Belfast Telegraph

Blackout: Warning every Northern Ireland street will be plunged into darkness

Exclusive Stormont memo says funds for road lighting will run out in two years

By Claire O'Boyle

The lights could go out across Northern Ireland within two years, an internal briefing at the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has warned.

The paper, which is expected to be presented to staff within days, says all street lights could be switched off by 2020.

This catastrophic situation could occur under two possible budgetary scenarios laid out by the Department of Finance.

In the best case possible, according to the briefing, at least a quarter of our street lights will go.

In a week in which snow brought chaos and experts warned there could be a rise in untreated roads next winter, Michael Robinson from public service union Nipsa said DfI was facing a massive challenge.

"This is shocking state of affairs, and when I first heard about it I thought it must be down to maintenance or repairs," he said.

"But it's not. It's down to something as basic as paying the electricity bill."

Mr Robinson explained that tight budgets meant the department had already been forced to reduce road maintenance, underfund public transport and pay Northern Ireland Water less than the regulator recommends.

"But perhaps the most telling example of this man-made crisis is that before long we could run out of money for street lighting," he added.

"People here are pinching themselves that something so drastic is potentially on the horizon - a quarter of Northern Ireland's lights going out, or the whole system affected by 2020.

"Of course, we hope sense prevails and we're given some latitude to overspend at the end of the year, but that is far from guaranteed."

Mr Robinson, who is currently seconded to DfI, also explained the huge impact failing to maintain our roads all-year round - not just in extreme weather conditions - could have on individuals and the wider economy.

"If we don't spend money on gritting, schools close, parents miss work and the impact on businesses is huge," he said.

"Accidents happen, people need to be rescued.

"That impacts on emergency services, it impacts on the health budget.

"It happened to an extent this year, but if there is no winter service budget next year - which could happen - things could be a lot worse."

He added that potholes could cause huge issues also.

"Yes, they can damage wheels," he said.

"That's frustrating and costly for drivers, but they can be extremely dangerous too.

"A motorbike hits one and they could be thrown off onto the road in front of a truck. It's serious stuff and it needs to be maintained properly. And if accidents happen because the department isn't fulfilling its legislative responsibilities, it's leaving itself vulnerable to claims of compensation. In turn, that will hit the public purse."

DfI has revealed that 8,811 street lights were currently recorded as being out across Northern Ireland. That is 3% of the total of 285,907.

The department was criticised earlier this week for its response to the recent snow, with Belfast UUP councillor Peter Johnston branding its gritting policy an "absolute disgrace".

But, explained Mr Robinson, things could have been a lot worse if funding adjustments hadn't been made late in the day.

He said: "Despite the heroic efforts of hundreds of staff working around the clock in atrocious conditions to grit and plough our roads network, there has still been significant disruption.

"Schools have been forced to close, business and commerce have been adversely affected and there have been road accidents and cars abandoned.

"But as late as October 2017 the department did not have the capacity to make financial provision for such winter service. Thankfully, underspends elsewhere allowed the reallocation of money to fund this work."

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said Mr Robinson's assessment tied in to what he had heard elsewhere. "I was at a meeting with the roads manager who said the budget could drop as low as £16m, and that would mean major problems," he said.

"Basic things we've come to expect, which are already under strain, would be come even more difficult - repairing potholes, maintaining street lights.

"If potholes get very bad, people's mobility is impacted. If street lights don't work, elderly people in housing estates feel vulnerable at night and they become isolated.

"We can't ignore the warnings."

DfI said: "There are many competing priorities in the roads, water and transport sector, and the current budgetary position means funding is limited and difficult decisions have to be made.

"All departments continue to face competing budgetary pressures and the future budget outlook remains extremely challenging. The Department of Finance published a briefing paper last month which outlines the impact of a number of budget scenarios. We would welcome comments on the consultation which closes on January 26.

"Any decisions on budget allocation will be for a future Minister for Infrastructure.

"In relation to the 2017/18 budget, the department started the year with insufficient funding to deliver all services, but received some £24m additional resource and £41m additional capital funding through in-year monitoring rounds.

"This included money for flood repair in the north west and for roads maintenance. We are now able to deliver a full winter service as a result. The funding is also available to enable delivery of public transport and water services this year."

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