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NI Water infrastructure ready to ‘burst at seams' - chairman

Northern Ireland Water chairman Dr Len O'Hagan has warned that underfunding during the current regulatory cycle has left the utility facing a "tipping point", saying £2.5 billion will need to be spent to ensure services remain fit for purpose.

Northern Ireland is unique within the UK as the only area where the regulated water utility is unable to fully implement the economic regulator’s final determination due to public expenditure constraints.

As a result, NI Water has worked with a capital expenditure budget of £990 million during the 2015-21 regulatory cycle despite the regulator determining that £1.7 billion was required to deliver the necessary works.

As the utility published its 2018/19 annual report and draft strategy for 2021-2046, Dr O’Hagan began has highlighting NI Water's sucesses, saying it has "never been in better shape" operationally, pointing to record levels of drinking water quality, record low pollution incidents, the lowest ever levels of supply interruptions and the best ever levels of service for customers.

"Northern Ireland Water is an exemplar of how a government company can provide private sector levels of performance and efficiency," he said. "We are also very clear about what we need to do to have a flourishing environment, clean water, a thriving population and a growing economy.

"That vision is detailed in our draft 25-year strategy. Making the vision a reality requires a step change in the level of funding available to us by Government. Unless we start funding our water services on a level with other utilities in these islands, we will have to make increasingly difficult choices about economic development and the environment.

"To put it bluntly, the system is getting ready to burst at the seams. Due to historic underfunding, many of our wastewater treatment works are at or are rapidly approaching full capacity.

"This means we can't accept new connections for new developments, which will be severely curtailed. Inadequate funding also leads to inadequate environmental protections. No drains means to cranes.

"To remain fit for purpose, we calculate that we need £2.5 billion, including £1 billion to address wastewater, flooding and drainage problems in Belfast alone."

In comments on the utility's website, Dr O’Hagan warned that NI Water is "facing a tipping point", saying: "We need to start making decisions now if we want to maintain water services that one would expect in a healthy, western European economy.

“Since we were established in 2007, the recommended level of funding from the independent Utility Regulator has been met by Government in just three of the intervening years. Underfunding of our PC15 business plan 2015-21 has already resulted in curbs to economic development with new housing and businesses being unable to get connected to our sewerage system in around ninety-nine areas throughout the province.

"Indeed, the growth of Belfast City, the primary economic engine of Northern Ireland, will struggle unless the £1 billion investment in strategic drainage, under the Living with Water Programme, is supported. The City Deal risks not realising its full potential. Put bluntly, no drains means no cranes."

Dr O’Hagan called for the Department for Infrastructure and the Department of Finance to develop options on how to provide good governance and sustainable financing solutions for water security in Northern Ireland by engaging with industry experts, and said there is "a window of opportunity to invest properly" in the utility's water and sewerage infrastructure.

While he said investing £2.5 billion "will not solve all of the issues", he believes it would allow the utility to address 70 per cent of its wastewater capacity problems while protecting drinking water and enhancing environmental protection.

"Over the years, we have learnt to do more for less and have achieved some amazing results," he said. "As chairman of NI Water, my appeal is direct but simple: Give us the funding and let us show you what we can achieve to help deliver a healthy and thriving population, a growing economy and a flourishing natural environment."

Author: Robin Hackett, editor, WWT
Topic: Policy & Regulation
Tags: Northern Ireland , Northern Ireland Water

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