Water and Heating Supplies

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 10 October 2011.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:45, 10 October 2011

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to put in place measures to safeguard water and heating supplies and repair services in anticipation of severe weather conditions; and to work closely with the Minister for Regional Development in preparation for the winter period.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. A leasCheann Comhairle agus a chairde, Sinn Féin has brought this motion to the Floor to ensure that the Minister for Social Development explains to the House what preparations are in place to avoid a repetition of last year’s failure by the Housing Executive and housing associations to offer a service to their tenants. I believe that it is not down to only one Minister to develop a strategy; that rests with a number of Ministers. I ask that the Minister for Social Development uses his good offices to find out what strategies have been put in place, especially by the Minister for Regional Development, to deal with severe weather. Many people had to fend for themselves and depended on local organisations to assist them through the worst of the severe weather. That was greatly appreciated, and I commend them here today.

I will not try to rehearse all the issues, because those have been well documented, but I notice that a number of Members have been active in asking what has been put in place to avoid a repetition of last year’s events. That indicates the level of concern not only in the House but in our constituencies. I ask the Minister for Social Development to lay out for us what strategy has been put in place to deal with possible bad weather this year. Will he tell us what the Housing Executive has learned from last year and if the housing associations learned from the events of last Christmas?

We need to hear what strategy will be put in place to ensure that all eventualities are covered. Last year, I was particularly peeved at the attitude of some people in NI Water who believed that they rose to the occasion and that it was not really their fault that everything went wrong. The housing authorities had serious questions to answer. They were receiving complaints up to a week before Christmas, many days before the crisis hit the water service. From speaking to people in the Housing Executive over that period, I know that they were struggling to deal with the large number of calls, but it took days to react. I understand that the call operation played a crucial role for people, but for many it was too little too late; the damage had been done. The heaters that the Housing Executive left with people were inadequate and offered little heat, and many contractors who called to houses told people what they wanted to hear — that they would be back — but did not return.

Systems connecting the Housing Executive with some contractors collapsed at an early stage of the crisis, which had serious consequences for residents. People were told that parts for heating systems were not available and would not become available until after the holidays. I might have accepted some of the excuses had there not been any warning of severe weather, but not to the extent of what transpired.

To have nothing in place was not good enough and was, in fact, inexcusable. It makes it all the more important that we learn from our mistakes and that we ensure that whatever strategies are put in place can cope with the type of weather that we had last year. Again, I ask the Minister to use his offices to engage with other Ministers and to have a joined-up approach to any severe weather.

I ask that people know their lines of responsibility so that one agency cannot blame another at the height of any crisis. I ask that all holidays are arranged in the knowledge that staff could be called back to work at a time of crisis; that there is a central control team to oversee the operation that Ministers can tap into at any time; that there is a system that elected representatives can feed into for the most up-to-date information; that there is a publicity strategy so that the media can help to get information to people; and that press briefings take place regularly to update people on how things are being handled.

I ask that suppliers are contactable so that they can reopen their premises to allow contractors to be supplied with the items that they need; that additional contractors be put on standby to ensure that, if one contractor cannot manage, additional help can be brought in; and that a new form of temporary heating is found to replace the outdated electric heaters used at present.

I ask that local government knows its responsibility in times of emergency. It was embarrassing to listen to the inter-agency arguments about who was responsible for gritting cities, towns and villages last year. There should be no magic line that one agency says it cannot cross because the area beyond it is the responsibility of another agency.

I ask that housing associations with responsibility for elderly dwellings in their stock ensure that people and staff in those dwellings are made aware of the strategies being put in place to offer assistance in times of crisis. I believe that senior management in those organisations need to take control of events to ensure that the strategy works and that a senior staff member is nominated by all those organisations and is on standby so that they can be easily contacted over the holiday period.

We all have a responsibility to put our shoulders to the wheel to ensure that what happened last year does not happen again. I again ask the Minister to tell us what has happened since last year to ensure that pipes have been lagged, that condensate pipes have been relocated and that frost stats have been provided that can trigger a pump to circulate water around the system. The Minister for Social Development gave that information to a member for Foyle just last month, but it did not detail how many homes had been fitted with those systems.

I ask Members to support the motion.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development)

The motion is really a preparatory motion in that all of us are concerned that we may well — although hopefully not – be about to get the third extremely bad winter in a row. Mind you, I marvel at how some in the press can speculate on the type of winter that we will get as some of those same people told us that we would get a barbeque summer, and I did not hear any apology in September. The experts tell us that they cannot tell us the weather more than four or five days in advance, so I think that we can park the guarantees of a bad winter. However, we do know that we have had two bad winters.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

My point is that, up to seven days before the bad weather arrived, there were warnings on TV that we would probably get the most severe weather that we had had in many, many years.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development)

For once, I was not attacking Sinn Féin. I was just making the point that it was a national issue. Over the past couple of years, there have been big headlines in the press about what the winters would be like. It was nothing at all to do with what the Member had said.

There are people who tell us that they can predict the weather months ahead when, in fact, they cannot. However the relevant point is that the Department needs to be in a state of readiness and preparedness for what might be yet another exceptionally bad spell of winter weather.

I remember last Christmas, when we were into the third day of extreme weather. I, like other Members, had been informed that some of my constituents were without any bottled water — many others were in the same position — and they were told that they would have to make a 60-mile round trip to collect some. So, I arranged with one of my constituency colleagues that I would collect the water as I lived closer to the NI Water depot than the constituents. When I went to the depot, I was met by a very efficient staff member who informed me that I could have four bottles of water but that that was as much as I could have. I explained that I was going to load the bottles in my vehicle to take to dozens of people without water. A senior member of staff then came to talk to me, and we overcame that problem. We got a sufficient quantity, which then allowed me to drive to constituents to distribute the water. We need to hear from the Minister that as soon as it becomes obvious that extreme weather conditions are not just probable or likely but are imminent — and we can normally tell within 24 or 48 hours — all members of staff in all the relevant agencies will be on standby and ready to go. That addresses the point that the Member for West Belfast raised.

We hope that that will not be the case but if it transpires, we must ensure that lessons have been learned from last year and previous years, and that a pragmatic view will be taken by the Department so that people will have confidence that, whatever the severe winter is going to throw at us, officials will be there to try to deal with it. That can be done through manned phone lines, getting bottled water out there, and having maintenance people ready to respond as soon as any thaw occurs. This is really about getting in place a state of readiness in advance of any expected extreme weather. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP 4:15, 10 October 2011

The events of last winter, which I presume are the seed point of these proceedings, are a matter of some interest to those of us who lived through them. It seemed, in some ways, that the weather and the climate had taken charge of us, and that our ability to respond was somewhat limited. At the time, I was aware of criticism, some of which may have been justified, of Northern Ireland Water (NIW) and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive by members of the public who, in some cases, had genuine difficulties in contacting both organisations.

Just before the holidays, I learned that there was the possibility of an extremely cold snap. I made arrangements with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Northern Ireland Water to access an emergency email address. In fairness, I worked from home, taking reports from Sir Reg and some of our office staff who were out on the ground. I must say that I found the workers from Northern Ireland Water and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive particularly attentive, even though they were under intense pressure.

A statement was issued today by the Met Office that we in Northern Ireland are facing a mini ice age due to the return of a phenomenon referred to as La Niña. That was news to me, but it indicates that this winter may be extremely difficult. We have heard that between 1,000 and 1,300 people died last year because of the effects of cold. We have heard about the effects of fuel poverty. I am not sure what command over water and heating supplies any individual Minister has. However, this motion, in a roundabout way, indicates that we have to do something. We have to plan and to give citizens the notion that, should their pipes freeze, their water supply be interrupted or their houses become incapable of being heated, there is a readily contactable number with someone at the end who can record their difficulties and take action to alleviate them.

The Department for Regional Development seems to have got away in the smoke somewhere because I would have thought that part of this issue comes under its remit. I appreciate that Minister McCausland has been in the Chamber for quite some time today. I am sure that he will take away with him the feelings of all of us about what needs to be done, but I sometimes wonder whether his time would not be better spent actually doing some of the things that we ask him to do. That having been said, there is nothing in the motion that gives me any difficulty in supporting it wholeheartedly.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion. It is important that the subject is debated at this time. I accept what Mr Copeland said about the Minister for Social Development’s not being wholly culpable for all of last year’s difficulties.

On the substance of the motion, it was the lack of water supply to many households and businesses that caused the greatest concern. I pay tribute to Northern Ireland Water engineers, who, at a local level, tried to come out and repair supplies to houses and businesses. However, the real concern was that people could not log their complaints. The call centre failed, and, despite the regulator intimating a year previously that there should be better call centre facilities, that was not acted on. Senior management in Northern Ireland Water seemed to go missing over the Christmas period, the public got frustrated at not being able to log their complaints, and, as a result, we had a near disaster because people felt so angry about what was happening. However, I have to pay tribute to those in the communications department of NIW, particularly those middle- and lower-ranking communication personnel, who coped admirably under severe pressure.

I also pay tribute to the way in which the Housing Executive responded in many instances. Although the situation occurred during the Christmas holidays, many of its subcontractors came out and did a good job. Indeed, I would contrast Northern Ireland Water’s subcontractors with those who worked for the Housing Executive. The Housing Executive’s subcontractors worked extremely well. I blame NIW for having only three main maintenance contractors, which is a system that it brought in about five years ago. The result of that was that, when NIW needed subcontractors, they were not there. There seems to have been a disconnect between NIW and its subcontractors, and I think that that is where a lot of the difficulties arose.

In some cases, water bowsers were available. However, they were not available at all NIW depots, and I think that that was a mistake. Hopefully, that has been rectified for the ensuing year.

I also pay tribute to local plumbers. Many small plumbing companies worked extremely hard over the Christmas period, and I know of at least two who did not have even a Christmas dinner because they were out trying to help householders get their water supplies reconnected.

There is a real problem with Northern Ireland Water that arises from the fact that, in housing estates, some people have purchased their properties and some are still Housing Executive tenants. If there is a connecting supply between households of different ownership, that seems to cause great confusion and annoyance. I ask the Minister for Social Development to examine that. It is very frustrating for those who are caught up innocently in situations and who have no water supply, but no one knows exactly where the leak occurred. If it happens to be in the private garden of one of the houses that has been purchased outright, neighbouring Housing Executive houses with a connecting supply have no water. That causes great frustration.

Finally, I hope that NIW is in a better state of preparedness this time —

Photo of Karen McKevitt Karen McKevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member agree that it is hard for constituents to accept that NI Water can make so much profit when it cannot guarantee the supply of water? Does he further agree that the fiasco that happened last Christmas has left farmers and businesses with colossal water bills?

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member. She reflected the great angst and pain that many people experienced. I hope that the new document from Northern Ireland Water will at least address immediate needs and ensure that it is in a better state of preparedness this year than it was last year.

I am glad that Roads Service has stockpiled over 100,000 tons of salt and grit. Last year, it had only about 50,000 tons in storage, and, over the winter period of 70 days, 110,000 tons were used. I was delighted to be told by Roads Service personnel at the meeting of the Committee for Regional Development last week that over 100,000 tons have been stored. That should bode better for the ensuing year

Photo of Judith Cochrane Judith Cochrane Alliance

I want to record my sincere thanks to the individuals, voluntary groups, local councils and government agencies for their efforts over the past new year period, which was one of the coldest months for 100 years.

Many front line operational teams worked effectively in very challenging weather conditions to restore water and heating supplies to properties across Northern Ireland. As other Members emphasised, it is crucial that we learn from mistakes and ensure that adequate measures are in place to prevent a repeat of the chaos that we experienced last year.

As Members are aware, East Belfast was one of the constituencies worst affected by the water shortage during the freeze-thaw. Northern Ireland Water was not prepared for a crisis of that magnitude and, evidently, neither were many Departments and agencies. Due to the initial lack of a co-ordinated response from key Departments, my colleagues and I spent much of the Christmas period knocking doors and distributing bottled water to the most vulnerable. The action to open up leisure centres from which to supply water originated from local councils.

Strong working relationships with clearly defined roles need to exist between Departments, local councils and public service providers to ensure that urgent action can be taken in a crisis. Last year, around 80% of the additional water demand was created by the freeze-thaw that caused leaks from domestic and business water pipes, but poor communication exacerbated that already difficult situation. For example, information on the rotation of water availability in postcode areas was unclear and resulted in many people unnecessarily filling up vessels with water when, in fact, their water was not turned off. That significantly depleted water reserves and added to the problem.

If temperatures this year are to be any way similar to those of last year, communication methods need to be clear, accurate and up to date. Last week, I met the interim chief executive of Northern Ireland Water, who outlined a number of improvements that have been made to communication tools over the past few months. He also described the role that NI Water played in protecting some schools during last year’s crisis. I am sure that similar work could be done to help to safeguard housing estates, and I urge the Minister for Social Development to explore that option as a means of proactively protecting vulnerable citizens.

During the freeze-thaw, an unprecedented number of calls were made to the Housing Executive requesting urgent repairs to heating and plumbing. Almost a quarter of all Housing Executive homes needed some form of repair. That worrying statistic raises questions as to why those homes are more susceptible to damage from burst pipes and broken heating systems than homes of any other tenure. I understand that, as other Members highlighted, considerable work has been undertaken to improve emergency plans. Although I welcome those improvements, I urge the Minister to focus more on prevention than cure.

The winter brought into sharp focus the ongoing problems of fuel poverty that many in Northern Ireland face. There is a real need for investment in Housing Executive homes to ensure that they are protected from future cold spells. The Housing Executive performance review highlighted a number of areas where additional physical works, including insulating and heating-related matters, could be undertaken to mitigate risks in the event of further bouts of adverse weather. By focusing on those measures, the Minister can make an impact. The provision of better insulation will inevitably safeguard household heating supplies by minimising energy wastage and reducing energy bills. I urge the Minister to ensure that such improvements are made as quickly as possible. Better information also needs to be given, especially to the vulnerable, to ensure that they know how to prepare for the winter, deal with an emergency and where to get help. NI Water has winter weather advice on the home page of its website and, although that is welcome, the Department for Social Development, bearing in mind that many tenants do not have access to the internet, should be taking the lead in communicating information to those in social housing on how best to protect their property.

In preparation for this winter, the Minister should also work closely with the Minister for Regional Development. In my constituency last year, the icy conditions and lack of road gritting in certain areas meant that people felt trapped in their homes and were unable to access public transport. Some elderly constituents in Ballybeen missed hospital appointments when taxis were unable to drive into their streets, and pavements were so treacherous that constituents could not make their way out on to the main road. The Minister for Regional Development has confirmed that it costs £150 to supply a new grit box and service it for a year, so thought needs to be given to further provision of those boxes, particularly in areas where constituents rely on public transport. Perhaps the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister for Regional Development, could go one step further and consider ensuring that areas surrounding sheltered dwellings for elderly people are adequately gritted to protect the most vulnerable.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member please bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Judith Cochrane Judith Cochrane Alliance

In conclusion, we have heard that serious lessons have been learned. I hope that, with the benefit of hindsight, the Minister for Social Development will ensure that those measures are taken forward. I support the motion.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP 4:30, 10 October 2011

Earlier this year, thousands of householders experienced burst pipes, heating system failures and other difficulties. Many of them were tenants of the Housing Executive and/or housing associations. Some tenants’ homes were severely flooded, which resulted in damage requiring extensive repair work.

Over the period of the freeze, more than 4,900 temporary heating appliances were distributed by the Housing Executive and others. From 17 December 2010 to 9 January 2011, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive received 24,777 unique telephone calls and tens of thousands more repeat calls. On New Year’s Eve, it received more than 3,500 calls, and, on New Year’s Day, it received more than 1,000 calls. On the Monday after the New Year, 2,154 calls were taken by the Housing Executive. Between 17 December 2010 and 2 January 2011, some 30,000 work orders were placed with contractors. That obviously put pressure on all involved in trying to resolve system failures. However, it is clear that the initial phase of the response to the emergency could have been better handled.

In my experience in north Down, I found it relatively easy to get through to Northern Ireland Water, even though it seemed to have the biggest problems. However, I had difficulties when trying to get through to the Housing Executive. The Housing Executive’s emergency number put you through to an answering machine message, which gave you another number. When you phoned that number, it put you back to the original phone number. Therefore, you ended up going round in circles. Hopefully, that issue can be resolved. It was virtually impossible to get hold of anyone in DRD over the Christmas period. It is clear that the initial phase of the response to the emergency could have been better.

The Housing Executive and contractors were asked to review their emergency plans in light of the experiences of many tenants. Contractors were requested to revise their emergency plans to take account of experiences learned, and a revised business continuity and emergency plan template was developed by the Housing Executive to aid contractors to build their plans further and in a uniform format. All housing associations were also instructed to review their policies regarding emergency procedures.

It must also be remembered that Northern Ireland Water’s response to severe winter weather conditions was appalling, and, as an elected representative who was inundated with calls at the time, I hope that lessons have been learned and that, in the event of severe weather conditions this winter, it has developed new policies that are fit for purpose.

I experienced difficulties trying to contact Northern Ireland Water and receive information that I could pass on to constituents. The same can be said of my experience with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I am aware that Northern Ireland Water has commenced a winter awareness campaign, and I think that it is important that all customers take note in preparation for a possible freeze. Customers can take steps to reduce the risks of pipes freezing and subsequently bursting. Those steps include lagging pipes, knowing where the stopcock is, and having contact details of a plumber ready in the event of a burst pipe.

All that is valuable information, but, in order to prevent freezing and to limit the effects of any thaw, you need to be able to afford it. In other words, you need oil in your tank. I know that many people find it difficult to afford oil, never mind getting it delivered during the thaw. However, the key thing is for people to prepare in advance.

I am aware that, given the pressure that Northern Ireland Water came under earlier this year, it has already held discussions with various stakeholders, including the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and housing associations, on the need to protect pipes. The Housing Executive has also agreed to arrange the distribution of information leaflets to its tenants, and housing associations will provide information and advice in their publications to tenants on how to protect pipes. I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue.

Photo of Pat Doherty Pat Doherty Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion. During the severe cold snap at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, it was obvious that the measures in place to safeguard the water and heating supplies were inadequate, as were the repair services.

In parts of West Tyrone, homes were without water and heating for weeks over the Christmas and New Year period. They included entire housing estates, such as the Strathroy housing estate in Omagh, where the water supply was completely cut off. That breakdown had the most profound impact on the most vulnerable people in the community, particularly older people, people with disabilities and households with young children. However, I pay tribute to the local Housing Executive staff who worked closely with councils, residents’ groups and community leaders on the ground to try to minimise the impact.

Not only were the local Housing Executive offices understaffed, but the breakdown of the telecommunication system compounded an already dire situation. As a basic measure to safeguard water and heating supplies, it would have been preferable in such a situation for tenants to deal directly with the approved Housing Executive contractor than to try to navigate through an entirely dysfunctional telecommunication system. In addition to the telephone systems collapsing, communications with tenants were, generally, very poor. Many tenants did not have basic preventative information about how to avoid frozen pipes. Tenants lost thousands of pounds due to having inadequate insurance cover for the contents of their homes. It is essential that safeguarding measures are incorporated in the provision of information, especially to the most vulnerable people.

Finally, when I spoke to local Housing Executive officers during the most recent cold snap, they said that, in many cases, the same pipes and houses suffer those bursts almost every year. That should provide some intelligence and information that will enable us, when we move forward to invest in repairs, to do so with a more planned and phased approach.

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

I support Pat Doherty’s comments about the estates in Omagh. Does he agree that it was scandalous that the additional cost of dehumidifiers that were required in people’s homes after they were flooded at that time was not covered by the Housing Executive, but by tenants themselves?

Photo of Pat Doherty Pat Doherty Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree with him. I was trying to impart to the Minister that local information, which is held in the memory and in local offices, is advance intelligence that should be used to try to move forward and deal with the problem strategically in the future.

Finally — I might have said that previously — some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded were in Castlederg, which is also in my constituency. That indicates that as the Minister approaches all of that, the west, and West Tyrone in particular, needs special attention.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

I also welcome the debate and the opportunity to provide input. The severe weather throughout Northern Ireland in December 2010 was the coldest for more than a hundred years. Like many others in the Chamber, I witnessed the effects of sub-zero temperatures on the lives of thousands of people. Residents, particularly the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and young children, need our protection this winter from the problems of the big freeze to the thaw.

If we rewind to winter 2010, which was certainly the coldest that I can remember, we will recall that problems with frozen and burst pipes highlighted the problems that many vulnerable people faced from outdated heating systems, which put strain on the water supply. That aspect, and all of the problems of fuel poverty that we discussed in the Chamber recently, must be tackled by the Assembly. The evidence of colder winters in the past few years, as my friend Gregory Campbell mentioned earlier, raises the prospect that we need to work harder and smarter in our preparations to meet the challenge of severe cold weather. There is the possibility of similar adverse weather for years to come.

Northern Ireland Water came in for widespread criticism at the time. I do not want to dwell on that aspect of the debate, because it has been well rehearsed. However, we need to ascertain the progress that has been made on the 57 recommendations in the Utility Regulator’s investigation, some of which relate to the importance of communication between Northern Ireland Water and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

A number of Members mentioned the problems that tenants and residents had in trying to contact the call centres. I have an iPhone, and I can contact my son in New Zealand on FaceTime. I can speak to him, and I can see him. However, last year, I was not able to contact my local Northern Ireland Water agency a few miles away. Surely there is something wrong with that in this age of global communication, and we have to work on it.

I welcome the Committee for Regional Development’s commitment to keeping a close eye on progress against the Utility Regulator’s recommendations and the freeze/thaw recovery plan. The Assembly also needs to look at that progress.

I witnessed at first hand some of the communication problems that need to be ironed out. I remember a plumber being sent out and managing to access a home despite all the problems with the frost, snow and ice. However, it was really a heating engineer that was needed rather than a plumber. It is those little foxes that spoil the vines. Those problems should have been sorted out but were not. We hope that those problems will be resolved for the coming winter.

I appreciate the role of call centres in such emergencies, but many of my constituents in East Belfast could not get through to their local centre. Many others simply cannot relate to automated machines or call centres. The Housing Executive dealt with an unprecedented number of calls from tenants during the period of extreme weather. Initially, tenants experienced difficulty in contacting offices to report repairs, which resulted in a delay in jobs being issued and work being carried out.

However, as Joe Byrne did, I pay tribute to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive for its response, particularly at local district office level, and for working closely with local councillors, politicians and others. The district office in Castlereagh, for instance, was open for tenants to speak to staff. Housing Executive staff worked during their planned holidays and went out to people’s homes. There is nothing to match the personal touch. This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and I hope that local district offices will be here for the next 40 years.

I understand the enormity of last winter’s crisis — the water supply of some 215,000 homes was interrupted. However, for senior citizens in particular, the appearance of someone dealing with the problem in person, rather than it being done through a call centre, is by far the best option. Whatever our response to the challenge of future water and heating supplies, let us do our utmost to ensure that people, particularly the most vulnerable in society, receive the local service that they are entitled to from people, rather than from automated machines. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The motion calls for improved methods to safeguard water and heating supplies. It is, of course, impossible to guarantee the safeguarding of those supplies, but it should be possible to lessen the likelihood of things going wrong, which is what we must strive for.

It is important to reflect on the huge number of properties that were affected. Over 25,000 Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties were affected, and it had 41,000 repair orders associated with the cold spell. Those caused considerable expense to public services, and so on, but that was nothing compared with the inconvenience and the disruption to the lives of those who had to endure leaking pipes or the absence of a heating supply during that very cold period.

We need to improve our home design fundamentally. As the Member for East Belfast said, it is important not only to conserve energy but to retain that energy and ensure that it contributes to preventing the freezing of pipes and water systems. It is well known that Scandinavian countries survive even more adverse conditions than we experienced. Protection can be built in through the design of homes. We must strive not only to deal with emergency phone calls and emergency responses but to build in further resilience so that we do not experience trauma in the first place.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive is already working on relocating gas condensing pipes to try to prevent them from freezing, which is positive. It is also putting frost stats on new oil-fired installations. However, that leaves many other Housing Executive properties with potential weaknesses. Perhaps DFP and the Minister need to reflect on and review our standards of home insulation and the protection of our water systems for not only social housing but all housing, because they need to be upgraded.

We have learnt that the Housing Executive and Northern Ireland Water have reviewed their emergency plans, have improved their call handling ability, and will, hopefully, work better with their subcontractors to get a faster response. However, again I say that we want to minimise the risk of those events happening, and fewer call-outs should be required.

Will the Minister indicate what the Housing Executive is doing with its vacant properties? Is it already identifying which stopcocks should be closed so that leaks will not happen? In the run-up to a cold spell, it may be wise to empty cold water tanks in homes that will have no heating because they are empty. Those are more proactive plans than simply picking up the pieces, and I hope that that sort of thinking is built into the plans of the Minister and the Housing Executive.

We have to appreciate that 80% of water that leaked during the cold spell was not from Northern Ireland Water pipes but from pipes in private properties, which I assume includes Housing Executive property. So, there is an onus on us all if we see a leak to collectively work to get it stopped at the earliest possible time. I recall visiting an estate several years ago, and water was just pouring out of an empty house. When I enquired, I was told that it had been happening for several days. If we do experience problems and want to retain our water supply, it is important that we, as a community, assist everyone — neighbours, the Housing Executive or local businesses — so that when a leak is identified it is closed off as soon as possible. There is a responsibility on us all.

I notice from Northern Ireland Water’s plans that it is improving staff availability, liaising with contractors, looking at transport and at fuel and water storage, and liaising with third parties about alternative water supplies and telephone communications. That all has to be welcomed, because the reviews recognised many failings in the plans that Northern Ireland Water had and a great deal of ability to improve. I hope that we will see that in the coming months.

We all have responsibility, as do a range of Departments.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I hope that, collectively, we will produce a much better response and have fewer difficulties in the future.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

Members are fully aware of the unprecedented spell of very cold weather that presented major challenges at Christmas last year. They are also aware of the scale of the problems faced by many tenants and homeowners. I, therefore, welcome today’s timely motion, which provides me with an opportunity to highlight how the Housing Executive and housing associations have been working to ensure that they will be fully prepared should there be a repeat of the severe weather that we had to endure last winter.

It is, perhaps, worth recalling that, over that period from 17 December to 9 January, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive received 24,777 unique telephone calls and tens of thousands more with repeat callers. On New Year’s Eve, there were 3,545 calls, on New Year’s Day 1,125, and on new year holiday Monday 2,154. Some 30,300 work orders were placed with contractors between 17 December and 2 January, 14,400 with heating contractors and 16,000 with other contractors. That gives some indication of the scale of the problem that people faced and what they had to endure last year.

Since then, the Housing Executive has responded to the need to review the challenges that it faced last winter and identify any issues that need to be addressed to ensure that its services to its tenants will be of the best quality and the most efficient in any future emergency, and to ensure that all tenants are warm, safe and dry in their homes. Consequently, a considerable amount of work has been undertaken to ensure that Housing Executive staff and their contractors will be in a position to respond effectively and speedily in the future, particularly if we have severe weather conditions again this winter, which some people are already forecasting.

The Housing Executive has put in place a comprehensive list of plans to deal with any emergency situation and to ensure that tenants are provided with a quality and efficient service. All the emergency plans have been reviewed at district, area and central levels to ensure consistency of response throughout all areas. A formal annual review procedure has also been put in place to ensure that we learn lessons as we go along. To test the effectiveness of its reviews, the Housing Executive has carried out tests of its plans and procedures in three Housing Executive areas, involving area and district staff, contractors and community representatives.

The area of telephone communications was particularly criticised. The Housing Executive has reviewed contacts from tenants and between the Housing Executive and contractors. A number of actions have been taken to address that, including, first, the enhancement of the pool of staff willing and able to respond to an emergency across the Province. Secondly, a review has been undertaken of the triggers that provide pre-warning of a potential emergency, such as the volume of calls coming into the customer service units and the number of calls not being answered. Thirdly, to facilitate use by emergency services and public and community representatives, a priority call-handling system of what are described as silver numbers is now in place. Fourthly, the Housing Executive holds contact numbers for all the contractors that cover both normal working hours and after hours. Those numbers provide round-the-clock contact details.

A review of the performance of contractors during this period is of key importance. As there were issues around the response of one or more contractors in some districts, the Housing Executive has reviewed all of the all-trades and heating contractor emergency contingency plans, and has put a formal annual review procedure in place. Contractors were requested to revise their emergency plans to take account of experiences learned, and a revised business continuity and emergency plan template was developed by the Housing Executive to aid contractors in building their plans further and in a uniform format. Area-based awareness seminars were also held for area and district staff, along with contractors.

Investigations have also been undertaken to identify a range of technical improvements, particularly in relation to boilers and heating. These have been included in the ongoing work. Those include, for example, the relocation of gas condensate pipes internally, or the provision of a frost stat, which will trigger the pump to circulate water around the system. That is happening at each new oil heating installation.

In offering guidance to its tenants, the Housing Executive’s website will provide a series of information pages to provide clear advice and guidance that can be activated at short notice depending on the type of emergency. That leads me on to the issue of Housing Executive properties that suffer damage because some tenants cannot afford to heat their homes properly during the cold weather. To address that, the Housing Executive will strengthen its advice to all tenants about the need to heat their homes in very cold weather through its publication ‘Housing News’, which will be issued to every Housing Executive tenant in mid-October.

It is also essential that in the event of any emergency, as much local information as possible is available at Housing Executive district level. To that end, a menu of services that community groups may provide, including sharing mobile phone contact numbers, opening community facilities and assisting in identifying those who might be vulnerable, will be agreed locally.

I will now turn to the performance of housing associations during that period. Although the scale of problems was different in the housing association sector — and that may be because much of the stock in that sector is newer — many of its tenants were also affected. Therefore, the housing association movement must also ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place to ensure that tenants are warm, safe and dry in their homes at all times. To that end, all housing associations were instructed to review their policies regarding emergency procedures. Reviews took account of the need for emergency opening of offices during critical incidents, as well as reviewing the need to ensure that offices are also open between periods of bank holidays — that is, that they will not be closed continuously from Christmas until after New Year’s Day.

Fold Telecare provides emergency after-hours services. Telecare holds a complete list of contractors, individually provided by social landlords, to respond to call-outs. If the call is assessed as an emergency, the Telecare call adviser will call contractors who have been nominated by their respective social landlord and request that they respond to that call on an emergency basis. Housing associations also provide emergency staff contact numbers for use when an incident cannot be dealt with without further authorisation or advice. As a final backup, Fold staff will instruct a Fold contractor to respond in the event that there is difficulty in engaging the social landlord’s nominated contractor.

Telecare has increased the number of telephone lines from 16 to 24 to meet demand, and its number of call-handling stations has been increased from eight to 12. There is now a roster of additional staff who are available to support Telecare in the event of a future significant increase in emergency calls, and an extensive network of contractors on top of those engaged through its measured term contract.

In reviewing emergency planning arrangements, my Department also took a number of actions. We now have in place emergency contact details for all housing association chief executives and nominated deputies and, in turn, the housing associations have emergency contact details for all senior housing division officials. Arrangements are also now in place for housing associations to register their sheltered accommodations with NI Water.

Finally, I have already been in contact with my ministerial colleague in the Department for Regional Development, who has assured me that Northern Ireland Water is now better prepared to handle the effects of severe weather conditions, and its major incident plan will provide a fully planned response to all types of emergency. That includes a range of contingency plans for specific types of events, such as severe weather conditions.

I am very pleased that Northern Ireland Water has been liaising with various stakeholders, including the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and housing associations, to ensure that tenants receive information and advice on how to protect their pipes during winter weather and what to do if they experience problems. I understand that it is the intention of NI Water to run an extensive public awareness advertising campaign from 24 October. The key message will be “Don’t Wait; Insulate”, and it will use a wide range of media outlets. The campaign will also include a leaflet drop to all customers throughout Northern Ireland. The Housing Executive will also include the NI Water advice leaflet in the next edition of ‘Housing News’, which is due to be published in mid-October and issued directly to each tenant.

During the debate, a range of other points were raised which I want to pick up on. A number of people spoke about the need for more energy efficiency, and that brings us into the area of better insulation of homes and maintenance of social housing. I see that as a priority. Some previous Ministers de-prioritised it: we are in the business of re-prioritising it.

It is important that tenants in public housing, whether through housing associations or the Housing Executive, have good standards of energy efficiency in their homes. For example, I pointed out recently that, at present, 60% of Housing Executive stock has single-glazed windows, which is totally unacceptable. We want to address that and we are seeking the necessary funds to do so. In some constituencies, such as my own, the figure is 70%, which is unacceptable. That is an example of the de-prioritising that I spoke about. There is now an increased emphasis on energy efficiency and insulation.

The Member for East Belfast Mrs Cochrane mentioned sheltered dwellings. She made the valid point that we need to ensure that the tenants of such dwellings, particularly elderly people, have access to gritting facilities and services. The Housing Executive has only one sheltered dwelling complex in north Belfast, which is at Ardavon. We had difficulties there that we had to work on last year. Those are things that will be dealt with by my colleague in the Department for Regional Development. The responsibility stretches across Departments; we do not have many farms in north Belfast, but I heard some farmers talking on the radio the other day about the amount of water that they had lost because of pipes to outbuildings being frozen. We need the holistic approach that I mentioned.

The motion calls on me to put measures in place:

“to safeguard water and heating supplies and repair services in anticipation of severe weather conditions; and to work closely with the Minister for Regional Development in preparation for the winter period.”

I believe that we have learned from last year’s severe weather. I have ensured that social landlords have in place effective emergency and continuity planning arrangements that are fit for purpose. Tenants must not go through a repeat of the problems that occurred last year. Following in-depth reviews of all that happened, and the subsequent revisions of the emergency planning arrangements, I believe that the measures now in place should ensure that all relevant agencies are fully prepared should we experience another severe winter and that tenants will receive the services that they are entitled to. However, I also want to ensure that social homes are energy efficient. In order to assist tenants in heating their homes effectively, I am working, as I said already, with the Housing Executive to develop a programme to double-glaze all properties as soon as possible. In the interim, I have already made a bid for additional funding in the October monitoring round to enable the Housing Executive to replace single-glazed windows with double glazing and to provide additional insulation measures to tackle the thermal efficiency of individual homes. Much of the housing associations’ stock is already double-glazed, and most have advised that they intend to replace any remaining single-glazed windows with double-glazing in their planned programme.

Today’s debate has demonstrated to Members that I have ensured that the failures of the past are not repeated but have been used to learn lessons and ensure that procedures are in place for the coming winter. I also assure Members that I consider this issue to be of the utmost importance. For that reason, as well as the regular meetings that I have with the Housing Executive, in which the issue does feature, and because we have entered a cold weather period, I have arranged a dedicated meeting to review preparations and response plans. I am due to meet the chief executive of the Housing Executive on Thursday.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin 5:00, 10 October 2011

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement, and all the Members who spoke in the debate. The House is unanimous, and it is good to make a winding-up speech on a motion on which everyone has agreed.

As Joe Byrne said, this is a timely motion, particularly as we move into the winter months. As all those who spoke in the debate outlined, the results of the past two winters, but particularly 2010-11, were devastating. I will not rehash those contributions, but Fra McCann said that what was needed was a joined-up strategy, particularly involving NI Water.

As a member of the Committee for Regional Development, I have experienced officials appearing before the Committee over the past couple of months, particularly on this issue. I was not there the day that the group went to see the communications centre. From what we read and see, we know that it has been dealing with a lot of the key issues on staffing, technology and communications. Most Members outlined that those were the key criticisms that were made.

Mr McCann talked about the Housing Executive, which is what we are all here to talk about. What happened was not good enough. We have all experienced devastating results. A Member on the opposite Benches — I think it was either Mr Campbell, Mr Copeland or Mr Roy Beggs — said that one third of the Housing Executive’s stock was damaged last year. I live in a housing estate in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where one third of the houses was damaged in one way or another.

Mr Campbell said that the Department needed to be in a state of readiness. None of us would disagree with that. I agree with him. As soon as any bad weather is on the horizon, we should get ready to move all the measures into place. Some of the Met Office forecasts tell you that we are in for a cold spell before the end of the month, but it does not always get it right.

Mr Copeland talked about the pressures that the Housing Executive and NI Water were under. We do not disagree, and we are not used to winters of such severity. It was said that a winter as severe as last year’s would occur once in 100 years, but we cannot afford to sit on our hands and wait another 99 years. There must be plans to deal with citizens, because the most vulnerable and the elderly were affected by last winter more than a lot of people.

Mr Byrne talked about the lack of water supply, and he paid tribute, as did others, to the social services and community groups. I think that we all agree with that. He said that there were subcontractors who worked over and above the call of duty during that period. There was no doubt that some plumbers worked 24/7. I know some of them. Some plumbers are looking forward to another hard winter so that they can make money; most of them are out of work for most of the year because of the downturn in the economy.

Pat Doherty said that he was in the coldest place — Castlederg. That could be true, but, coming from Fermanagh, I can tell you that it was pretty cold there as well.

A lot of people said that lessons needed to be learned from what happened. We must learn lessons, and there needs to be a joined-up strategy between the two Departments, so I welcome the Minister’s statement.

Other Members talked about last winter being the coldest that we have had in a long time. We all agree on that. Mr Douglas talked about the age of global communications. We all know about that, because we can contact people in any corner of the world, but it was very difficult to contact anybody, particularly people in Northern Ireland Water. Hopefully, however, that will have changed, but the whole litmus test will be what happens if there is another bad winter.

The Minister talked about the challenges that the Housing Executive experienced. Nobody would underestimate those. He said that he had addressed the problems, that work was being undertaken to do so and that emergency plans were put in place. I am glad to hear that that has happened. He agreed with the criticism of the communications and said that plans were put in place in that regard.

He mentioned the installation of frost stats. I heard tell of that type of instrument only in recent days. A lot of problems were caused when elderly people and people with few resources switched off their heating at night when going to bed. That led to their water system freezing during the night, and then the thaw burst their pipes.

If frost stats were installed in houses, they would go some way to ending that problem.

I welcome the provision of information at local level. One of the difficulties was the lack of information, and local representatives said that some autonomy should be given to local areas by supplying them with more information rather than the information coming from the top down. That would help them to be prepared for critical periods. Finally, I hope that we do not get the severe weather that the Minister has planned for, but, if we do, that will be the litmus test.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to put in place measures to safeguard water and heating supplies and repair services in anticipation of severe weather conditions; and to work closely with the Minister for Regional Development in preparation for the winter period.