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NI Water: State-owned utility firm that's been deluged by controversy

By John Mulgrew

Published 02/10/2015

Fresh trouble at NI Water came bubbling to the surface at the end of last year.

Shortly before Christmas 2014 fears for a miserable festive period grew as staff embarked on a work-to-rule, refusing to respond to emergency calls outside their normal hours.

At the heart of that dispute was pension reform, with the system changed as part of a radical overhaul right across the public sector.

At the beginning of January the industrial action led to 10,000 homes and businesses being left without supplies across Tyrone and Fermanagh.

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy and NI Water chief executive Sara Venning were hauled in front of an emergency committee meeting at Stormont to face a grilling.

And NI Water chairman Sean Hogan also had to defend a lack of public appearances and statements by the utility company's bosses at the height of the industrial dispute.

Since its creation in 2007, NI Water has had five chief executives.

Last winter's problems came four years after the chaos of 2010, when the mishandling of a cold weather crisis resulted in thousands of customers being left without water.

More than 40,000 homes were off mains supply, and at the height of the debacle one million people were trying to ring NI Water for help or information.

Chief executive Laurence MacKenzie resigned over the issue at the beginning of 2011.

Many were critical of the company's failure to come to the aid of those in need. In 2009, chairman and interim chief executive Chris Mellor, along with three board members, were sacked following controversy over the awarding of contracts. And its first chief executive, Kathryn Bryan, left in 2008 in the wake of controversy over the miscalculation of future revenue.

Ms Venning replaced Trevor Haslett, who stepped down in August 2013 for personal reasons.

A recruitment campaign in October 2013 produced six shortlisted candidates, who were all deemed unsuitable.

There was then a second recruitment campaign the following year. That saw the firm turn to Ms Venning, who had joined as a director from NIE in April 2010.

But it continues to stress that significant improvements have been made, particularly in the last couple of years.

The operator's annual report for 2014/15 shows its 'statutory accounts' - one of the ways in which it measures performance - posted annual turnover of £426m and a profit before tax of £131m.

In the report, NI Water said average bills for customers fell by 11.7% over the last two years.

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