Belfast Telegraph

Probe into NI Water is welcome

Editor's Viewpoint

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has done the right thing in asking the regulator to investigate Northern Ireland Water's handling of its staff's work to rule, which left 9,000 consumers without water at the height of the crisis.

This was a dispute waiting to happen and the regulator should look at the working practices of the company and how it is run.

Thankfully for those consumers in the west of the province who have endured days of misery without running water during the coldest snap of the winter to date, it seems that the crisis is now over, with the union recommending a new deal to its members.

But the immediate question that springs to mind is how this crisis was allowed to develop in the first place.

A major factor is the archaic working practices in a company set up by the Government in 2007. By running just one main shift from 8am to 6pm, with any problems outside those hours catered for on an overtime basis, the company was left wide open to industrial action by staff - and it was action that would have serious consequences if any plant broke down.

As a vital utility, the company should have introduced shift rotas to cover a 24-hour-a-day operation.

The issue at the heart of the dispute was similarly out of date. The company paid a staggering 26% of salaries in pension premiums compared to 1-3% by the workers. Little wonder they did not want any dilution of these pension arrangements. These are issues which should have been addressed by senior management, but were not. The chairman, who earns up to £40,000 a year for three or four days' work a month, was never seen or heard during the dispute, which began on December 22. He did not even attend an emergency meeting of the regional development committee at Stormont yesterday, and is apparently in line for a top job at Irish Water. This is a company where tough decisions have to be made to streamline its working practices. It cannot continue to operate in the fashion it has up until now, and the issue of pensions and shift working will have to be addressed sooner rather than later.

That begs the question if the talent exists within the company to modernise it. There is a tendency in the province to appoint the same small pool of people to senior posts. Perhaps we need to widen our trawl of candidates.

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