NI Water: Funding Crisis

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 22nd November 2021.

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Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 3:15 pm, 22nd November 2021

T2. Mr Muir asked the Minister for Infrastructure what she is doing to address the funding crisis in Northern Ireland Water, given that the soaring energy costs are hitting households, businesses and public bodies, including Northern Ireland Water, resulting in a bid of £20 million in the October monitoring round, of which only £1·5 million was received, and it has been detailed by the Minister that the impact of that could be pollution and issues with the quality of tap water. (AQT 1812/17-22)

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member raises a crucial issue. Northern Ireland Water is the largest electricity consumer in Northern Ireland, and, as a consequence of rising power costs, it has reported an increase in requirement of £19·7 million to cover the rising cost of energy. Northern Ireland Water submitted a bid for that amount in October monitoring, but, as Mr Muir highlighted, its resource budget was allocated only an additional £1·5 million. Northern Ireland Water indicates that, should power costs remain at record high levels, there could be further resource pressure of as much as £5 million before the end of the financial year.

The constrained October monitoring outcome significantly increases the risk of Northern Ireland Water not being able to deliver core services in the event that it cannot be sufficiently funded for the remainder of the financial year. The impact of rising energy costs has placed the sustainability of an effective and efficient water and sewerage service under extreme pressure. Living within current budget allocations during this period of unprecedented rising energy costs significantly increases the possibility of a detrimental impact on the delivery of that essential public health utility.

With just over four months of the financial year remaining, it is clear that that level of pressure cannot be absorbed without serious consequences and major impacts. I am engaging with the Minister of Finance and other Executive colleagues to ensure that they are fully aware of the consequences of the decision not to allocate the required funding to Northern Ireland Water.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Minister for her response. I find it incredible that, just a few weeks after COP26, we in this place are debating funding for water and sewerage infrastructure and also for public transport. In the Minister's recent correspondence with the Infrastructure Committee, she said that the impact of the lack of funding on Translink's financial resilience and on the organisation as a going concern were major concerns for the board.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Does the Minister agree that, in discussions about funding, prevention is sometimes much better than cure? Looking at public health around Northern Ireland, we see that we need to embrace funding for cleaner alternatives.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Our public transport network is a critical public service. It is key to protecting our environment and to tackling social injustice, because many people who are reliant on our public transport network cannot afford cars. If we are serious about tackling the climate crisis, we absolutely should invest in and expand our public transport network. Across all parties, we talk about the importance of the climate emergency and making sure that we deal with it robustly, but we will not do that if we do not invest in our public transport network.

I will therefore continue to make the case at the Executive for public transport and for Northern Ireland Water. Particularly in the case of Northern Ireland Water, unless additional funding becomes available, there will inevitably be service reductions. The greatest impact is likely to be seen in waste water treatment, creating possible pollution and other environmental impacts. I look across the House and to the Committee in particular to make the case for the critical investment that is required in our public transport network and in Northern Ireland Water.