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Drainage crisis in the pipeline

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 22/12/2015

The report on the state of Belfast's drainage and sewage system makes alarming reading. Stock image
The report on the state of Belfast's drainage and sewage system makes alarming reading. Stock image

The report on the state of Belfast's drainage and sewage system makes alarming reading. While not quite a doomsday situation, it is heading that way fast with all sorts of social and economic consequences for the city.

It is easy to pinpoint what went wrong and led to the dire position facing the city at present. For decades there was little investment in the city's underground drainage network - just as the province's drinking pipelines were also allowed to fall into such disrepair that we were losing as much water as we were using.

But it has to be admitted there were greater priorities facing direct rule ministers in the three decades from 1972 until devolution was restored. Money that might otherwise have been used to build up the drainage, sewage and drinking water infrastructure was largely diverted towards anti-terrorism measures.

However, that lost legacy of investment is now coming home to roost. According to a briefing paper presented to politicians, the drainage system problems will impact on inward investment to the city because it will not be able to sustain more commercial construction or more housing, will make the city more liable to flooding and incur financial penalties because of failure to comply with EU legislation on water.

This is a dire warning to the politicians. And they cannot claim that it is all a legacy problem since the Belfast Harbour area's status fell from moderate to bad in the three years between 2009 and 2012 when local politicians' hands were on the tiller.

As ever, identifying the problem and apportioning blame for it is the easy part of the equation. Finding a solution that will serve the city well for decades to come will require imagination in the first instance but, more worryingly, up to £750m in hard cash.

From a consumer point of view the concern will be that water charges could be introduced to help foot the bill and continuing investment needs. The politicians have been reluctant to follow the example of the Republic or the rest of the UK, and indeed of many EU countries, in charging domestic customers and would not even countenance it before the Assembly elections in May. But in the longer term who knows?

Certainly the scenario facing the parties at Stormont will tax their mettle and it remains to be seen if they can solve the problem without slashing other services to pay for it.

Belfast Telegraph

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