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Pay hike for NI Water boss who oversaw a winter of discontent

Exclusive by John Mulgrew

Published 02/10/2015

Sara Venning, the NI Water chief, was paid £147,000 between March 2014 and March 2015
Sara Venning, the NI Water chief, was paid £147,000 between March 2014 and March 2015
SDLP MLA John Dallat

The boss of NI Water saw her pay rise in a year the taxpayer-funded utility was plunged into chaos, leaving thousands without water.

That increase has been blasted as "astonishing" by the deputy chairman of Stormont's Public Accounts Committee.

Sara Venning received £147,000 between March 2014 and March 2015.

In the previous year, Ms Venning earned £130,000-£135,000, split between her serving as a director and interim chief executive.

NI Water said the increase was down to both her taking up the full-time chief executive role, a 1% pay rise, and an "element of back pay" that it said was a "one-off".

At the height of the chaos in January some 10,000 homes were without a supply, forcing people to boil snow and ferry water from local rivers.

The crisis came about after more than 1,000 NI Water workers engaged in a work-to-rule, with on-call and emergency services withdrawn. That caused massive disruption to supplies, particularly in the west.

Ms Venning came under intense pressure from customers and politicians during the crisis.

SDLP MLA John Dallat, deputy chairman of the PAC, said: "This won't go down well with people who are struggling to pay their mortgages.

"It's astonishing a company rarely out of turbulence has been able to find reasons why their chief executive should have enhancement in her take home pay.

"Someone who is on £130,000 to £135,000 is pushing the boat out by topping that off, when everyone knows the company hasn't performed particularly well."

Ms Venning joined NI Water in April 2010 as director of customer service delivery, and was appointed interim chief in 2013.

NI Water was thrown into disarray last winter due to the industrial action sparked by a dispute over pension changes.

In its latest annual report, it says the "company's policy on remuneration of executive directors and executives is to attract, retain and motivate the best people".

It also says that a "discretionary performance-related bonus is designed to incentivise directors and align their interests with those of the shareholder".

Ukip MLA David McNarry said that those who were caught up in the water chaos last winter would be "sickened" by her increased pay. "There's no doubt that the expectation is, you pay big money, you get big results. It's quite amazing how pay has been sorted out at all levels in this company," he said.

"This company is improving its performance but it is not at a satisfactory level, and there are concerns across the board.

"The public will say: what's going on here?

"The more you get paid, the less you seem to have to deliver?

"I know Sara Venning is aware of the demands, but we need to see results."

In a statement issued to the Belfast Telegraph, NI Water said the "change in emoluments between 2013/14 and 2014/15 results from the fact that during 2013/14 Ms Venning was appointed as interim chief executive partway through the year; having previously held the post of director of customer service delivery" and earned the chief executive salary for around six months.

"In 2014/15 she was appointed as permanent chief executive in April and therefore earned the chief executive salary for the full year."

It said the "only change in her salary from the time she was interim chief executive to her permanent appointment was as a result of the application in April 2014 of a 1% increase in pay, in line with public sector pay policy guidelines for the period".

"While an element of back pay earned in 2013/14 was paid during the 2014/15 financial year and was therefore included in the annual accounts for that year, it was a one-off payment and it would be incorrect to represent it as an increase in salary earned between 2013/14 and 2014/15," it added.

NI Water said Ms Venning's salary "stands comparison, in terms of value for money, with the salaries paid to comparable posts in the utility sector here or elsewhere" in the industry.

Belfast Telegraph

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