Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland water chiefs, not old pipes, were to blame for big freeze debacle

By Emily Moulton

A damning report into Northern Ireland Water’s handling of the festive freeze/thaw crisis which left around 450,000 consumers without mains supply has found there was significant failure at the highest level.

The investigation by the Utility Regulator also highlighted serious flaws in the execution of emergency plans, especially in relation to communication with customers, and that overall the company was ill-prepared to deal with a crisis of that magnitude.

Besides being highly critical of the executive team, the Utility Regulator’s report also found that, contrary to public perception, Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure — which had been described by some politicians as ageing and out of date — was not at a greater risk of bursting than elsewhere in the UK.

The average age of water mains in Northern Ireland was found to be 29 years, compared to 45 years in the rest of the UK.

“This evidence supports the view that the freeze/thaw |incident was not exacerbated by any lack of investment in water mains,” the report said.

While the role of the corporate team was criticised, the frontline operational teams, who worked in very challenging weather conditions, were praised.

The Utility Regulator’s chief executive Shane Lynch said: “Our investigation establishes that the execution of NI Water’s emergency planning procedures was |deficient, its communications were very ineffective and there was a failure in the necessary executive leadership within the company..”

NIW interim chief executive Trevor Haslett said the company accepted the recommendations proposed by the report.

“We in Northern Ireland Water fully accept lessons need to be learnt from what was a difficult time for many customers,” he said.

“Many of the steps recommended within this report have already been put in place and we will press forward to implement those remaining as quickly as possible.”

A separate report to the Northern Ireland Executive focusing on the role of the Department for Regional Development, responsible for NIW, was also published.

The report said DRD minister Conor Murphy oversaw the performance of NIW and appointed its board effectively.

The report added: “There was no evidence to suggest that the minister was ever alerted to the need for any additional resources, strengthened arrangements, or that there were any potential issues with NIW's preparedness for the winter weather.”

Background

At the height of the water crisis a million people phoned the NI Water helpline. During the December-January period, Northern Ireland was in the midst of severe winter weather with meteorologists recording the coldest temperatures in 100 years. This was followed by a swift rise in temperatures causing pipes to burst throughout Northern Ireland. At the height of the crisis, up to 60,000 homes were left without any water.

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