and property”. It does not include any of the benefits mentioned by van Herk.

Social criteria were included as part of the Multi Criteria Assessment to discover “the effectiveness of each of the viable options”. The social criteria included risk to human life and health, risk to community and risk to social amenities.

Targets for these criteria were almost entirely focused on a “100% reduction” in properties or sites at risk from flooding. There was one exception which aimed for the “enhancement or creation of social amenity sites”.

The ‘quick win’ of Morrison’s Island

BanksLee-7 Morrison's Island (right) in Cork city Niall Sargent Niall Sargent

The LLFRS has still to be signed off and approved. However, there are two other recent projects that have incorporated flood relief works in Cork that have been met with legal challenges by Save Cork City.

The approval for the Part 8 plans for Morrison’s Island were “quashed” in 2019. After the court case in relation to the docklands earlier this year, Cork City Council stated “it is consenting to the setting aside of the Part 8 planning approval”. Both court cases were in relation to environmental screening.

In their submission to An Bord Pleanála in February 2019, Save Cork City said that Morrison’s Island was “a part of the LLFRS and the project splitting of this one part denies the correct process that should include a full EIA [environmental impact assessment] and further public consultation”.

Cork City Council’s Director of Infrastructure Services, Gerry O’Beirne, told Noteworthy that “Morrison’s Island is a standalone project, it doesn’t involve project splitting”. He added that “it’s very poorly presented at the moment. Its predominant use is car parking”. This is why the council is “progressing with [this] public realm project”.

In bringing that forward, we have to give consideration then to the flood risks in that area and it’s a particularly low lying part of the city. Those flood protection works are fully compatible with the Lower Lee project. And they effectively future proof the works that we’re doing in improving the public realm of the area.

MacManamon from the OPW echoed these remarks and added “anywhere we go with a flood relief scheme, people are always conscious the process is so slow. They’re looking to see, are there any quick wins that we can deliver, interim works.”

Rising waters, rising costs

So, where does the scheme currently stand? MacManamon said the project team are at “a very advanced stage of finishing off the documentation and finalizing it with a view to updating the exhibition documents and preparing a new environmental impact assessment report”.

Once this is complete, the scheme will “be sent as a package to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for confirmation”. The team hoped that this would happen later this year, most likely “late quarter two, or maybe early quarter three”.

Final costs for the project are, as yet, unknown. However, in a statement to Noteworthy, the OPW stated it is likely these costs will have risen.

The preferred option for the scheme was estimated to cost just under €130 million in December 2016. The LLFRS website states there will be a “€140m investment in flood protection” and an additional “€20m to repair historic walls”.

A revised cost estimate will be drawn up when submitting the scheme to the Minister, according to the OPW. “Due to inflation since the original costs were drawn up four years ago and the incorporation of various design changes based on public submissions from the Exhibition stage, we would expect these costs to rise.”

Calling for a new approach

McCabe, who was involved in the Irish-Dutch collaborative project, Irish Rivers 2040, says that the flooding problem in Ireland can be viewed like a tyre that has “little holes in it”. He compares the OPW approach to plugging holes in the short term, with Cork City being an “important puncture” to fix.

However, in the long term, he envisages a future with “more holistic solutions that don’t require walls as often”. This can be done using “an integrated approach where you develop a plan with landowners, local authorities, farmers and so on”. However, he fears that “things tend to change only when bad things happen”.

BanksLee-15 John Hegarty of Save Cork City Niall Sargent Niall Sargent

From speaking to communities impacted by flood schemes around the country, trust in local authorities and councils was often eroded by the current process. UCC’s Revez says “there’s a definite problem with legacy” and feels the institutional culture of the OPW should evolve. “In some respects, they may be evolving as the issues are pressed further, perhaps not evolving fast enough to deal with the problem.”

White of Dodder Action says the “Lee scheme is just the same thing repeated over and over”. She adds that the process for developing flood schemes in Ireland needs to be “interrogated and untangled”.

The draft programme for government announced earlier this week wants “to give towns a strong voice at the heart of local authority decision making” by ensuring participation in local government is “actively encouraged and facilitated”.


Back in Cork, the project team are on target to submit the final plans for the Lower Lee scheme in the coming months. They hope to bring some of the learnings from Cork to other schemes, such as the use of more visual information such as photomontages as well as giving people information on social media.

Over a decade after the last major flood, for the Lee scheme’s project team, Cork’s future plans are almost certain, but a current of uncertainty and doubt still continues to flow through some parts of the community.

Sometimes you “have to accept that you won’t always get a consensus” says Arup’s Leahy. “You’ll always have the situation that some people will disagree. And you may have to just agree to disagree knowing that you’re the body with the mandate to deliver the scheme, and you have a broader public obligation.”

Save Cork City’s Hegarty says “if the solution was right, we would support it”, adding “the more people are involved in making a decision, the happier we would be”.


This investigation was carried out by Maria Delaney and Niall Sargent of Noteworthy, with additional reporting by Peter McGuire. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers. 

Noteworthy is the investigative journalism platform from You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>


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