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£1m fund set up to help at-risk families protect themselves from floods

By Noel McAdam

Stormont has thrown a £1m lifeline to families whose homes are at risk of flooding.

The Individual Property Protection Scheme will allow up to 90% grant aid, with a cap set at £10,000, to help protect houses.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill had planned to launch the project even before the latest flooding crisis.

The minister and Rivers Agency have been working on it for more than a year.

Priority will be given to homes that have flooded before and that will not benefit from an existing scheme within five years.

The remaining properties will be expected to pay around 10% of the costs of any work.

"Where there is no engineering solution and no affordable protection scheme for property, this will allow us to help people make their properties more flood-resilient in their own right," the minister said.

"This is quite generous in terms of grant aid, and it will allow people to help and protect properties where possible."

However, Fermanagh/South Tyrone MP Tom Elliott branded the Executive's response to the crisis "shameful".

"I am quite disgusted to hear that the Environment Minister (Mark H Durkan) is yet to get a response to a paper he circulated to ministerial colleagues on November 23 seeking approval to extend the scheme of emergency financial assistance to include small businesses and community facilities," the UUP man said.

"The lack of response from some members of the Executive is shameful. A lot of politicians have paid lip service while people in Fermanagh and across Northern Ireland have been left under feet of water."

But Mr Durkan's SDLP colleague Dolores Kelly said: "Had it not been for the minister highlighting that a flood fund of £1.3m had been supplied by Westminster, there would have been no impetus for an emergency meeting and no guarantee that this money would have been used to help people. In times of crisis people need Government to take action to help, not engage in political games."

In a report to the Assembly, Ms O'Neill said: "The Armagh Observatory's records go back to 1838, and this is the heaviest rainfall that we have ever seen. It has been the wettest December since records began. Extreme weather led to the flooding. Because we had such a wet period, even in advance of December, lough levels were high and lands were already saturated, which led to the difficulties that we have seen with quite a significant body of land being flooded."

Lough Neagh reached a 30-year high during the worst of the weather, peaking at a metre above the normal winter level - about 200 millimetres above the last significant high in 2009.

Water levels in Upper Lough Erne also peaked at just less than a metre above normal winter level, but around 150 millimetres below the 2009 peak, with the biggest impact on roads rather than properties.

"The weather is forecast to become colder over the next few days, with less rain, and that will allow levels in the loughs to reduce further," Mrs O'Neill said. "They will, however, remain high, and the Rivers Agency will continue to be on high alert."

The SDLP's Sean Rogers complained that Northern Ireland had a "20 or 30-year backlog of river maintenance" and asked for a consistent programme.

But Ms O'Neill replied: "We do not have a backlog of 20 years of river maintenance. Watercourses are maintained on a regular basis.

"In urban areas, watercourses are maintained every year and inspected once a year, and, in rural areas, it is every six years."

However, Edwin Poots of the DUP argued that "the dredging of some of these rivers is absolutely vital to reducing the levels of Lough Neagh", and told how a number of farmer had seen livestock, particularly sheep, washed away in the River Lagan basin.

The minister responded: "I have asked for an assessment of the impact on farmers, and we will then look at what supports, if any, we decide to bring forward.

"We need to get an assessment of the situation, because we do not have that at the moment."

Belfast Telegraph


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