Peter Robinson questioned, yesterday, whether Northern Ireland Water – a government company owned and financed by the Executive – was fit for purpose. It’s clear that he is manoeuvring himself a good distance away from the body that is taking the bulk of the political flak from Northern Ireland’s own Waterleakgate scandal.
The ‘fitness for purpose’ phrase was used by another DUP politician, Lord Morrow, in a debate about Northern Ireland Water in the Assembly in September. However, Lord Morrow did not highlight under-investment as the reason why NIW, or the service it provided, was under-performing. Lord Morrow was referring to governmental and organisational matters when he asked Conor Murphy, the Minister with ultimate responsibility for water, how he might reorganise and reform NI Water.
And, when Conor Murphy answered, he made clear that he, too, had no issues relating to the levels of investment – or, indeed, the commitment of NIW staff:
“NI Water has been doing a good job on the delivery of water and sewerage infrastructure. It certainly received a substantial amount of public money, but the water and sewerage infrastructure has improved substantially, after decades of underinvestment, and a great credit is due to people in NIW for that.”
The Minister, back in March – shortly after agreeing NI Water’s 3 Year Plan – was at pains to point out that “no-one can deny that the water and sewerage infrastructure has improved radically.”
Indeed, I have read most of the debates in the Assembly relating to NI Water during the course of 2010 and can find no instances of MLAs – or indeed the Minister – arguing for much greater levels of investment in NI Water. The Minister has been making a number of political points relating to renationalising NI Water (at an apparent cost of £50m or so) – but there has been no clamour on the part of any of the political parties to substantially increase investment in Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure.
Even after the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review – that made clear that Northern Ireland’s capital budgets would be substantially reduced – there were no calls on the part of local politicians to raise funds to substantially increase infrastructure spending on water infrastructure. Instead, the Executive decided to defer water charges (the most likely source of additional capital funding) for four years.
NI Water spokespeople have made the point over the last few days that investment in Northern Ireland water network infrastructure is well behind the rest of the UK and that comparative network investment levels are around 50% less than in Scotland. And yet no MLAs have drawn attention to this continued under-investment (including the Minister responsible for NI Water).
Yesterday there were calls for ‘heads to roll’. Indeed, NI Water may be inefficient and badly run (frankly, I don’t know). However, the buck should stop at the Minister.
The Executive, and an unquestioning Assembly, are more responsible for under-investment in Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure than the body required to deliver such investment.