Belfast Telegraph

£1bn needed as secret drainage report warns Belfast on brink of collapse

By Adrian Rutherford

A near £1bn cash injection is needed to revamp Belfast's archaic drainage system and prevent the city becoming a social and economic backwater, a report has warned.

A dossier presented to MLAs outlines the huge costs involved - and the dire consequences of failing to act.

It states Belfast has the worst drainage infrastructure in Northern Ireland.

The city is already more prone to flooding than elsewhere, and the risk will further increase as it continues to expand.

David McNarry, a member of the Assembly's regional development committee, claimed Belfast could face shutdown unless action is taken to address what he branded "a horrible mess of neglect and incompetence".

"The legacy left for future generations to suffer from if not urgently resolved is appalling," he said. The briefing paper, presented to Stormont's regional development committee, warns that failing to act could mean:

  • Damage to Northern Ireland's reputation;
  • No new housing;
  • Limiting new businesses;
  • Impeding growth;
  • Construction problems;
  • And impact on revenue.

The paper, titled Living With Water Programme, estimates it could cost up to £750m to sort out the problems.

Around £8m will be spent on consultants and external experts.

It states: "The drainage infrastructure of many towns and cities in Northern Ireland is currently inadequate, with the problems being most acute in the greater Belfast area."

The document goes on to state this has resulted in serious flooding several times in recent years.

Risk assessments have identified Belfast as the largest of 20 significant flood risk areas across Northern Ireland. We also risk falling foul of European rules.

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is an EU directive committing member states to achieve good qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies. But the WFD classification of Belfast Harbour fell from "moderate" to "bad" between 2009 and 2012.

This was partly caused by continuous discharges from wastewater treatment works, and intermittent storm overflows at more than 90 sites.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency has warned we risk EU infraction proceedings - in other words penalties - for not complying with the legislation.

The document also notes how the main wastewater treatment works at Duncrue in North Belfast is already operating above capacity, receiving more sewage than it was designed to treat.

Other risks include:

  • Flooding, which the report notes is occurring with increased frequency;
  • Penalties resulting from a failure to comply with EU legislation;
  • A drainage network with inadequate capacity to meet economic growth;
  • A need for maintenance or replacement of many of the network's components;
  • And loss of "amenity potential".

The report warns that, because of Belfast's complex drainage infrastructure, a "cross-sectoral approach" is needed to find solutions that can be efficiently delivered. Referring to financial implications, it warns the costs will run to hundreds of millions of pounds.

"Early estimates range from £350m to £750m for Belfast alone, and the various elements of the [Strategic Drainage Infrastructure Plan] need to be fully costed," it states.

"However, it is believed that by working together and cross-sectorally, the ultimate cost of delivering a long-term solution for Belfast will be minimised."

It notes the level of investment "is clearly a challenge, given the current budgetary environment".

However, Mr McNarry (left)warned of the dire consequences of doing nothing. "It will mean a city losing investment with growth impeded to the extent that both social and commercial development will be frozen.

He added: "There will be no new houses built, new business opportunities will be limited, expansion is not on. This city's reputation as an attraction faces significant damage. There will be a population shrinkage.

"I have heard woeful excuses tagged onto lamentable blame games, but when drilled down this is no scaremongering - it is real."

The drainage plans could see a complete overhaul of hard surfaces, such as tarmac and concrete. In some cases they may have to be ripped up and replaced with improved rainwater run-off systems.

Mr McNarry said the city's drainage infrastructure was left for many years without investment.

"Belfast has been hit for six by appalling neglect, failing management and abysmal oversight," he said. "The Belfast Harbour area fell from moderate in 2009 to bad in 2012. What comes after 'bad' has to be dire.

"Clearly those responsible for the negligence and their incompetence are long gone. If not they should be sacked immediately."

A spokesman for the Department for Regional Development said: "As with many cities across the UK, Belfast requires significant capital investment in its drainage infrastructure."

He said the DRD has brought together experts from a range of government departments and public bodies under a programme called Living with Water, adding that an early estimate for the cost of the project was £750m.

He added: "The programme is taking a long-term, planned approach, with the key elements of new infrastructure likely to be in place by 2025.

"Meanwhile, Belfast Waste Water Treatment Works remains fully compliant with its licence and NI Water is accepting new sewer connections in the city."

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