NI Water: How we can sort out this inefficient shambles
The problems at NI Water are symptomatic of a bloated public sector, says Mark Brotherston. It’s time it was allowed to be run like a proper business
It is a scandal that, in 2015, the Red Cross has been out on the streets of Northern Ireland because of the effects of industrial action by public sector unions.
The dispute over pensions is just the latest in a series of crises to hit NI Water. This outdated organisation exemplifies many of the problems facing Northern Ireland as we struggle to build a modern economy with modern public services.
We're burdened with a bloated public sector, which reacts to problems slowly and inefficiently. We have too many quangos and 'arm's-length' bodies. Unions exert too much power. Finally, there is a lack of political leaders with the will to take difficult decisions and tackle serious issues.
The current fiasco in the west of the province has been caused by technical problems at a water treatment works. NIW employees cannot get the facilities working again quickly, because the union has called a work-to-rule industrial action, meaning staff won't work outside normal working hours.
Meanwhile, the company is prevented from bringing in extra part-time staff because of restrictive legislation governing industrial disputes.
It's a mess and the result is tens of thousands of people in Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone going without water for days during the coldest part of winter.
NI Water is no longer part of the Department for Regional Development, strictly speaking. It became a separate, Government- owned company in 2007, but there have long been questions about its quasi-independent status, drawing criticism, for instance, from the Public Accounts Committee. Money keeps pouring down the drain, vital investment in infrastructure is not delivered and poor governance raises constant concerns.
The Belfast Telegraph explained yesterday that "archaic working practices" are crippling the service, lumbering it with outrageous overtime bills and preventing an efficient reaction to emergencies. The vast majority of workers are employed on standard 8am-6pm contracts, with no shift-work. That means NIW spends one fifth of its wage bill calling its own employees into work on emergency overtime.
In eastern counties, the private sector operates water treatment plants, which provide about half of Northern Ireland's drinking water, through Public Private Partnership (PPP) contracts. If a problem developed in any of these facilities, a private company would be required to sort it out. In the west of the province, where the current difficulties are being experienced, there are no PPPs and consumers are relying entirely on the public sector to get their drinking water back on tap.
Meanwhile, public sector union bosses have condemned thousands of households to misery, because of a dispute about pensions. They object to NIW employees being asked to contribute a little more toward pension pots, which will still be far more generous than those enjoyed by the vast majority of private sector employees. Right across the UK, pensions have been squeezed, due to the recession and the fact that people are living longer.
The majority of public sector union members are being let down badly by union bosses who try to provoke confrontation. Politicians in the Stormont Executive are just as bad. They've known for decades that Northern Ireland's water infrastructure is crumbling and needs urgent investment. They're also aware that there is not enough money to improve facilities, chiefly because we don't have water charges and NIW is chronically inefficient. Yet they keep putting off taking a decision on implementing water charges and they've failed completely to make NIW fit for purpose, despite constant scandals and crises.
It's easy to criticise, of course, but how could the Executive actually provide people in Northern Ireland with a reliable, value for money water service?
Most importantly, ministers could give NI Water genuine independence from Government, rather than the current inefficient shambles, which offers the worst of both worlds. To put it simply, allow NIW to operate like a proper company, rather than a public sector organisation. Welsh Water was mutualised, so that the people of Wales now own a company which is operated on private sector principles, but doesn't make a profit.
The results are impressive. Prices have remained low and customers have even received regular dividends, yet Welsh Water has also managed to invest huge amounts of money in improving pipes, sewers, treatment plants and other infrastructure.
There's no reason why Northern Ireland couldn't embark on a similarly ambitious project if the will were there.
Alternatively, we could maintain the current system. Executive ministers who won't make decisions, because they can't agree or don't want to take responsibility. Governance by a confused tangle of quangos and arms-length bodies, which allow everyone to shift the blame and avoid accountability. A water service crippled by inflexible public sector union bosses, determined to prevent progress and change.
I don't think it's a difficult choice to make, but will our ministers, union leaders and bureaucrats agree?
Mark Brotherston is a businessman and representative of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party