Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Authorities could well face a backlash if leaks show up in legality of hosepipe ban

Treat the public with respect if you want us to observe the restrictions. Fionola Meredith has some advice for NI Water

No more parched petunias, no more wilting wall-flowers - the hosepipe ban is officially over, at least for now.

 And it's all been a glorious success, according to NI Water. "Thanks to the fantastic response from the public to our appeals to conserve water we have seen demand for water decrease from three quarters of a billion litres per day (some 30% above average) to near normal levels," said the company's boss Sara Venning.

When reservoir levels drop perilously low, as they have done during the heatwave, it's legitimate to expect everyone to do their best to conserve water. Personal and collective responsibility and all that. Your country needs you to take a shower, not a bath. Let the car stay bogging and bug-flecked. Leave that paddling pool unfilled. If a few marigolds die, it's a sacrifice worth making for the greater good. Right?

Well, up to a point. If we are being asked to play our part as dutiful, public-minded citizens, then it's only reasonable that the authorities play fair with us.

And to my mind, NI Water did not.

It emerged that a public directive issued by NI Water banning all manner of hose-related activities such as washing walls, windows, paths, patios and private boats - under threat of a substantial fine and a criminal record - appeared to exceed the law as it currently stands here.

In fact, the ban in Northern Ireland applied only to the use of hosepipes to water gardens, road vehicles or vehicles towed by a road vehicle.

The list of outlawed hose activities invoked by NI Water bore a distinct resemblance to those identified in the law in Britain, which was updated in 2010 but never implemented here.

So did our state-owned water company 'fess up and apologise for this apparent howler?

Not a bit of it. Water off a duck's back.

Ms Venning, who is described on NI Water's website as responsible for "the company's continuing journey towards customer excellence", said she believed the ban was "within the letter and spirit of the law here in Northern Ireland".

"The ban was brought in to effect behaviour change and we absolutely have seen that behaviour change and we don't believe we overstepped the mark," she added.

Forgive me, Sara, but this is not a matter of belief.

Either an activity is prohibited by law or it is not. If you're firing out threats of fines and prosecutions, you have to be very sure of the ground on which you stand.

A basic understanding of the English language would be helpful too. I'm no lawyer, but claiming that walls and windows are the same as gardens would surely not get you very far in court. A boat, whether towable or otherwise, is definitely not the same as a car, however much Ms Venning might like to believe it is.

If in doubt, try driving from Belfast to Liverpool, and I don't mean using the ferry. Tip: wear a wetsuit.

By contrast to the embarrassingly hick approach adopted in Northern Ireland, take a look at the situation in the north west of England, where a hosepipe ban will come into force on August 5. The company in question, United Utilities, is fully equipped with powers to restrict usage under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. It is proceeding in a measured, orderly fashion, giving householders plenty of notice and spelling out exactly what they can and cannot do, according to the existing law. Sure, nobody likes it, but at least they know the facts.

The doubt over whether many of the prohibitions listed by NI Water were actually enforceable casts a whole new light on house-calls made by company officials during the ban to people dobbed in by their neighbours for illicit hose use. I didn't hear of any penalties being issued in these cases. Maybe a friendly chat was all that was needed. Or could it be that NI Water was aware it had entered legally dubious territory?

As we've seen, most people react responsibly when there's a water shortage, knowing that it's for the common good. And that in turn brings a necessary drop in demand. But compliance depends on a sense of mutual respect between the authorities and the general public - it cuts both ways.

If people think that the water service has been overreaching itself, they'll be far less inclined to toe the line next time there is a ban.

Stuff it, they might say, and use their hosepipe to fill a paddling pool that's only slightly smaller than Lough Neagh.

And that way nobody wins.

Belfast Telegraph

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