Northern Ireland Water underwent prolonged public criticism, after its supply suffered serious stoppages and shortages over the Christmas period. The consensus is that while the company’s emergency plans were inadequate, the crisis itself, caused by thousands of pipes bursting as ice melted, was unavoidable.
Of course the weather over the holidays was severe, even unprecedented. Any company would struggle as the thaw struck. In Northern Ireland, though, decades of neglect and underinvestment have resulted in an ancient and crumbling system. Major disruption here was inevitable.
For that our politicians must take their share of the blame and the water consuming public cannot be absolved from responsibility either.
The hard truth is that you get what you pay for. By deferring water charges, with overwhelming popular support, and refusing to consider privatising Northern Ireland Water, the Executive at Stormont indefinitely postponed the major overhaul of infrastructure that our water system urgently needs.
The result can be seen in places like Lurgan, where melt water overwhelmed sewers, causing raw effluent to spew into people’s homes. Northern Ireland’s inadequate sewage facilities have long been criticised by organisations as diverse as Friends of the Earth and the European Court of Justice.
In 2006 a High Court judge was forced to rule that the planning system in Northern Ireland should take sewage capacity into account, in the vicinity of proposed new developments. Many thousands of houses had already been sited where there was little or no facility to get rid of waste. The court prevented the Department of Regional Development (DRD), in the guise of the then Northern Ireland Water Service, from simply connecting more and more properties to an already overloaded system
Meanwhile poor treatment facilities attracted yearly fines from the ECJ in Luxembourg. With environmental effects that can only be imagined, raw sewage was pumped into the sea, some of it in the vicinity of popular tourist destinations like Portrush and Bangor.
It would be naïve to suppose that our recent difficulties, caused by pipes freezing, bursting and then draining reservoirs of water, weren’t exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure. If pipes were laid further beneath the surface, properly lagged and better maintained, problems would still occur, but their scale would be vastly smaller.
It’s not as if the authorities were not aware of the existing issues around investment. As far back as 2003, when Angela Smith was Labour’s regional development minister at the NIO, she conceded that water charges here would be the highest in the UK, if there were to compensate fully for an under-funded service.
The message was clear. Not only was the Northern Ireland Water Service short of money to improve its facilities, due to a lack of water charging, the body was also woefully inefficient in its previous guise as an integral part of a government department.
Northern Ireland Water (NIW) became a nominally separate, publicly owned company in 2007, but it remained under the auspices of DRD and it still literally leaked money. It suffers a financial double whammy of poor governance and under-funding which keeps its service in the dark ages.
Just this year the department was forced to dismiss NIW’s chairman, Chris Mellor, and three other executives, after it emerged that the company had failed to follow competitive tendering rules for contracts worth up to £28m.
The controversy deepened after a senior DRD civil servant, Paul Priestly, was suspended from his post as permanent secretary. The local broadcaster UTV uncovered documents suggesting that Priestly had proposed changes to the text of a supposedly independent inquiry into the tendering process.
As a quasi-independent body NIW staggers from one crisis to the next. A committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly recently found that it suffers from “the worst of both worlds”. The DRD and the minister are not fully accountable for a body they describe as “arm’s length’, but the company is not sufficiently independent to resist political interference.
In the face of public spending cuts, the necessary upgrade of infrastructure, particularly in new sewers, is only likely to be successful if water provision is privatised or at least substantially independent. In England privatisation allowed public utility companies like Severn Trent Water to successfully upgrade a system which had remained relatively unchanged since the Victorian era.
Accountable to share-holders, these organisations were efficient enough to keep costs low while also making the improvements required. Northern Ireland Water needs to be properly independent, with genuinely independent regulation, if its management is to be appointed for competence, rather than political expediency. It needs to be able to borrow to fund investment, as the Stormont Executive’s capital spend is subjected to an ever tighter squeeze.
Unfortunately, there are signs that our service is moving in precisely the opposite direction. During September, the DRD Minister, Conor Murphy, suggested that NIW be fully re-nationalised, prompting Sammy Wilson to describe his Executive colleague’s plan as ‘bananas’.
Consumers must hope that NIW’s latest troubles can inject some realism into the water debate in Northern Ireland. The constant deferral of charges has become a rare point of unanimity across the political spectrum. That particular ’holy cow’ should be slaughtered once and for all.
The Alliance party was the first to put its head above the parapet, supporting charges. Sammy Wilson (the Finance Minister) and John McCallister (the UUP deputy leader) have also shown signs that some of our politicians are prepared to challenge the cosy consensus. The Executive should simply tell people the truth. If water charges continue to be deferred then the service will suffer.
Along with a phased introduction of bills, we need to look urgently at options for privatising NIW or at least securing its independence from government. Otherwise, like Northern Ireland’s drinking water at the moment, money will continue to pour down the drain, without any improvement in supply.
Politicians should take the lead, but the public also needs to grasp the concept that you get what you pay for where services are concerned. Water is no exception. If the system remains under-funded it will continue to under-perform and disrupt our lives.
Owen Polley is a journalist who covers politics and current affairs in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. His blog is found at threethousandversts.blogspot.com/ This article is a modified version of an article by Owen originally published in the Belfast Telegraph on 31 December 2010.
Editor’s Note: For an analysis of some of the problems attributed to privatization of water services, see: Bill Marsden, “Cholera and the Age of the Water Barons,” on the website of The Center for Public Integrity at www.publicintegrity.org The article is found at projects.publicintegrity.org/water/report.aspx?aid=44 Linked by permission.