Fintan O’Toole: Genuine local democracy part of the solution to flooding

Time and again, local people protested against development on flood plains

The picture accompanying this column is from The Irish Times property supplement of November 25th 2004 - a time, of course, when the boom was getting boomier. It is a picture of a large field on the Knocklofty Road in Newcastle, County Tipperary, just south-west of Clonmel. A bridge in the background suggests the presence of the River Suir, but the river has disappeared in the general flood. The field is so completely inundated that we seem to be looking at a lake. A stone wall is keeping the floodwater from the road. On the wall is a big sign from Quirke auctioneers: "For Sale: Land Zoned Residential".

Flooding is about the elements, the victory of water over land. But it’s also about democracy. Dealing with it demands a sense of the future but it also demands a sense of the past. People who live in a place literally know the lie of the land. They have memories - they know where the water goes. And they are systematically ignored. Big long-term forces of climate change are undoubtedly contributing to the current disasters. But the floods also raise a fundamental question of Irish politics: why, in a democracy, does nobody listen to the people?

One of the most distressing experiences of the current floods has been that of Clonmel. But let’s go back almost 20 years to August 1997. Clonmel had just experienced its second major flood in three years. The oldest residents in the the town were saying what so much of the country is saying right now: that there had never been anything like this in their lifetimes. Clonmel is a low-lying town in the Suir valley and it has always been liable to flood in winter. But both the severity and the frequency of the late 1990s floods were new. The people of the town knew why.

For example, Clonmel resident Margaret Rossiter wrote an eloquent letter to the Irish Times setting out the detail of what had been done to the built and natural environment. The town's natural flood defences had been routinely destroyed. Immediately downstream of the town, there were several water-meadows, large fields that took most of the overflow when the Suir flooded. The water-meadows were built on. The old marshland on Dungarvan Road was now, likewise, being filled in. Meanwhile, the tributaries that flowed into the Suir round the town - the Frenchman's, Boulick and Whiting streams - had all been channelled into culverts so the fields they once flooded could be developed for housing. And beyond the town, the Comeragh mountains had been so over-grazed that they had been denuded of the natural vegetation that soaked up water.

Ms Rossiter finished her letter by asking whether in the redevelopment of Irish towns it might not be a good idea to actually listen to the real experiences of their citizens, who knew a thing or two about the rivers and the land. She posed the rather forlorn rhetorical question: “Is planning just an immediate piecemeal response to the latest developer?”

And of course the answer was a resounding “yes”. They continued to build on the natural flood defences in Clonmel and in almost every other Irish town. Local people knew very well what was going on. Check out the reports of the floods of the late 1990s and you’ll find time and again people saying that what was happening was unprecedented and that it was linked to bad planning. In flooded Ennis in December 1999, 88 year-old Jim McInerney, his house near the River Fergus still under water, told The Irish Times: “I’m in this house 60 years and this is the worst flood ever. The root cause of the flooding is the planning permissions granted willy-nilly in recent years.”

Time and again, local people protested against development on flood plains. (In Clonmel in 2000, after yet more floods, 3,500 people signed a petition asking for a halt to further building on the Suir flood plain.) But these concerns were continually dismissed by the councillors who were supposed to represent these same people. For example when the flood plain of Bettystown was rezoned for development in 2005, a Fianna Fail councillor, Pat Bushnell, told the council meeting that he simply didn't accept that the flood plain was, er, prone to flooding: "That is the poorest pathetic excuse I have ever heard for land not being rezoned." When the senior planner in Monaghan objected to a development in Ballybay that was to be "built on stilts" (an open acknowledgement that it was prone to flooding) the council voted 17 to nil for the rezoning. And so on.

As flooding gets worse, we will have to spend enormous amounts of money on engineering solutions. But in fact one part of the solution doesn’t cost any money at all. It’s called listening. Or, to give it its political title, it’s called genuine local democracy. Top-down, very expensive technocratic measures may have to be part of the response. But they will only work in a political culture that has eyes to look at the land and ears to listen to what people know about it.