New approach to major infrastructure projects ‘urgently needed’

Academics carry out evaluation of Irish Water’s approach to Shannon pipeline

Parteen Weir on Lough Derg. Farmers in the vicinity of Lough Derg and the Shannon have led opposition to the pipeline project. Photograph: Alan Betson

Parteen Weir on Lough Derg. Farmers in the vicinity of Lough Derg and the Shannon have led opposition to the pipeline project. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

A new approach is urgently needed to get major infrastructure projects across the line on time in Ireland, according to communications experts at Dublin City University (DCU).

Public buy-in and greater understanding of the case for nationally important developments must be secured, a soon-to-published study concludes.

Dr Pádraig Murphy, assistant professor in DCU’s school of communications recommends extensive public engagement at the earliest possible stage that is backed by a genuine “democratised participatory process”.

In an independent evaluation of Irish Water’s approach to the Shannon pipeline proposal, the study finds the utility regarded it primarily as an engineering solution – “a legacy project” – with technical issues to be solved rather than, for instance, social concerns to be addressed.

A new approach is now routinely adopted across the European Union and will be critical to successful implementation of the National Development Plan, Dr Murphy points out, as well as effective implementation of national and regional spatial strategies.

In an evaluation of Irish Water’s Shannon pipeline and of the case presented to justify it, the study concludes a failure to adopt responsible research and innovation principles meant the project has so far failed to get buy-in and wide acceptance.

The utility’s approach appeared to be a black-and-white issue of where water goes, Dr Murphy notes: “It rains in the west; there’s a shortage in the east”. Such projects were never as simple as that, he adds.

There were big issues to be addressed about “ownership”, not just of farmers, but also businesses and community groups.

A responsible research and innovation approach “breaks away from the usual suspects” and vested interests adopting set positions, Dr Murphy says.

In its fullest sense, it embraces “open science”; making research and its dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society, amateur or professional. Above all, it is a robust process embracing everything from regional development issues to ethical issues to aesthetics.

It is also about choices. Dr Murphy cites the changed approach of the utility company EirGrid in facilitating meaningful discussions about the location of onshore wind farms.

It means major projects are not considered as “a stage-managed engineering issue” where views such as “the jackeens are not getting our water” can take hold.

While Irish Water had referenced climate change factors, however, these were not factored sufficiently.

Communications Dr Murphy says Irish Water’s narrow approach to the project meant it had to manage controversy about the project as “a firefighting exercise” in communications terms.

In his opinion, it is not too late for the utility to acknowledge its mistakes, to commit to doing better in future and to invite people in to foster collective ownership, though it was unlikely that major changes could be made to such a big project at this stage.

The lessons could be applied to projects in adopting the approach in underlining what is best for Ireland.

On the leakage issue, he says, it was too easily pushed aside with the utility insisting “we cannot do that” in addressing the issue of such large quantities of water being wasted, rather than setting out a 10-year plan to address it which would rebuild trust with stakeholders.

Though the study has some preliminary findings which support analysis by Emma Kennedy on leakage and demand, Murphy says further investigation is needed on this aspect while their research has yet to be subjected to peer review.

On the cost of the project and speculation it might be up to €2 billion, Dr Murphy does not believe it is the same as the national children’s hospital’s runaway costs.

That said, he warns, the cost factor fuelled by populist arguments could dominate over other bigger issues, such as climate disruption.

He underlined the need for the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government to have a central role in evaluating the pipeline project and other major infrastructural projects in future.