Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Watergate scandal

It's easy to blame NI Water, but the crisis is as much the public and politicians' fault for not accepting the inevitability of water charges, says Owen Polley

There has been plenty of public criticism of Northern Ireland Water after its supply suffered serious stoppages and shortages over the Christmas period. The consensus is that, while the company's emergency plans were inadequate, the crisis itself, caused by thousands of pipes bursting as ice melted, was unavoidable.

Of course, the weather over the past few weeks has been severe, even unprecedented. Any company would struggle as the thaw struck.

In Northern Ireland, though, decades of neglect and underinvestment left us with an ancient and crumbling system. Major disruption here was inevitable.

For that, our politicians must take their share of the blame.

The water-consuming public cannot be absolved from responsibility, either.

The hard truth is that you get what you pay for. By deferring water charges, with overwhelming popular support, and refusing to privatise NI Water, the Executive at Stormont indefinitely postponed the major overhaul of infrastructure which our water system urgently needs.

The result can be seen in places like Lurgan, where melt water overwhelmed sewers, causing raw effluent to spew into homes.

Northern Ireland's inadequate sewage facilities have long been criticised by organisations like Friends of the Earth and by the European Court of Justice.

In 2006, a High Court judge was forced to rule the planning system in the province should take sewage capacity into account in the vicinity of proposed new developments. Many thousands of houses had already been sited where there was little or no facility to get rid of waste.

The court prevented the Department for Regional Development - in the guise of the then-Northern Ireland Water Service - from simply connecting more and more houses to an already overloaded system.

Meanwhile, poor treatment facilities attracted yearly fines from the European Court of Justice.

With environmental effects which can only be imagined, raw sewage was pumped into the sea, some of it in the vicinity of popular tourist destinations like Portrush and Bangor.

It would be naive to suppose our recent difficulties, with pipes freezing, bursting and then draining reservoirs of water, aren't exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure.

If pipes were laid further beneath the surface, properly lagged and maintained, problems could still occur, but their scale would be vastly smaller.

It's not as if the authorities were unaware of the issues around investment. As far back as 2003, when Angela Smith was Labour's regional development minister at the NIO, she conceded water charges here would be the highest in the UK if they were to compensate fully for an under-funded service.

The message was clear. Not only was the Water Service short of money to improve its facilities due to a lack of water-charging, it was also woefully inefficient in its previous guise as an integral part of a government department.

NI Water became a separate, publicly-owned company in 2007, but it still literally leaked money.

Just this year, controversy raged over its failure to follow the correct procedure for putting contracts out to tender.

It suffers a financial double-whammy of poor governance and under-funding which keeps its service in the dark ages. Experience in England and Wales suggests major investment, particularly in new sewers, can be successful only if water provision is privatised. Public utility companies, like Severn Trent Water, were able to upgrade a system which remained relatively unchanged since the Victorian era.

Accountable to shareholders, these organisations were efficient enough to keep costs low while also making the improvements required. Northern Ireland is now at least 20 years behind - and we still show no will to catch up.

Indeed, there are signs our water service is moving in the opposite direction. In September, the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, suggested that NI Water be fully re-nationalised - prompting Sammy Wilson to describe his Executive colleague's plan as "bananas".

Questions about the company's quasi-independent status were already being asked, following an investigation by Stormont's Public Accounts Committee.

Consumers must hope NI Water's latest troubles can inject some realism into the water debate here. The constant deferral of charges has become a rare point of unanimity across the political spectrum. That particular holy cow should be slaughtered once and for all.

The Alliance party was the first to put its head above the parapet, supporting charges. Sammy Wilson and John McCallister have also shown signs that some of our politicians are prepared to challenge the cosy consensus. The Executive should simply tell people the truth. If water charges continue to be deferred then the service will suffer.

Along with a phased introduction of bills, we need to look urgently at options for privatising NI Water. Otherwise, like our drinking water at the moment, money will continue to pour down the drain.

Politicians should take the lead, but the public also needs to grasp the concept that you get what you pay for. Water is no exception.

If the system remains under-funded, it will continue to under-perform - and continue to disrupt our lives.

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