Thursday 22 August 2019

Funding alone won't fix our infrastructure issues if we don't have workers

An all-terrain vehicle of the Civil Defence brings food and people around the flooded areas of Mountmellick. Photo: Kevin Byrne
An all-terrain vehicle of the Civil Defence brings food and people around the flooded areas of Mountmellick. Photo: Kevin Byrne

Paul Meila

Like many towns, Mountmellick in Co Laois has a history of flooding, with locals recalling incidents in 1967, 1989 and 2008.

Many believed that drainage works completed in the early 1990s would have helped prevent a future occurrence. In 2007, there was an apparent commitment for further flood protections, only for the crash to intervene and funding to dry up.

Scenes of devastation linger long in the memory of those affected, and while of little comfort, at-risk Mountmellick is not alone.

While there has been investment in flood defences - close on €40m on more than 600 minor schemes by local authorities as well as construction of around 40 major defences - far more are needed. The Office of Public Works has identified that 120 are needed across the country, including one costed at €3.1m for the Co Laois town.

Works to protect almost 26,000 properties across almost all counties are required, with some 200km of flood defence walls needed to protect homes, businesses and essential infrastructure including roads, water treatment plants and health centres.

The projected cost is €835m - almost twice the €430m budgeted for between 2016 and 2021. The money will be spent on flood defences, water storage, channel improvements and flow diversion, and a national flood forecasting system to warn of impending risks.

The investment is badly needed, as the events of the last few days are only the beginning. Ireland is at risk of more extreme weather events and increased levels of rainfall as average global temperatures soar and climate change takes hold.

As the climate warms, we can expect more rainfall and 'monster' rain events. One is inextricably linked with the other. The science is clear, and climate change projections suggest that more intense storms will increase the risk of more river and coastal flooding. The problem will be compounded on our seaboard, where rising sea levels will increase the height and intensity of storm surges. Some areas may have to be abandoned.

Read More: 'The water came in so fast - we had no time to get sandbags ready'

But money won't be enough to solve this problem. It's far from clear that we have the construction workforce to sustain investment.

We have a housing crisis, and need to build at least 25,000 homes a year just to keep pace with demand, not to mention address the backlog of recent years.

Irish Water has an enormous capital investment plan, with almost €700m forecast to be spent next year alone, and that will increase.

We must also build new commercial, retail and education space as the population grows, not to mention hotel accommodation to cater for the burgeoning tourist market.

Leaving aside the Apple impasse, Ireland is identified as a hot-spot for data centres, meaning more of those are coming down the line. There will be a need for new transport and road projects, not to mention ongoing infrastructure maintenance, ranging from roads to the power grid.

Experts suggest we simply don't have the workforce to meet all these demands. According to the CSO, at the height of the boom in 2007 there were just over 260,000 people employed in construction, many solely concerned with building houses. The most recent figures show the workforce today stands at just over half this number, or 139,000.

A report commissioned for the Construction Industry Federation says that at least 76,000 additional workers are needed over the coming years. There are concerns about the number of apprentices in the system, with just over 4,400 at the end of 2015, compared with 23,700 in 2007.

The question for the Government is how projects will be prioritised. Are flood defences more 'worthy' than upgrading a drinking water treatment plant?

The worker shortfall won't just impact on households at risk of drinking contaminated water, or homeless families waiting for a house. It will also affect communities already hit by flooding, and likely to be hit again. No amount of money will solve that, unless the workforce is in place to build the defences needed to protect those at risk.

Irish Independent

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