There has been plenty of public criticism of Northern Ireland Water, 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 past few weeks has been severe, even unprecedented. Any company would struggle as the thaw struck. In Northern Ireland, though, decades of neglect and underinvestment left us with 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 privatise Northern Ireland Water, the Executive at Stormont indefinitely postponed the major overhaul of infrastructure which 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 houses. Northern Ireland’s inadequate sewage facilities have long been criticised by organisations like Friends of the Earth and by 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 homes had already been sited where there was little or no facility to get rid of waste.
The court prevented the Department of Regional Development, in the guise of the then Northern Ireland Water Service, from simply connecting more and more houses to an already overloaded system
Meanwhile poor treatment facilities attracted yearly fines from the ECJ in Luxembourg. With environmental effects which can only be imagined, raw sewage pumped into the sea, some of it in the vicinity of popular tourist destinations like Portrush, Portstewart and Bangor.
It would be naïve to suppose that our recent difficulties, with pipes freezing, bursting and then draining reservoirs of water, aren’t exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure. If pipes were laid farther beneath the surface, properly lagged and maintained, problems could still occur, but their scale would be vastly smaller.
It’s not as if the authorities were not aware of the 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 became a separate, publicly owned company in 2007, but it still literally leaked money. Just this year controversy raged over its failure to follow the correct procedure for putting contracts out to tender. It suffers a financial double whammy of poor governance and under-funding which keeps its service in the dark ages.
Experience in England and Wales suggests that major investment, particularly in new sewers, can be successful only if water provision is privatised. Public utility companies like Severn Trent Water were able to upgrade a system which 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 is now at least twenty years behind and we still show no will to catch up.
On the contrary, there are signs that our water service is moving in 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’. Questions about the company’s quasi-independent status were already being asked, following an investigation by the Public Accounts Committee.
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 and John McCallister 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. Otherwise, like Northern Ireland’s drinking water at the moment, money will continue to pour down the drain.
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.