15,000 Christmas lights out
Minister's safety concerns after streets left in darkness
Almost 15,000 street lights are now out across Northern Ireland, the Assembly has heard.
The total is up by more than 4,000 on last month - and the minister responsible said he could not predict how many lights will be out by the Christmas/New Year holidays.
As the winter evenings darken, Regional Development (DRD) Minister Danny Kennedy also revealed, however, that around 5,000 lights which went out over the last three months have been repaired.
MLAs also heard allegations that DRD workers have been taking working bulbs from some areas to other locations in darkness.
SDLP MLA Joe Byrne said: "There is some concern that sometimes DRD people take bulbs from areas where they are working to area to areas where they are not."
And he said a parish priest had voiced concern that in Drumquin, Co Tyrone, six lights had been out for two weeks.
Mr Kennedy replied: "I am not aware of DRD officials swapping lights, particularly at places of worship.
"I have had to take a number of difficult decisions including reducing external contractors responsible for around three-quarters of lights which go out.
"As of November 10, almost 15,000 of our 280,000 lights are out across Northern Ireland. (But we) have fixed over 5,000 faulty street lights - I must emphasise repairs are continuing.
"This is not the level of service we would like but I simply cannot spend money I do not have."
DUP MLA Ian McCrea and Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey admitted they were sympathetic towards the minister's plight but had concerns.
But Mr McCrea said it was a very emotional issue, particularly for elderly and vulnerable people, and Mr Maskey asked to what extent public safety was a factor in repairs.
"This has not been an easy decision or lightly taken," Mr Kennedy said.
"Obviously there are statutory duties under the Roads Order. The department has received legal advice and will continue to record defects as normal."
The minister has already admitted he has concerns that repair cutbacks have the potential to lead to safety issues for road users during the hours of darkness."
As the Belfast Telegraph revealed, DRD staff are only able to handle about 25% of the street light repairs. Work orders for the remainder which are carried out by contractors have been suspended as the result of spending cuts already agreed by the Executive.
Mr Kennedy's party colleague Roy Beggs first raised the alarm in September.
Three months ago the Belfast Telegraph revealed a letter from a senior Department of Regional Development (DRD) official which warned: "It has been necessary for DRD to curtail its expenditure on routine road maintenance activities. With immediate effect Transport NI will be unable to issue new works instructions".