Waste Water Infrastructure: Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 4th October 2021.

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Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 2:00 pm, 4th October 2021

2. Mr Gildernew asked the Minister for Infrastructure to outline how capacity deficits in waste water infrastructure are impacting on building developments in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. (AQO 2497/17-22)

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that important question. He will be aware that I have consistently raised the need for investment in water and waste water infrastructure. There are 23 waste water systems with capacity issues in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. On the impact on developments, Northern Ireland Water is a statutory consultee in the planning process and provides recommendations based on the availability of waste water assets and their capacity. The final decision on planning applications rests solely with the relevant planning authority. To help resolve these impacts, Northern Ireland Water plans to invest approximately £56·5 million within the current price control 21 (PC21) programme to upgrade waste water treatment works and waste water networks in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. However, it is vital that sustained and secure availability of funding is provided to Northern Ireland Water throughout the PC21 period.

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council is advancing its local development plan. Its draft plan strategy is with the Planning Appeals Commission, and a formal hearing, with independent examination sessions, is due to commence in late autumn or early winter. It is anticipated that my Department will be invited to attend the independent examination hearing sessions to discuss, among other things, the impact of waste water infrastructure and capacity constraints affecting the council area. The development plan growth strategy should seek to maximise the use of existing infrastructure, including waste water treatment and sewerage network capacity and resources, by focusing growth in locations where capacity exists. Where infrastructure capacity constraints are identified, the council must liaise closely with Northern Ireland Water to establish whether they can be overcome.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her answer. However, I have been in correspondence with NI Water in relation to Aughnacloy, where it has been confirmed that no further connections to the sewer system can be permitted. NI Water has stated that it has no allocation in the 2021-27 business plan and that, as such, no time frame can be provided for when the necessary upgrades will be taken forward. That is having a serious impact environmentally and on people who are building houses and on economic development in my area and in the region of Aughnacloy. When will Aughnacloy's waste water capacity be addressed?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. This is the outworking of historic underinvestment over many years in our water and waste water infrastructure. For this financial year, I was pleased to allocate the funding levels identified by the Utility Regulator. That is the first time that that has happened in a long time, but there is still so much more that we should be able to do.

The Member may know that Northern Ireland Water undertakes comprehensive business planning activities in each price control period. That is informed by my Department's social and environmental guidance. Northern Ireland Water works with the regulator to identify the most benefit to our customers from investment, so the selection of projects is not something that I, as the Minister, am involved in. I am happy to pass on your representations to Northern Ireland Water, but I must impress on Members the importance of sustained investment in our water and waste water infrastructure over the next number of years.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, you will be very aware of the Galliagh Shore development in Enniskillen. Can you give me an update on the progress that there has been on the sewerage treatment works there?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I really sympathise with the residents of Galliagh Shore, because they are in a very distressing situation. However, as I am sure that the Member is aware, Galliagh Shore is a private development, and neither my Department nor Northern Ireland Water has any legal remit to carry out works in such private developments. The residents have been liaising with the National House Building Council (NHBC) regarding its responsibilities in the development, and I believe that an offer has been made by the NHBC that has been accepted by the residents. The residents have also advised that they are working with a contractor to have an on-site investigation into the works carried out, a design solution prepared and a full cost estimate for the works detailed. Residents have approached my Department to see whether assistance could be provided in making up a shortfall in the funding should it be required. I am considering whether that can be achieved using my blue-green infrastructure fund, and my officials will be in contact with the residents as the case develops. Once full and final costings have been provided, I will be able to take a decision on any contribution that may be possible from my Department.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Have the Executive given you a commitment to deal with the water pressures? Can you give us an update on the infrastructure commission?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. From my budget this year, I have allocated a total of £344·5 million to Northern Ireland Water. As I said, this is the first time in a long time that Northern Ireland Water has been fully funded, and I have also provided an additional £20 million in capital funding to help Northern Ireland Water bring forward much-needed projects that were originally planned for delivery later in the PC21 period.

The scale of the waste water capacity issues across the North is such that they will, realistically, take at least 12 years to address. Without sufficient investment, Northern Ireland Water will be at risk of breaching statutory environmental obligations and the ability of the economy to recover could also be affected. I will continue to make representations to my Executive colleagues, because if we do not invest in our water and waste water infrastructure, we will not be able to grow our economy, build the many homes that we need or tackle the climate emergency.

The infrastructure commission is, as the Member will know, an agreed commitment in the Executive's published COVID recovery strategy. I look forward to our realising that commitment.

I hope that we do not experience any further delay, because an infrastructure commission is the game changer that our economy, society and environment need.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP 2:15 pm, 4th October 2021

I ask the Minister whether her Department will undertake a review of infrastructure throughout Northern Ireland with a specific focus on the restrictions that a lack of infrastructure for waste water and sewage places on the rural community. I corresponded with the Minister some time ago about the village of Armoy. It is but one example, but that situation is replicated throughout Northern Ireland.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. Northern Ireland Water is extensively engaged with the Utility Regulator to identify the locations that require investment. As I have said on a number of occasions, we are in this situation because of historical underinvestment in our water and waste water infrastructure, but I reassure the Member that Northern Ireland Water is doing everything that it can within the budgetary constraints under which it has to operate.

I absolutely agree with the Member about having an overview of the infrastructure in Northern Ireland. I proposed the establishment of an infrastructure commission in Northern Ireland so that it would take a long-term, strategic approach to the vision for and delivery of infrastructure. That proposal is now contained in the Executive's COVID recovery strategy and has overwhelming support across the business and environment sectors. If we were to have an infrastructure commission, we would be better placed to tackle regional imbalance and to ensure that we have the right infrastructure in the right places and that our rural community does not lose out.