Belfast Telegraph

Let's tackle root causes of NI Water crisis

Editor's Viewpoint

As water services get back to normal it is now time for a long, hard look at the company behind the crisis. Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has asked the utilities regulator to investigate Northern Ireland Water's handling of its dispute with staff that led to 9,000 consumers being without water at one stage.

But it is also time for a proper debate on wider issues than just the row over pensions, which led to the staff overtime ban and weeks of misery for consumers in the west of the province.

Today we reveal a report that forecast big problems for the troubled utility has been gathering dust for more than seven years.

The nub of the problem is the crumbling infrastructure inherited by NI Water when it was set up. It needs an estimated £750m worth of investment to bring the system that brings water to our homes and businesses up to scratch.

But how do we get that money? Already NI Water is subsidised to the tune of £277m a year from the public purse. The simplest way of raising the revenue required for capital projects is through water charges, but this is a political hot potato.

Queen's University academic Professor Paddy Hillyard advocated water charges in his report, and he argues that remains the best option given the increasing demands on the public purse today, especially from the health service.

However, the largest parties at Stormont have consistently set their face against water charges, and the recent rows in the Republic over the introduction of charges will make them even more nervous of suggesting such a move. Only Alliance has suggested that it is the sensible way forward.

Historically, household rates bills contained an amount earmarked for the water service, but it is evident that for many years that money was not invested in the infrastructure. There were more competing demands on the public purse during the long decades of violence.

Yet Professor Hillyard's contention that we are simply storing up problems, both for the utility and other services funded from the public purse, unless we seriously address this issue remains true. It is not enough just to concentrate on shortcomings in the working practices of NI Water or in its management of this latest crisis.

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