Cork’s business community is largely critical what it argues is the late entry to the debate of the Save Our City campaigners, writes Eoin English.
IF WE don’t build these flood defences soon, we won’t have a city to save.
That’s the stark view of the Cork Business Association (CBA), which represents the vast majority of city traders, who employ some 30,000 people.
“It’s fine for the Save Our City campaigners to say save our city, but if we don’t do something to prevent flooding, we won’t have a city to save,” said CBA president Pat O’Connell.
“Cities need to have function and form, and if you can’t function in a city centre, if every other day, during three or four months of the year, you have flood alerts, people not coming in to the city centre because they are afraid they’re going to get caught in floods, you cannot maintain a functioning city,” he said.
He was among several CBA members who attended Friday’s public forum on the flood defence scheme.
“When you’re standing in 3ft of water and bailing out your premises, you get fantastic public sympathy for three or four days, but three weeks later when you’re still trying to get your business open, trying to think of your 25 or so staff, and how you’re going to pay them and pay for repairs, without insurance, and people are suggesting we shouldn’t have flood defences now? The mind boggles.
“You will never get a perfect solution for anything on this scale. There is compromise everywhere. The cheapest option would have been to build concrete walls the whole way down from Lee Fields to the Port of Cork.
“But the OPW aren’t doing that — they are being very sympathetic to what’s going on in the city. I’m not sure what else the OPW can do.”
He said the fear among the city’s business community is that mounting objections to the OPW’s €140m flood defence plan could delay the delivery of the project.
CBA chief executive Lawrence Owens has criticised the late involvement of the Save Cork City campaign and the rhetoric used in some of the literature.
“I don’t think anybody has a monopoly on passion for Cork,” he said.
“We have been working consistently for Cork, for the betterment of the city, for the last 60-odd years. Businesses are now concerned that something we have been chasing with a passion for 20 years, through lobbying central government, lobbying various ministers, the OPW, and local government to approve funding — and finally after all those years we finally got the funding approved for the biggest infrastructural project of its kind in the history of the State — that these objections could see the project delayed.
“We went through the whole process of looking at the design, making our comments, getting experts in to help us, looking at the technical and visual side.
“And on foot of our submissions, and those of others, the OPW, in fairness to them, have made a lot of changes. We are, by and large, happy with them. And we are still in the process of looking at further changes.
“But in general — are the businesses happy that we have a design that will protect the city and still look aesthetically pleasing? Yes, we are.”
Mr Owens said large-scale OPW flood defence projects in places like Clonmel, Fermoy, and Waterford have proved effective, and said because of Cork City’s topography, similar flood defences are needed to protect the city from flood risk.
“Maybe if members of this group came on board 10 or 20 years ago with some of the sustainable ideas they have, we might have been able to work towards achieving some of those,” he said.
“But to try and bring sustainable solutions in now, and have elements of flood protection in place by 2018, it just won’t happen.”
Mr Owens said the vast majority of CBA members, who contribute up to €65m in rates to Cork City Council every year, have a vested interest in protecting the city.
“We don’t see anything in the design of this flood defence scheme that will destroy Cork. What it will do is protect the city,” he said.
“Where was everybody for the last 20 years — they seem to have arrived with this conviction with two months to go, putting these untested, non practical solutions forward.
“If they have something practical that could work, of course it should be considered. But at the last minute, as the clock ticks towards midnight, to come with these suggestions now, I think it’s rather strange.
“It has the potential to delay, to throw a spanner in the works.
“We have the funding, we have a design which we think is very workable in a lot of areas, it’s very innovative — everything is in place and we are ready to rock. And now people are saying, ‘Well, we just arrived here and we don’t like the look of that, they have put forward no practical resolutions’ and we think that’s unfair and it’s unbalanced.”
Claire Nash’s Nash 19 restaurant on Princes St, which celebrated 25 years in business last month, has been flooded several times. Recovering from the 2014 flood alone cost her €378,000. Like countless others in the city, she has no flood insurance.
“We engaged in 2009 with the OPW and we have been talking to them since, working with them since, working for the city on a solution to this ongoing problem,” said Ms Nash.
“When you’re up to your knees in flood water in your building, when you’re trying to sweep faeces out the door at the back of your building, when you’re trying to protect the front of your building which is slightly raised, and open for business the next day, and hold face, and be a centre of community for others that are flooded around, and be a voice and a face of a trading city, telling lies sometimes that you can trade, it’s really, really soul destroying having done so much work on this scheme to suddenly see this Save Cork campaign — sure we’re all trying to save Cork.
“Cork has been very good to me, and I give back a lot to this city and it is in my own best interests that the jobs of my 23 staff would be protected, and that my 40 suppliers can deliver every day.
“We’re entrepreneurial, and we don’t go on about the problems but behind the scenes, those of us who give a damn have been watching these flood defence plans, pushing them forward, demanding dates for preferred solutions.
“Then these people from Save Cork City emerge — it’s ludicrous to dismiss our views that we don’t want to maintain the beauty of our city.
“The reality is it’s not a safe city to trade in. When they press the panic button on a flood alert, you may as well turn off the trade tap because people don’t come in to the city.”
Ms Nash, who was CBA president during the 2014 flood, accompanied President Michael D Higgins on a visit to dozens of flood-ravaged traders along Oliver Plunkett St.
“He was stunned that we were once again facing another major flood disaster, just a few years after the 2009 flood,” she said.
“There are some tweaks we’d like to make to the OPW plans, and I’m sure the OPW will tweak them with us, but my fear is that we will lose the funding for this scheme if these objections get hold.”
Ms Nash said possible solutions put forward by the scheme’s opponents are just not credible.
“There is a lot of rhetoric about saving the city and protecting views. But the fact is we won’t have a city centre is this scheme doesn’t go ahead,” she said.
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