Belfast could be overrun with rats after row over who pays to get rid of them
Belfast could be hit with an infestation of rats unless a row over the funding of a vital pest control service is resolved, it has been claimed.
The stark warning was issued to NI Water that a "greater problem of rat infestation" would affect the city if it axed money for the sewer-baiting service.
NI Water, which has paid for the service that helps control vermin in the city's sewers since 2003 – said two years ago it was pulling its financing.
The organisation, whose profits rose by £21m to £133m last year, said in December 2011 it was reducing its funding from £60,000 to £25,000 and it had further plans to decrease it to just £10,000, then stopping it completely this November.
This sparked a major row with councillors who believed the responsibility should remain NI Water's.
The funding had enabled the council to employ two staff to put rat poison down 16,000 manholes every year.
In 2011 the council dealt with 1,910 complaints from the public about rats.
In January, however, NI Water appeared to backtrack and said it was willing to look at a way forward. But it is understood the row still hasn't been completely settled.
The council has now agreed to accept "without prejudice" its proposal to consider providing the same level of funding of £25,000 as it had previously provided between December 2012 and November 2013.
Council minutes revealed a letter was sent to the chairman of the board of Northern Ireland Water stating that the phasing out of the service would have a "detrimental impact on the rat population" and the quality of life on those living and working in the city.
In January NI Water's director of customer service delivery Sara Venning, and Des Nevin, its head of networks sewerage, met council officers.
During the meeting NI Water said it had "realised" that the reduction would cause what it described as "difficulties".
Ms Venning said she would go back and "seek a commitment" to make the £25,000 available.
NI Water also said it wanted a reactive service to the problem of rats, rather than a planned or proactive one.
Councillors made it clear that parts of the city had an outdated sewerage system not designed to cope with the current volumes of waste and they were concerned a reduced service would lead to the "creation of a greater problem of rat infestation".
A NI Water spokeswoman told the Belfast Telegraph: "NI Water can confirm the company is continuing to engage with Belfast City Council regarding funding arrangements for the provision of a sewer-baiting service in the city and are confident the matter can be satisfactorily resolved."
Chairman of the council's health and environmental services committee, Pat McCarthy, said the service was vital for the people of Belfast.
"Prevention is better than cure. Why wait until we have an infestation of rats or overrun by them when we can be proactive and bait the sewers on a regular basis?"
He said NI Water directly benefited from the sewer-baiting programme so it was only right that it contributed financially.
He said any cut in NI Water funding would leave ratepayers to foot the bill.
An effective method of controlling the rat population is to lay rat poison in sewers – sewer-baiting. The cost in Belfast is approximately £59,000 per year. During the 2009/10 financial year Belfast City Council's pest control unit received 2,221 complaints about rats and baited 17,557 manholes across the city, an increase on the previous year, leading to genuine fears that the rat population could get out of control if the service is slashed.