Waste Water and Sewerage Capacity Crisis

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:45 pm on 5th October 2021.

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Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 5:45 pm, 5th October 2021

I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern at the deepening crisis in Northern Ireland’s waste water and sewerage infrastructure; notes the Department for Infrastructure’s Living with Water programme in Belfast; highlights the importance of adequate capacity in other parts of Northern Ireland to prevent delays to housebuilding and capital investment in critical facilities such as schools, public offices and factories; notes that addressing the weaknesses of current provision in all areas will be essential to maximising our whole region’s economic potential, including through city deals and other key levers; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to bring forward a new strategy to enhance and expand Northern Ireland’s water and sewerage infrastructure, with a particular focus on ending regional inequalities.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

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

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Whilst there are many things that we can disagree on in this House, the current state of and stresses on our waste water and sewerage capacity is not one of them. It is something that can and should concern us all because it affects all of us collectively.

The network and maze of water mains and sewers in Northern Ireland extends to 27,000 kilometres and 16,000 kilometres respectively. It incorporates our water treatment works, pumping plants and waste water treatment works. If those are not enough reasons to make sure that we get it right, Northern Ireland Water also provides drinking water to approximately 840,000 households and businesses. The stakes could not be higher.

The running failure to address the underinvestment in our waste water infrastructure is severely hampering economic development and house building in every part of Northern Ireland. I am sure that Members can attest to that. To put it simply, without drains, there can be no cranes.

Every month that passes without a sustainable approach to meeting current demand for connection to the network leads to further missed opportunities. Let us look at those missed opportunities. There are missed opportunities to support business expansion. How many Members have dealt with businesses in their constituency that are unable to expand and bring job creation to their locality because of lack of infrastructure in the waste water system?

There are missed opportunities to boost employment in the construction and aggregates sector. How many Members have been inundated with correspondence from developers or private homeowners who cannot get connected to the grid and are, therefore, being swallowed up by a planning system that, with regard to NI Water and consultees' responses, is not fit for purpose?

There are missed opportunities to provide new housing provision for those in need or those who want to get on to the property ladder. That is something that I can relate to, as a young Member of this House, and, during the pandemic and since, young people have been coming to me because they have been unable to get through that statutory planning process, particularly because of delays relating, primarily, to NI Water.

We believe that the current investment strategy, albeit welcome, lacks the ambition or direction needed to get this situation under control. We are not alone in that opinion. As I have mentioned, frustrated prospective homeowners and developers, up and down the country, want to see a tangible, Province-wide plan, and it is no surprise that they are of that opinion.

I have recent reports from developers — I am sure that Members have looked at them in their packs — and they are no longer willing to invest in Northern Ireland due to the waiting times. On 7 July 2021, the 'Belfast Telegraph' reported that:

"A lack of investment in the sewage network is holding up the construction of much-needed new homes, house builders have said. Braidwater Homes, Fraser Houses and Lagan Homes said NI's ageing water infrastructure was adding to pressure on the housing market here, where demand is far exceeding supply. Soaring demand has led to bidding wars on homes, which in some cases in Belfast has pushed prices up by around £4,000 a day."

That is simply not sustainable. Another homebuilder talked about the "planning nightmare" that was driving them out of Northern Ireland. They talked about pulling business out of Northern Ireland to work in the north of England and the Republic of Ireland. They talked about the delay that there was, in particular, surrounding the process with consultees. A complicated planning process, as well as consultee bureaucracy, has led to an absolute nightmare. In relation to NI Water, they talked about some consultees having a minimum 65-day turnaround to see whether a new site was available for sewerage, for example, compared with Scotland, where, they said, the same service would come back in five days. That is the difference. We are losing business because of the lack of sewerage infrastructure and waste water capacity.

I also want to bring Members' attention to the fact that 25 of the 27 economic hub towns have compromised water infrastructure, but only 12 will see investment by 2027. Ninety-one additional towns currently face similar problems, and another 30 will join that category over the next six years. Despite that, only 37 towns will receive improvements in their waste water infrastructure during that time. Just yesterday, Minister Mallon said in the House that Northern Ireland's waste water problems will take at least 12 years to fix and have the potential to undermine the economic recovery from COVID-19 and to limit the number of new homes. Further to that is the risk of breaching statutory environmental obligations.

The Minister is not alone in her assessment. On 16 October 2020, a headline in the 'Belfast Telegraph' read:

"Worn-out NI water network on brink of a catastrophe".

The paper reported that:

"Part of Northern Ireland could be engulfed in a major catastrophe if urgent upgrades to 'worn out' water services are not carried out, a High Court judge warned. Mr Justice Horner identified risks of homes being flooded and millions of litres of raw sewage spilling into an estuary with disastrous environmental consequences. The potential dangers were set out as he removed a suspension on NI Water awarding contracts to carry out work on its network."

It is hard to disagree. That places an ever bigger onus on the Minister and, indeed, the Department to get it right with a Province-wide plan of action. The Living with Water programme focuses only on greater Belfast, with a feasibility study for Londonderry, and ignores the legitimate challenges that face businesses and households in other parts of Northern Ireland as a result of that crisis. Developers have indicated that, because the planning system in Belfast is more proactive than in other areas, it is likely that a disproportionate level of other investment in the next price control will be spent there.

We recognise that price control 21 (PC21) envisages that £2 billion will be directed to capital projects over the next six years, which is a 100% increase on the previous allocation. Capital investment will include £529 million as part of the Living with Water programme and £816 million to maintain existing capacity, yet we cannot look over the fact that half of the affected towns and villages will see no direct benefit. It appears to be a damage limitation exercise, which threatens to generate further regional inequalities for people who live and work in areas right across Northern Ireland. The Minister for Infrastructure did not provide the Utility Regulator with any indication of the budget that is available over the next six financial years ahead of the latest price control determination. Was that a missed opportunity to adopt a more ambitious approach? The Minister has talked in the House of levelling up. Talk must now be backed up with action. The Department —.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way, but it is a bit outrageous to talk about six years ahead when we do not even have a three-year Budget and when it was the Member's party that tightened the screws when Danny Kennedy was the Minister. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost with the lack of investment in infrastructure per se.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I know the Member will have an opportunity to speak when she contributes to the debate. As Chair of the Infrastructure Committee, I have identified a real problem, and I am sure the Member has done the same in her constituency.

There is a need now for investment and planning ahead. The main reason for the motion, as the Member will read, is because the current state of our waste water infrastructure means that we are stymieing economic development, stymieing house growth and stymieing young people from getting on the housing ladder and contributing to society in their own right. I noted that, as I am sure did other Members, when dealing with NI Water in the days previous to the debate, and I will, no doubt, continue to note it in the days ahead.

Since 1 April, hundreds of applications for connections to the water and sewerage network have either been rejected or have stalled because of capacity issues. Some of those applications relate to hundreds of sites. That does not even tell the full story, Members. We do not know how many proposed developments have been cut off at source through NI Water's pre-development inquiry process. There is a real concern among developers that, at the moment, NI Water is using a delayed response to deal with the planning system in order to stymie development and put pressure on more investment. As Members, we have to ensure that we can have confidence in the planning system in order that we can have an adequate, fit-for-purpose waste water infrastructure.

I see my time is nearly up. There has always been a strong lobby for NI Water to be able to borrow like other bodies elsewhere in the United Kingdom. If we are to maintain the position on domestic water charges, it is right that we examine all available options in order to ensure that we are not storing up problems for the future. Solutions are out there, whether via city deals — I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that — or other bespoke funding avenues that have development and prosperity at their heart. Equally, we cannot get away from the fact that we must spend resources wisely. In closing, I hope that Members can support the motion. I call for better waste water infrastructure for all.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

With the greatest of respect to my friend, "in closing" should have come 20 seconds ago.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Water and waste water infrastructure is an essential part of any functional society as it provides a vital service with many health, environmental and economic implications. From supplying us with safe, clean water to waste water treatment, it is a foundation for sustainable economic growth. It is unacceptable that our sewerage and waste water infrastructure has reached a crisis point across the North due to historical underinvestment.

Many sewerage networks and treatment plants are now operating at or beyond their capacity. That, in turn, has limited opportunities for new connections. That is having an impact on housing, development, business and promoting regional balance by restricting the development of over 100 areas across the North. It has led NI Water to warn that investment is going down the drain as our failing waste water infrastructure prohibits connections in new houses and businesses. It has also led to inadequate environmental protection through increased sewer flooding and pollution.

NI Water has repeatedly warned of its chronic and historical underinvestment. Take a look at NI Water's investment during Tory austerity. For its business plan for 2015 to 2021, it received only around half of what it actually needed. That is a far cry from sustainable development. Failure to provide long-term funding will lead to a worsening crisis, with widespread detrimental impacts for our community, local economy and natural environment.

Derry is, sadly, no different, as the lack of investment in waste water infrastructure is preventing thousands of new homes and other developments being built in the Buncrana Road and Skeoge areas, as several capacity issues have been identified across the Derry City and Strabane District Council area. It is vital that those works are delivered as a matter of priority to allow people access to much-needed homes and to allow our city to grow and prosper. However, due to the scale of the issue, there are real concerns that some communities will get left behind while other areas will be prioritised for investment. It is absolutely vital that areas such as my constituency of Foyle get the investment they need to allow communities to prosper and to ensure that regional inequalities are not exacerbated by the waste water crisis.

This year, the Department has committed £215 million in capital for NI Water, which is more than the funding of £178 million that the Utility Regulator identified as necessary this year.

That was possible due to the unprecedented allocations from the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, to the Department, which helped to accelerate the PC21 capital works. I ask the Minister to explore whether, on reflection on that fact, there is room for a more ambitious capital works programme and further prioritisation of waste water in the Department for Infrastructure's budget.

The motion references the Living with Water programme, which started as a specific programme for greater Belfast. It is a strategy to support economic growth, protect the environment and address flood risk. While it is mostly a plan for investment in sewerage and waste water, it also includes blue-green infrastructure and sustainable drainage systems like rain gardens and permeable paving to make our society more liveable and more adaptable to flood risk. It is a new holistic and integrated approach to the provision of drainage and waste water infrastructure. At the Infrastructure Committee, Sinn Féin has consistently stated that the Living with Water strategy should be rolled out across other areas. I welcome that the Living with Water feasibility study has commenced in Derry and includes looking at the A2 Buncrana Road scheme to bring forward integrated drainage solutions for the Skeoge river and Pennyburn catchments. That is a positive development, but I urge that the strategy be rolled out to Derry and across other areas of the North.

It is worth noting that the Living with Water programme, along with essential sewerage investment, was one of the British Government's funding commitments in 'New Decade, New Approach'. However, they have reneged on that financial commitment from the outset, leaving us with a financial package that pales in comparison to the money needed to deliver on the commitments in that deal. It is vital that the North gets access to the funding necessary for adequate investment in our public services. Furthermore, NI Water has indicated how multi-year Budgets would allow for the more efficient planning and execution of its capital works programme. A multi-year Budget is needed to plan services properly, but the Executive were only provided with a single-year Budget by the British Government. It is vital that, in future, NI Water can utilise multi-year Budgets to allow for stronger, long-term planning.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Whilst the SDLP supports the motion, we are aware that the Executive's 'Sustainable Water: A Long-Term Water Strategy for Northern Ireland (2015-2040)' is already in place. We need not another document but funding for implementation. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister about what support she has been given with future funding, given that the wider Executive have responsibility for this, as water infrastructure cuts across virtually every aspect of life.

It is a bit rich for the party to my right to talk about delays, given that the House was stood down for three years, during which time no Ministers were in place and no decisions could be made. The community that we all seek to serve was bereft of democratic accountability, through us, for the civil servants, although the Ministers should have been in place. A lot of people seem to want to rewrite the last mandate. For three whole years —

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. In that vein, I am sure that she will agree with me on this. The Minister for Communities said that she was working to develop a fundamental housing supply strategy to remove barriers to increasing housing supply, which would obviously include water and sewerage. What interaction has there been with the Minister for Communities to support adequate funding measures for NI Water?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

Minister Mallon is clearly on the record as saying that infrastructure is the way to build an economic recovery, particularly post COVID. It is clear that there is a disconnect in the Executive. It is unreal that, for the 14 years that Sinn Féin and the DUP have been in charge, we have seen chronic underinvestment year in, year out in waste water infrastructure. They recognise that infrastructure is a key economic driver, but, when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is to drive the economy forward and to meet the real and pressing demand for social and affordable housing in particular, that money is not forthcoming. Yes, Minister Mallon has recognised that there is additional funding this year, but that was after a lot of hard work on her part. There was nowhere left for Sinn Féin and the DUP in particular, in charge of the Executive, to hide from the people who were waiting for a home and all the developers who were waiting for planning approval and the investment that is needed in waste water and sewerage to allow those developments to proceed. It is not just about housing, of course; it is about factories, as others have said, the manufacturing base and some of our public buildings.

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I will not give way any further, for I have only a short time left and there are a few other points that I want to address.

Minister Mallon, like, I am sure, other Members — the proposer of the motion spoke about it — recognises the key climate change challenges and the need to allay people's anxieties around flooding and investment in water, particularly with regard to rainfall and the other causes of flash flooding that we have experienced and which have a devastating impact on citizens and businesses. Without more capacity in the system, however, there are real and genuine concerns that we could see increased flooding that will further damage our local communities and environment. Our infrastructure needs investment in order to withstand those pressures and to deal with the historical underinvestment but also to plan for the short, medium and long term.

I said in an intervention that I was here and saw how Minister Kennedy was treated. I saw how Sinn Féin and the DUP ganged up on other Ministers, in the same way that we saw in the earlier health debate. They want power, but they will take responsibility for nothing. Nothing is their fault — absolutely nothing. They like to point the finger all around the Chamber and to create identity and cultural politics warfare so that the voter loses sight of what is really going on in terms of their failure to deliver not only on investment in waste water and sewerage infrastructure but on social and affordable housing, on education, on the health service and on communities. They have failed to stop the Tories denying the universal credit uplift to people who are not just on the breadline but below it. Yet, here we are, and, without shame, Sinn Féin points the finger at Minister Mallon while it was the party that caused the Assembly to collapse for three years — three whole years when no decisions could be made on health, on education, on housebuilding, on waste infrastructure or on welfare. There was absolutely nothing. There was no anti-poverty strategy — zero, zilch. Take a long, hard look at yourselves before you start pointing the finger at Minister Mallon.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I support the motion. We have a crisis in our water and waste water industry, and we now see the outworkings of that failure to invest in planning restrictions in many areas and, on occasion, waste water spilling onto our streets and into our rivers as a result of our aged sewerage network and an inadequate capacity to deal with the pressures of today and the extremes of weather that are being experienced.

I welcome the motion, but I find it rather strange. You would think that it was being proposed by someone whose party had been in opposition for the last 14 years and had had no involvement in where we are today. In fact, the proposer's party has been the biggest party and the lead party in the Northern Ireland Executive for 14 years, playing a key role in setting Budgets annually. Indeed, the contribution from the Member for Foyle seemed to ignore his party's role. His party has had deputy First Ministers and Finance Ministers, and it put in place the three-year gap and caused difficulties. Indeed, his Finance Minister was a Regional Development Minister in the past. His party has had a responsibility for where we are today.

Successive Budgets have underfunded Northern Ireland Water, diverting limited public funds to other priorities that they have decided on. Funding water is not optional; it is essential. The absence of adequate funding now affects our economy, with private-sector investment being held back on occasions. Northern Ireland Water needs significantly increased capital funding to meet its PC21 targets, which are set by the Utility Regulator, and to protect the public and our environment.

Yes, a significant amount of the initial target of £199 million for 2021-22 was provided. I welcome that, but we all have to be aware that significant further moneys will be needed in subsequent years: over double that amount. Capital investment is rising to some £477 million in 2025-26, with the vast majority of that to be spent on waste water treatment to address environmental concerns.

There are choices to be made. Will the Executive guarantee the final determination of funding that is stipulated in PC21 over other capital funding? That might at least enable some longer-term planning by Northern Ireland Water. At present, it can plan only one year ahead, or whatever guarantees the Executive give them.

The problem of limited end-year flexibility will remain. What happens if a contract is delayed, and the money has to be returned? There are still practical problems. It is not just about the funding being provided but about having a model of Northern Ireland Water that can maximise the benefit achieved from the funding that it receives. Northern Ireland Water is a Go-co. It was set up to become a stand-alone body eventually, but it has remained like a non-departmental body. At present, Northern Ireland Water must conform to company accounting but also to public-sector accounting, which results in extra bureaucracy and cost. Northern Ireland Water plans on an annual basis, which reduces its flexibility. It does not have the flexibility to borrow independently and is subject to public-sector borrowing restrictions. We have been advised that the ability to borrow on the value of its assets would increase its effectiveness.

We need to talk about solutions, not just problems. Yes, city deal might help to a degree, but we need to change the set-up of Northern Ireland Water to make it drive down costs and give better value so that it is more effective, and more cost-effective for us, the customers of Northern Ireland Water. What sort of solution am I therefore suggesting? We need to look seriously at Welsh Water, which was created on a not-for-shareholder dividend basis to make more effective use of the money that it receives. I would argue that we need to consider a mutual model. That potential solution is aside from the issue of water charges. Would such a model provide better value for money for the public-sector money that is going into it? I do not know, but I am asking that question. We need to look at those models.

The current model is not working. There are planning restrictions in significant areas of my constituency, such as Larne and Greenisland. Social housing in particular is being held back because of the additional costs. The private sector can choose to invest in additional, bespoke sewage treatment systems, but that option is frequently not available for social housing. We need to look at what we are doing and provide better value for money in all that we do.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The Alliance Party supports and welcomes the motion. Like others, it finds it strange that it has come from a party that has been in government, and leading in government, over the past number of years.

The impact of the lack of, and need for, investment in water and waste water infrastructure has a massive impact not just on our economy but on housebuilding and the environment. No one here today should be surprised at the situation in which we find ourselves. Northern Ireland Water has been issuing warnings about the situation for years.

PC15, which covered the six years from 2015 to 2021 was underfunded: £1·7 billion was required but only £990 million was invested. Upgrades to 81 large waste water treatment works were deferred within the time frame of PC15. PC21, which we are currently within, states that £2 billion of investment is required. There are currently more than 100 areas — over 50% across Northern Ireland, including 25 of our main cities and towns — where sewerage and waste water infrastructure has little or no capacity left. As an MLA for North Down, I know about that and the impact that it is having on applications for housing in my area.

It is expected that, by 2027, another 30 towns will reach capacity. We are making it almost impossible to build new housing or new business premises. This is a serious and critical crisis and will add another level of crisis to our housing shortage, about which my colleague Kellie Armstrong will speak later.

The lack of investment means that Northern Ireland Water cannot create the employment opportunities that are needed. Also, the risk of pollution increases. Since 2014, Northern Ireland Water has been fined 73 times for instances of significant water pollution, resulting in fines of approximately £250,000.

As a result of the lack of investment, the use of septic tanks increases because people cannot connect to the public sewerage infrastructure. There are risks to the environment and to public health, particularly from the chemicals used in these tanks and their impact on water and soil quality.

Northern Ireland Water's investment in, for example, hydrogen production, is to be welcomed. Green technologies are the way forward, but they need investment to continue. Particularly in the context that Northern Ireland Water is the biggest electricity consumer in Northern Ireland, we need to invest to save, not only financially, but to save our planet.

So far, we have heard, and we will hear yet more during the debate, about the problems and issues. What about the solutions? That is where the House fails. If we are not prepared to face up to difficult decisions, we will have the same debates again and again, with some Members searching outside for magic money trees that they can shake, but no money will fall.

The investment in Northern Ireland Water, whilst it is to be welcomed, is, we should remember, at the expense of opportunities to invest in other areas. As Mr Beggs outlined, we need to urgently consider the mutualisation of Northern Ireland Water. That is a clear, positive solution that the Alliance Party brings. Welsh Water provides a track record of success in that regard.

The Alliance Party's position on investment in water and waste water will come as no surprise to anyone. Our 2017 election manifesto clearly states:

"the current governance model for NI water combined with the absence of a sufficient level of independent income distinct from the direct subsidy, restricts the ability of NI Water to borrow money for investment in infrastructure from commercial sources."

Northern Ireland is the only region where the water utility is not funded to the level required by the independent regulator.

If we are to make this motion have any meaning, and if we are to address the serious issues in relation to the lack of investment and the housing shortage in Northern Ireland, we have to step up and take difficult decisions. No doubt, going into the elections next May, a lot of parties will offer the electorate opportunities in manifestos promising change. However, if we are not prepared to take difficult decisions and face the public on them, these issues will continue, and we will have a serious economic and housing crisis in Northern Ireland. Unless we fix this, our economy, housing and environment will be put at risk. We need to address it.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin 6:15 pm, 5th October 2021

I welcome the debate about the crisis in our waste water and sewerage infrastructure, which is certainly a reality for many of the communities that I am elected to represent.

According to NI Water, as of January 2021, in my constituency of North Antrim, the waste water treatment works in the villages of Armoy, Dervock, Mosside, Stranocum, Clogh, Grange, Cargan and Martinstown had reached capacity. NI Water also states that, in addition to the treatment works that I have just mentioned, network capacity issues are emerging in Ballymena, Ballycastle, Bushmills and Rasharkin. It goes on to state that, as a result of these capacity issues, new planning applications may be declined in parts of these catchments — "no drains, no cranes" is a catchy phrase that has already been used.

Eight villages are at capacity, Bushmills and Rasharkin are heading in that direction, and there are network problems in Ballycastle and Ballymena. All are in my North Antrim constituency.

I would not be doing my job properly if I did not say that I find that totally unacceptable. Water and sewerage infrastructure, even though mostly underground, is essential. It is not only essential to enhancing the quality of life for citizens, it is required and, indeed, vital for driving local economies through development and expansion. However, because this important infrastructure has reached capacity in the locations that I mentioned, housebuilding and building for business development across North Antrim are, or very soon will be, at a standstill. Again, I find that totally unacceptable.

Worse still is the fact that there are no plans for investment in the majority of these villages, not this year, not next year nor the year after. Indeed, there are no plans to invest in most of these North Antrim villages in NI Water's development plan, which takes us up to 2027. Investment is, at the very least, five years away. Again, that is totally unacceptable.

The outworking, or should I say the consequence, of this is that, without upgraded waste water and sewerage infrastructure in, for example, Armoy village, no social housing can be built. Similar restrictions will be imposed on Cargan and Martinstown and all the other places on the list. So, no social housing will be built, and, as others said, developers are seeing planning permission being refused, constrained or delayed. None of that will change for at least the next five years, which has real-life consequences in rural communities and small villages. It means no homes for young couples and young families who want to live in the communities in which they were reared. In some instances, it means numbers dwindling in village and rural primary schools. It means local GAA and other sports teams struggling with numbers. It means services, facilities and funding opportunities being curtailed.

It is clear that investment is needed in NI Water and in our infrastructure. I noticed that the Minister smiled when my colleague congratulated the Finance Minister on his allocation to her Department. I think that it was a smile in agreement with my colleague, unlike her party colleague, who gave her version of the now famous single transferable speech, in which she blamed Sinn Féin for everything. I think that she even blamed the Sinn Féin Finance Minister for allocating additional money to the Infrastructure Minister this year. Years of historical underinvestment in our water and sewerage infrastructure and the British Tory-imposed austerity on our block grant are the root causes of the current problem. It is not a problem of Minister Mallon's making, and I do not think that my colleague made any aspersions that it was Minister Mallon's problem.

If we want to grow in a balanced and sustainable fashion, we need to address this issue in a way that does not facilitate further regional inequality or impacts on rural communities. That is why many communities in North Antrim, such as Armoy, Dervock, Mosside, Rasharkin, Stranocum. Martinstown and Cargan, will wonder why they have been left out of investment plans for the next five years. I am deeply disappointed that that is the case. On their behalf, I urge Minister Mallon to look at ways to improve the current NI Water plan, to explore ways to draw down additional funding without imposing a further burden on families, to incorporate multi-year budgets into investment planning and to deliver urgently a fit-for-purpose waste water infrastructure that delivers for the citizens and communities of North Antrim.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

The state of Northern Ireland's water and sewerage infrastructure does Northern Ireland a great disservice. To say that it is hopelessly outdated is being polite. My East Londonderry constituency is a prime example of how the current infrastructure is keeping Northern Ireland from developing and is causing damage and inconvenience to private property when there is heavy rainfall. That is unacceptable and has to be rectified.

I know of major housing developments that have been severely delayed due to the lack of capacity of a 21st-century water and sewerage network. Housing pressure is increasing, and this is unacceptable. Nothing that is being examined will change that situation. Chronic underfunding is costing jobs. I understand that, throughout Northern Ireland, hundreds of schemes are stalled due to the lack of capacity in our water and sewerage infrastructure. Will the Minister give a figure for developments that have not even made it past the Northern Ireland Water pre-development inquiry process? I am sure that that figure is substantial.

Housing Executive developments are affected as well, so this problem involves quite a few Northern Ireland residents. We need a proactive solution from the Minister to tackle gross underfunding, which costs jobs and housing.

I also think that the Finance Minister needs to step up to —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member accept that, over the years, inadequate money has been given to the Department for Infrastructure to enable Northern Ireland Water to put in that infrastructure? The budgets were grossly incorrect.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I take your point. Thank you.

I also think that the Finance Minister needs to step up to the mark to provide some much-needed extra funding to help the Infrastructure Minister to tackle this serious water and sewerage underfunding situation throughout Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Water intends to direct £2 billion towards capital projects in the next six years, yet over half of towns and villages will see no direct benefit. That is a disgrace. Outside Belfast, regional differences make that figure even more startling. Regional variation means that anyone living outside the greater Belfast area will experience greater inequality. An effective investment strategy will see businesses expand, boosting the construction industry and associated industries and, of course, employment.

Figures show that only 12 out of 27 economic hub towns will get investment in the next six years. Another 91 towns have similar problems, but only 37 will receive improvements to their water infrastructure. With another 30 towns due to join the list, no progress will be made in addressing the chronic capacity shortage in the water and sewerage infrastructure. The Minister must develop a plan to ensure that the shortcomings in the current system are addressed as a matter of urgency. I support the motion.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Members, it is 6.25 pm, and I am due to call the Minister at 6.50 pm. The debate can last for only an hour and a half. There are more Members who wish to speak than time. I am mindful of the fact that all of the Government parties will have participated in the debate at least once. Therefore, it is my intention that Mr Allister will be called to speak because he has been in the Chamber from the start of the debate. If you are further down your party's speaking list, it might be an idea to make a few interventions.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on this important motion. As others have said, waste water infrastructure across the North is in a dire situation, and it is essential that urgent action is taken to address that. As my colleague said, this is not about blaming the Minister; it is about underinvestment. It is about the House coming together to recognise the need to consider the other options that may be available.

Currently, there are well over 100 areas where the infrastructure for waste water and sewerage is at capacity. As everyone has said, that has a significant impact on existing and future development, particularly for much-needed housing across the Six Counties.

In my constituency, Newry city is one of the key areas that has seen the detrimental effects of the lack of investment in waste water infrastructure. I am aware of a current social housing development that is already experiencing delays due to network capacity issues. If that is not addressed, there will be serious implications for future housing provision in the Newry area. Therefore, it is imperative that solutions are found across the board.

Similarly, the Meadow area of Newry has had long-standing problems with the sewerage system that spans decades. Today, in the area, residents are experiencing sewage overflow into their gardens, and there are problems with domestic toilets and waste water systems. Whilst NI Water staff are actively working on the ground to deal with that, the underlying problem is the network capacity.

As many have mentioned, the NI Water slogan, "no drains, no cranes", has rightly been re-emphasised. The slogan is an important focus for us all because it encapsulates the impact on our communities if the issue is not addressed.

In addition to the obvious problems associated with waste water infrastructure, a key priority for my party is to ensure that those issues are addressed in the whole of the North in an equal manner that does not facilitate further regional inequalities. NI Water has identified that a total of £21 billion is required for its 2021 to 2027 business plan, known as PC21. That will enable appropriate action to be taken to improve the capacity issues.

This year, the Department has committed £215 million, which is actually over and above the full funding requirement as determined by the Utility Regulator. It is very welcome that the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, has recognised the importance of making that allocation despite the Executive receiving a standstill resource Budget. Yesterday, whilst the SDLP was pontificating about meeting the shortfall from the Tory austerity Budget that we have been left with, our Ministers were trying to find ways to do what they can, within the constraints, to find the funding for areas where it is needed.

It is no secret that long-term, sustainable funding is needed to address the historical underinvestment in our water and sewerage infrastructure. It is inevitable that the need will continue to be critical as the capital requirement continues to grow. To give a sense of what we are dealing with, £300 million will be needed next year and £400 million the following year.

However, in true form, as many have mentioned, the British Government reneged on a substantial number of their financial promises immediately after the NDNA agreement was reached. One of those was the commitment to:

"Essential sewage investment (Living With Water Programme)".

It is clear that the financial package was inadequate to fund public services, even prior to the onset of COVID.

Maybe if the Minister and her party colleagues who went to Westminster to stand up to Boris cannot sway the Tories to review the block grant, we need to start thinking outside the box. Unlike others who want to stand up here and just blame everyone in the House, I want to look for solutions.

We have learned that NI Water is currently unable to draw down money because of its large government subsidy and its status as a non-departmental public body. In the South, meanwhile, Irish Water can go to the money markets to borrow and raise bond finance. In 2018, over 70% of its revenue was derived from government subsidy. That could be a solution to addressing some of the issues that we have raised today. I therefore ask the Minister to explore options to enable NI Water to draw down more funding within the existing model.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 6:30 pm, 5th October 2021

I thank the Member for giving way. The hypocrisy of the party opposite never ceases to amaze me. Here we have a Member of the House advising the Minister to go to private finance, but her party blocked, when I was Minister for Social Development, going to the private sector to get money to build more houses. You cannot pick and choose to go the private sector whenever it suits you.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. As I said, it is about exploring all options and trying, on a cross-departmental basis, to find solutions for something that is critical.

As I said, the block grant has suffered cut after cut as a result of Tory austerity, which has certainly played a significant role in the detrimental position that we are in. That legacy of historical underfunding demonstrates the need for the Department to take the bull by the horns and look at ways to improve its current plan, for example — others mentioned this — by expanding the Living with Water programme outside Belfast to areas such as mine in Newry, which are in priority need of such an integrated approach that seeks to make communities more sustainable. I ask the Minister whether a feasibility study to extend the programme to Newry has been commissioned, as it has been for Derry.

It is inevitable that everyone in the House is in agreement. I ask others to come on board and look at how we can do this together, exploring options and finding ways to address the regional imbalance. That is fundamental. Those who have faced disparity and inequality in the past can no longer be left behind. We want to see equal balance across the North.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

The direness of the waste water capacity and sewerage infrastructure situation in Northern Ireland has been referred to across the House. The problem is not specific to any one area of Northern Ireland but is right across the country. As such, it is having a severe impact on investment in housing, industry and retail.

It is also not a problem caused by the current Minister or her Department. It is solely the fault of continued underinvestment in waste water and sewerage infrastructure. Minister, you hold the portfolio, but this is not of your making. Waste water and sewerage infrastructure needs massive investment to negate the lack of investment over the years. Most of the current 40,000 to 50,000 kilometres of water mains and sewers operated by Northern Ireland Water have been in the ground for the past 50 years or more. That is at least 60% to 70% of the network.

Rising rainfall associated with climate change, and heavier and more frequent flooding, are causing waste water and sewage to mix more often, at a risk to health.

Since vital investment in the 1970s, much has changed across the country. I ask the Minister to put a realistic figure on what her Department needs for this service alone, and the likelihood of her Department getting proper finance in this mandate or, indeed, in the next mandate. Perhaps it is time for the House to look at multi-year Budgets. I certainly think so.

It is my understanding that capacity issues exist at most of the 70 treatment works, with Northern Ireland Water advising that no additional development can be accommodated in places such as Armoy in my area of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, as was mentioned by the Member for North Antrim, or Ballybogy, Dervock, Ardgarvan, Aghanloo, Mayboy and Mullans. Those are all small settlements where young people cannot find housing to allow them to remain in their own communities.

Those are just some areas, but they are a snapshot of what is happening across Northern Ireland. A proposed 19 out of 70 water treatment plants had been committed to. How many have actually been upgraded during the 2015-2021 funding period, and how many are at or nearing capacity? The impact is serious not only in housebuilding but in industry, with investment opportunities and potential employment being lost through a lack of infrastructure. My constituency is a massive tourist area. That industry, too, is being impacted through a lack of investment in infrastructure.

Waste water and sewerage should be a priority for the Assembly. It needs massive investment right across Northern Ireland and should be treated as a priority. If we fail to invest in the future, we are leaving a legacy of failure to those who come after us, just as those who came before us left a legacy of failure to us.

I support the motion, but I also refer to the remarks two Members made about the Welsh model. What is the finance for the Welsh model compared with what the Minister has at her disposal? I did not hear that. How much money have they got in Wales compared with what the Minister has to spend on infrastructure? Perhaps —.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The simple answer is: the utility regulator in Wales determines that the investment that is required is met, whereas, here, the required investment is not met. It is a no-brainer.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

No, I have finished. Thank you.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

That is very generous.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will try to be brief, since others wish to contribute.

Like other people, when I read the motion, my first reaction was to say, "Yes, obviously". It is hard to disagree with the motion, and, as my colleague Dolores Kelly said, we as a party certainly do not disagree with it; we support it. As Minister Mallon has said throughout her time in office, of course Northern Ireland Water has been in crisis. It has been chronically underfunded for not just years but decades. It is encouraging to hear what sounds like unanimity today in the Chamber alternating with urges to have a kick at the Minister. There is a degree of unanimity in agreeing that the matter needs to be a priority for funding when there are multi-year Budgets.

I hope, therefore, that, when we get a multi-year Budget from the Treasury later this autumn — indeed, that will happen in exactly three weeks' time from today — the parties in the Chamber that so stoutly stood up and said that we need to provide multi-year funding to address the long-standing crisis in Northern Ireland Water will be exactly as robust and unified in calling for the requisite allocation to the Department and to Northern Ireland Water as they have been today. Let us remember something, because there will be a Hansard report; someone up there is taking a record. We will keep the receipts in order to ensure that those who have been calling for that funding are exactly as fulsome in their calls for allocations. It is worth saying in parentheses that, when it comes to things like health, we as a party have been consistent in saying that it needs adequate, upfront, prioritised, multi-year funding when we get past the spending review from London. I hope that others in the Chamber will be as good as their word today and, perhaps, a little more fulsome in funding Northern Ireland Water than they have been in years gone past. When there was a Minister from the Ulster Unionist Party, they perhaps were not as keen to fund it, or when they have had the Ministry themselves, they did not give it the requisite prioritisation. I have not been here that long. Maybe I am naive or a hopeless romantic for —.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

It seems to be the opportune moment to allow the Member to congratulate the Sinn Féin Finance Minister for giving increased funding this year to NI Water.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will hold off on that. If you are asking me to thank the Finance Minister for every single allocation that he makes, I would be here all day, although that seems to be Sinn Féin party policy. You will be aware that it is literally the job of the Finance Minister to allocate funding, so not a penny can be spent in Northern Ireland without him making allocations.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will give way in a second. The next time the Finance Minister declines to make an allocation, I will come to the Member and ask him why the Minister has done so. I will give way very briefly, and then I want to make some progress.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Does the Member agree that Northern Ireland Water is a cross-departmental issue and that, instead of us picking at each other, it is time for us to find solutions and come together to fund a problem that is hitting all Departments?

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Yes, and the Member brings me on to my next point. The consistent underfunding of Northern Ireland Water, which has been addressed this year because the Minister has been able to provide it with full funding, is not just about the Department for Infrastructure, despite some of the Punch and Judy display that we have had today. Clearly, as people have said, it is completely interlinked with how we address climate change and economic development.

I want to specifically talk about climate mitigation in my constituency. Others have talked about development issues in their constituencies. In the last few weeks, I met NI Water and Department for Infrastructure officials who are involved in the delivery of the Glenmachan project, which is part of the Living with Water programme. The Glenmachan project will ease waste water capacity issues, particularly in south and west Belfast. Works are ongoing in the Finaghy and Balmoral area, which are overdue. From talking to my constituents in the area, I know that they want the works to happen as quickly as possible, because they are having more flash flooding and, very often, it is waste water that has not been properly treated. It is unhygienic, for a start, but it is also deeply disruptive to their lives.

Frankly, we will see more of that because of the effects of climate change on our lives, so we will have to deal with it. In addition to the robust cases that have been made for economic development in rural areas, it is important for all of us to see Living with Water and, indeed, funding Northern Ireland Water as a critical part of dealing with climate change, which will be the dominant issue in all our lives for the rest of this century.

I am pleased, on behalf of my party and along with my colleague, to underline our party's support for the motion. I hope that there is as much unanimity when we come to allocating budgets later this year, because the issue is critical not just for economic development and the development of housing but for climate mitigation.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Ulster Unionist Party will support the motion, as my esteemed colleague Mr Beggs has already outlined. I thank the Minister's staff and, indeed, Northern Ireland Water for coming to meet me in Ballyclare last week. The discussions that we had there epitomised the problems that we have with infrastructure in Northern Ireland. We are dealing with 100-year events every year. What is more, we are getting 100 years of rain — or one month's rain in one hour. No infrastructure anywhere in Northern Ireland can cope with that. Indeed, no infrastructure anywhere in the world can deal with that. We are dealing with a climate emergency right now.

There is a solution, however, in how we fund Northern Ireland Water. I note with interest the number of times that we have heard about — allow me to get this right — Dwr Cymru, Welsh Water, which is managed by Glas Cymru. Members will be aware that, as part of the funding mechanism in Wales, consumers pay up to about £300 a year for domestic water. In Scotland, people pay up to £375 for water as part of the council tax bill. We do not know, because it has not been fully desegregated, how much of our rates bill goes towards water. That might be a useful starting point from which to go forward.

We have heard quite a lot about the Finance Minister and the fact that he has asked the fiscal commission for a report. Paul Johnson has already done an interim report saying that levelling up with the rest of the United Kingdom could bring in an extra £600 million across the board to Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister's party and other parties are not advocating water charges or any of the other things mentioned, but that report demonstrates the funding that could be there. Paul Johnson also reports that, if we were taxed at the same level as people in the Republic of Ireland, we could be looking at significantly more than £600 million. I do not think that any of us wants to go in that direction either.

The key to this is the mutualisation of Northern Ireland Water. In a uniquely Northern Ireland situation, we have turned what should be a Government-owned and commercially operated company into a hybrid that is neither. We need to be able to take its shackles off and make it a properly mutualised company. If we did so, particularly using the Welsh Water model — it is a not-for-profit company and all the money that it makes is reinvested in the company — that would give us a good opportunity to transform Northern Ireland Water. I look across at the Minister and say this: it is not just an opportunity for Northern Ireland Water; it would create a model for other utilities in Northern Ireland or transport companies or other areas that are having real difficulty.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. We have been banging on about this over and over again since I was on the Infrastructure Committee back in 2016. We take money through rates for water. We do not separate it out. We give the money, as a grant, to Northern Ireland Water. Does the Member agree that, if that money were treated as an income, the company would be free to borrow and then, finally, we could have a water company that could be sustainable?

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much for pointing out the fact that it needs to be a mutualised company. It needs to be a company that is capable of borrowing off its asset base. We have the ludicrous thing, seen by anyone who has been to a waste water treatment plant in Northern Ireland, of every one of them having an anaerobic digester that it is not allowed to use to make electricity that it could sell. It is not allowed to do it because it is a Go-co; that is absolutely ridiculous. I cannot understand how we cannot see the ridiculousness of that.

We have an opportunity for the Assembly to say very clearly, "Let us set up a decent company around Northern Ireland Water". We have a model, and, if we are going to be radical, why do we not look towards a synergy or even a cooperation agreement with Welsh Water to make it work? How about that for all-islands cooperation and something that could work?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 6:45 pm, 5th October 2021

An outsider listening to this debate, having listened to the litany of complaints, neglect and obvious failure, would surely by now be saying to themselves, "What bunch of incompetents is in charge of that place for its waste water treatment to have got to this dire state?". The answer is this: the bunch of incompetents that have been populating the Executive of Northern Ireland. Who has been governing for the last 14 years but the very parties in this House that make these issues?

The parties of Government in this House need to own the mess that they have made. Yes, part of it has been because of inter-party rivalry and wanting to expose Ministers by holding back funding. We saw it in Danny Kennedy's time; maybe we are still seeing it in this particular Department. But, really, you cannot look beyond those who govern to find the problem here, particularly as they have had nearly 15 years to address the issue. It is in a worse plight than it was when devolution returned in 2007 — much worse.

Apply it in my constituency. Rural villages across North Antrim are starved of development opportunities. Armoy, Dervock — all of them. I have met the Minister about those issues. Because of no investment, social housing and private housing cannot be built. Nothing is on offer in the current cycle; it will probably be the next decade before anything is done. Take the major town in my constituency, Ballymena. Development in large parts of it ground to a halt because the Spencetown treatment works cannot cope.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thank you, Mr Allister, for giving way. It is not very often we agree, but this is twice in one day. Does the Member agree with me that our waiting lists for housing are only growing larger? It will take two decades to fulfil the waiting list because we cannot build social housing to meet demand.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Yes. Take the small village of Armoy because so often it is the rural villages that are at the front edge of neglect. For years, there has been an approval for a scheme for social housing. It cannot be built, yet there is a crying need for such housing in that and many other villages. There is no joined-up, authentic approach to these matters.

I referred to Ballymena. We have the Spencetown terminal pumping station. It is already operating above its designed capacity. In consequence, effectively, there can be no new approvals. Indeed, it is in contravention of its own Water Order consent. It is at risk of being prosecuted by the Environment Agency.

All that this Executive have to offer the people of Ballymena and North Antrim are excuses. They say, "It's someone else's fault. It's Tory austerity". My goodness, look at what we do with largesse from the Treasury. I got an answer from the Finance Minister a few weeks ago. At the time of his answer, there was £750 million in Barnett consequentials, in this case for health. How much of that did we spend on health? Five hundred million pounds. We would far rather prioritise all sorts of vanity projects than put it into hard infrastructure. Here we have it again: what is the Department for Infrastructure's priority? Is its capital project priority the Narrow Water bridge, or is it the sewage works in my constituency and many others? Are political vanity projects overriding real need? That is what seems to be happening. I say this to the House: you cannot point the finger other than at yourselves, because you are the Government, and —

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— you are a Government who have failed fundamentally.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the three Members, including the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure, for tabling the motion on the crisis in waste water and sewerage capacity. As Mr Buckley pointed out and many Members reiterated, it is a very important issue that affects all of us. I have listened carefully to the views that Members expressed. The significance of the issue is reflected in the fact there were more Members who wished to speak than time allowed for this evening.

As Minister for Infrastructure, I am well aware of the importance of our waste water infrastructure and the critical role that it plays in our health and well-being and, as many Members pointed out, in the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland. As Mr Beggs, Mr Bradley, Mr O'Toole and Dr Aiken pointed out, in recent years, flooding has had devastating consequences for those living and working in affected areas. We can be in no doubt that climate change will place even more pressure on our ageing infrastructure.

As a result of the continued underinvestment in sewerage infrastructure, there are, as Members pointed out, estimated to be over 100 areas where a lack of capacity in sewerage and waste water infrastructure is having a detrimental impact on local development. That lack of capacity means that Northern Ireland Water may not be able to accept future connections for new developments. In addition to the economic constraints, a lack of capacity can cause increased instances of flooding and sewage spills, leading to increased pollution, damage to the environment and an increased risk to health.

Members will be aware that I have consistently made the case for additional investment in our water and waste water services. The Utility Regulator has determined that Northern Ireland Water requires over £2 billion over the six-year PC21 investment period. I have to say that I noted with interest Mr Buckley's criticism that I have not presented the Utility Regulator with confirmation of subsequent years of funding. Of course, we are still locked in a single-year budgetary process, so it is absolutely impossible for me to give any certainty beyond the current financial year. Over £1·5 billion of the funding that is identified in this price control period needs to be invested in waste water treatment works and sewerage networks across the whole of Northern Ireland, including projects to address the lack of capacity at 49 locations. Those include a number of significant projects to upgrade waste water treatment plants in Belfast at a cost of approximately £126 million; in Kinnegar at a cost of £108 million; in Greenisland at a cost of £33 million; and — this will interest Ms Kimmins — in Newry at a cost of approximately £27 million.

As I have said many times in the House, the scale of the waste water capacity issues across Northern Ireland will, realistically, take at least 12 years — over two price control periods — to address. Without that investment, as Members rightly identified, Northern Ireland Water will be at risk of breaching statutory environmental obligations, and the delivery of much-needed housing will be constrained by a lack of capacity in the waste water treatment works and sewerage works.

Rightly, Mr Allister challenges Ministers on identifying their strategic priorities. He referenced Narrow Water bridge. I take this opportunity to remind Mr Allister that the Irish Government have committed to the funding of Narrow Water bridge. As Minister for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, I have absolutely prioritised investment in our water and waste water infrastructure. In responding to the challenging environment in which we find ourselves, I have allocated over £210 million of capital funding to Northern Ireland Water for 2021-22. That allocation includes an additional £20 million over and above the Utility Regulator's final determination to bring forward and accelerate capital projects.

I also note with interest the propensity within Sinn Féin to claim credit for positive financial announcements that other Ministers make. I look to see the same fervour, enthusiasm and ownership being taken when Ministers have to implement cuts, which we will, inevitably, have to do in the Budget. I assure Members —.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

It seems strange that Sinn Féin never seems to mention the fact that the £15·6 billion that we got last year came from our nation's Exchequer.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I assure the Member that, in my remit as Minister for Infrastructure, I have identified that that is an issue of strategic importance. I have done so not solely by way of offering platitudes but by following through in making bids to the Executive and allocating sufficient funding for this financial year. This is the first time in a long time that that has happened.

Earlier this year, as part of my commitment to a green and sustainable recovery, and to delivering the commitments made by the Governments in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, I completed a public consultation on 'Living with Water in Belfast', a draft integrated plan for drainage and waste water management in the greater Belfast area. The plan aims to deliver a new, strategic, long-term approach to drainage and waste water management, protect from flooding, provide a cleaner and greener environment, and ensure that Belfast is open for business and investment. That plan, which I hope to get onto the Executive agenda shortly, makes a robust case for the investment needed to provide a 21st-century waste water system to serve the growing population and allow for economic growth.

As Mr Delargy, rightly, pointed out, I am keen that we see the rolling out of the Living with Water programme so that it is extended beyond Belfast. On 2 June this year, I gave the go-ahead for the development of a strategic drainage infrastructure plan for Derry, similar to the 'Living with Water in Belfast' plan that I just referred to, and my intention is to roll out that approach, which is very much focused on our natural environment, to many more areas across Northern Ireland.

The motion calls for a new strategy to be brought forward to:

"enhance and expand Northern Ireland's water and sewerage infrastructure, with a particular focus on ending regional inequalities."

It is important to point out that a strategy is already in place in Northern Ireland to manage our water and waste water infrastructure and to work towards the achievement of a sustainable water sector. It is the Executive's 'Sustainable Water — A Long-Term Water Strategy for Northern Ireland (2015-2040)', and I assure Members that it is Northern Ireland-wide.

Perhaps, there is a misunderstanding that the Minister has the authority and discretion to identify which projects to accelerate. It is true that the price control period has a clear and robust process. For each price control period, a prioritised list of schemes for waste water treatment works is identified to deliver defined quality improvements or major upgrades. Those proposed schemes are evidence based, agreed by all key water stakeholders and prioritised. There is a strong emphasis on environmental compliance, headroom capacity issues and the potential to ease developmental constraints. The investment plan and supporting business cases for the upgrade of specific works, sewerage networks and their pumping stations are reviewed for robustness and value for money by the Utility Regulator.

I assure Members that Northern Ireland Water does not take a Belfast-centric approach.

Northern Ireland Water is statutorily obliged to have due regard for individuals who reside in rural areas when it considers how to carry out its activities properly, and those duties are exercised and monitored throughout the price control period. Northern Ireland Water's rural waste water investment programme is a great example of a focused package of works that is being undertaken to refurbish waste water treatment facilities in hamlets and villages in rural areas across the North where the population is below 250. The aim of that programme is simple: to deliver significant environmental benefits, including improving water quality in local rivers, and to increase capacity for development in rural areas.

Therefore, in light of the existing strategies and the robust processes that are already in place, a new strategy is not what is required at this point. What is needed is the remainder of PC21 and future price controls to be fully funded to help to address the legacy of underinvestment in water and sewerage infrastructure and to facilitate economic growth and housing development.

The cross-cutting benefits from a fully funded water and sewerage sector are clear. Economic development, connections for social and affordable housing and environmental health are fundamental building blocks of any functioning society. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the Executive and the Assembly to ensure that sufficient funding is provided for our water and sewerage systems over subsequent years to help to unlock those areas that Members across the House identified as being under economic constraint as a consequence of the historical underinvestment in that critical infrastructure.

I will end on this point. Given that the strategies to expand and enhance our water and sewerage infrastructure already exist, the call from businesses across Northern Ireland and our environmental sector is not, as Mrs Kelly said, to create another glossy brochure. The plan and the strategies are there. What is required is that we all prioritise our water and waste water infrastructure and that, going forward, we ensure that sufficient funding is provided so that we can upgrade it to ensure that we achieve the many outcomes that we want for our businesses and citizens across the North.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 7:00 pm, 5th October 2021

To say that Members had a lot to get off their chests in the debate is probably an understatement. In typical Northern Ireland fashion, Members from different political parties across the Chamber said that they supported the motion and then tore it to shreds. That is becoming a theme.

Mr Beggs's contribution really gave me cause to smile. First, he welcomed and supported the motion, then he said that it was worded like an Opposition motion, and then he supported what looked like an Opposition motion as a member of a Government party. I remind Mr Beggs that he is the longest-serving Member in the House right now. He has been in the Chamber for nearly as long as some of the main sewers and waterworks in —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

In a moment. He was an Opposition Member for only six months of his 23 years here.

Getting back to the topic, Members, collectively across the House —

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I could not possibly call the esteemed Member for East Antrim a main sewer. That is very unparliamentary language.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member is aware that that is not a point of order. Mr Buckley.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Thank you. If you look at Hansard, you will see that I said that the Member has been about this place for as long as some of our sewers. It was not the Member in particular, but maybe you can reflect on that now that you have brought it to his attention.

What I am trying to say is that Members brought up issues time and again. Similar concepts were raised, and, although people came at it from different directions, we all recognised the problems that exist.

We heard, first, about capacity issues. We heard about those from Newry and Armagh to North Antrim. There were many contributions from Members from the Antrim area in particular, who spoke about the issues that they face there.

We also heard about funding concerns, and I think that that point was universally recognised. It must also be pointed out — I will put it on record — that it is a no-brainer to say that this has not happened overnight. It has long-term consequences, and we, as a political body, must be mature enough to recognise that, if we are to address the significant issues faced by NI Water, we must give it a sustainable budget. We also talked about multi-year budgeting and how the existing funding model made it difficult for NI Water to function properly.

The importance of this being a cross-departmental matter was also raised. I am not sure who raised that point — I think that it may have been Kellie Armstrong during an intervention — but it is important. As I have mentioned, the issue with NI Water affects not just the Department for Infrastructure but has an impact on our schools and in our communities, whether that is to do with social housing need or our economy, with the economic development that sustainable and long-term sewerage and waste water infrastructure can create.

Members also mentioned climate change. Dr Aiken pointed out the level of rain that can fall in an hour in his constituency and how the infrastructure that is in place cannot deal with the quantity of rain that we face.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I will, indeed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

On climate change, the fact that 25% of fresh water leaks from our pipes means that we have to process water unnecessarily, so we need investment to prevent that. Northern Ireland Water is one of the biggest electricity users in Northern Ireland. It has a carbon footprint, and it is imperative that we invest in that infrastructure. Does the Member agree?

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Indeed. The Member makes a very valid point. I note that Members universally mentioned the chronic housing shortages in their respective areas and how the waste water infrastructure has limited the social housing growth that they need, as well as economic prosperity. Members know the trouble that they will face, whether they are dealing with a development or a scheme that they know is needed for the local area but cannot progress because of the infrastructure problems for NI Water.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I will, indeed, on that point.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

On the point about developers, will the Member agree with me that, at this stage, there is almost an unregulated levy on developers? It costs up to £2,500 per home to fit pipes because there is no capacity for Northern Ireland Water to do it. That cost is being passed on to customers and it is adding costs to our society.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Absolutely. That goes back to a point that I raised in my opening comments. If anyone thinks that a 65-day turnaround is good for economic development, it simply is not. Members have to realise that there are issues with the planning process and the delay, particularly with NI Water. Come the sixty-fourth day, we see a response from that consultee, requesting further information and funding, but effectively all that is doing is kicking the can further down the road. That approach is not sustainable, and I hope that the Minister will take away those real concerns, which I am sure other Members have, about the length of time that NI Water is taking to get back to prospective developers to improve and enhance the quality of social housing stock and other developments.

Members also mentioned the need to be prepared to take difficult decisions. That is a recognised point. I do not care what party anyone is from, we have to recognise that difficult decisions will have to be made about NI Water. We will have to prioritise and look at funding NI Water in a sustainable way to ensure that we can avoid the gridlock that will inevitably come if we do not invest sustainably.

Members came forward with solutions today, and that was very useful for the purposes of the debate. Mr Muir touched briefly on mutualisation, which found agreement and support from Mr Beggs, Dr Aiken and others. Reference was made to the Welsh Water model, and I think that deserves further scrutiny and may be of merit. It is something that the Committee can take away, but I know that the Department will also look at whether there are ways to learn from best practice and ensure that we find a sustainable way forward.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. One thing that has not been mentioned is the fact that the Minister and her Department have a duty under article 149 of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. There has been a lot of talk in the House today about money, but clearly there is a legislative requirement for the Minister to ensure that she is compliant with article 149.

Will the Member also accept that, when the Minister's officials came to Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council in January 2001, they said that they were ready to provide engineering solutions to short-term constraints where possible and would help new housing and business developments to go ahead. We have not seen any of that to date, and I would like the Minister to outline to us, at some stage, what those are.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I am sure that the Minister will come back to Mr Storey on that particular point, but we need more than words. Action is required if we are to see that housing stock coming forward.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank Mr Buckley for giving way. I will be brief. In winding, the Member has outlined his frustration that Members came to the House and welcomed the motion, then criticised it and him. Does he agree that, rather than bringing motions to the House — we will see, in the Order Papers for the weeks ahead, numerous motions to be debated — we need to bring legislation to actually enact change? One of the biggest signs of progress would be to bring legislation to the House on the mutualisation of Northern Ireland Water.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member. Indeed, I recognise the point that he has raised. However, I believe that bringing today's motion to the House has been helpful, because, while Members may have had political jibes at each other, or there may have been disagreement about what has been done in the past, it has crystallised the problems that are faced by NI Water and given the issue prominence on the Floor of the Assembly for discussion of possible solutions. If one of those possible solutions is mutualisation, that is on the record. Let us continue that conversation and ensure that we can find a sustainable solution.

We have also talked about the need for increased funding and, indeed, prudency with the money that we have.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Will the Member give way briefly?

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

This is the last one. Yes, go ahead.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I want to make a brief point as, indeed, the Minister is here. I understand that the Minister of Finance has been looking at a whole raft of issues, particularly through the fiscal commission. Maybe there is an opportunity now for the Executive parties to ask the fiscal commission to look urgently at Northern Ireland Water and its move towards mutualisation, because I understand that that is part of the work stream.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank Dr Aiken for his point. Indeed, it has been well put on the record and is one that may be explored by the Minister and others round the Executive table.

In closing, I thank Members who have contributed to the debate. It has been lively and good. It has brought forward and teased out potential avenues and solutions. Members have recognised the deepening crisis with Northern Ireland's waste water infrastructure. They have recognised the impact that that is having on housebuilding and capital investment in schools, factories and other builds. Members agree and recognise that it is a region-wide problem, the strategy and approach must recognise that reality, and sustainable funding must be put in place to ensure that that happens. Let us ensure that it happens and not let the debate be just another talking shop. Let us ensure that the comments that have been raised in the debate, and the highlighting of problems by Members, can be used productively to improve the waste water infrastructure.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

While I have got her in the Chamber, I want to thank the Minister for writing to me, promising me a new pedestrian crossing on the Ravenhill Road.

[Laughter.]

Now that it is in the Hansard record, I shall hold her to it forever. Members should take their ease until the next item of business.

I beg your pardon: I was too enthusiastic there.

[Laughter.]

All politics is local.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses concern at the deepening crisis in Northern Ireland’s waste water and sewerage infrastructure; notes the Department for Infrastructure’s Living with Water programme in Belfast; highlights the importance of adequate capacity in other parts of Northern Ireland to prevent delays to housebuilding and capital investment in critical facilities such as schools, public offices and factories; notes that addressing the weaknesses of current provision in all areas will be essential to maximising our whole region’s economic potential, including through city deals and other key levers; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to bring forward a new strategy to enhance and expand Northern Ireland’s water and sewerage infrastructure, with a particular focus on ending regional inequalities.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Members should take their ease for a few moments.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]