Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: We need Stormont to tackle water woes

NI Water chairman Len O'Hagan
NI Water chairman Len O'Hagan

Editor's Viewpoint

The only time most of us ever think of water infrastructure is when the drains are unable to cope with torrential rainfall and homes are flooded. But that is only part of the problem facing NI Water according to its chairman, Dr Len O'Hagan.

He has pointed out that there are 99 sites around the province where water treatment plants are practically at bursting point and another 33 would be at capacity by 2027. The net result is that development work could be severely curtailed.

In a striking soundbite, he said no drains mean no cranes. The much heralded city development plans for Belfast and Londonderry could not reach capacity if the infrastructure is incapable of accepting new sewage connections for homes, offices, hotels, factories, hospitals or schools.

The image he painted in putting forward his business case for a new funding model for NI Water is a bleak one of development grinding to a halt. Belfast alone needs £1bn in water infrastructure investment and the total bill for the province is around £2.5bn.

But where is the money to come from? Under the present funding model which sees NI Water as a Government-owned company, it cannot go to the market to borrow money.

The problems facing NI Water are part of an overall image of Northern Ireland as a place grinding ever more quickly to a halt due to its status as a politically rudderless region.

As far as Westminster - which is facing its own meltdown - is concerned, Northern Ireland is a place which is holding up Brexit due to the controversial backstop. It's economic and social problems are mere tiny blips on the radar, if they exist at all.

And of course Brexit feeds into the problems. Will it be a no-deal, or a postponement and new deal, or will Brexit be axed? No one can answer those questions with certainty.

The irony is that continued membership of the EU could have helped solved NI Water's problems through its continued support of development in the province. Brexit will cut off that money supply.

The Department of Finance and the Department for Infrastructure at Stormont says they are in discussions about how NI Water could be funded in future. But that is not a task that should be left to civil servants.

Until our stay-away politicians decide to take up the jobs for which they are still being paid, it will be impossible to devise new policies and find new funding streams.

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