Saturday, January 1, 2011

What a way to run a water service

The statement ‘nothing of note has happened over the Christmas period’ in my last post now looks rather foolish. When I wrote it, thousands of people had already been without water for several days, and since then the crisis has (I hope) peaked but not yet been entirely resolved. Many people have been working very hard to improve the situation, including Belfast City Council, the Red Cross, lots of politicians from all parties, Stephen Nolan and others in the media, and of course the employees of Northern Ireland Water.

It’s been announced that there will be a full inquiry into the ‘operational failure’, and ominously, the Secretary of State is making noises about changes to the structure and financing of water services in NI, making it clear that privatisation should be on the agenda. But the real difference between NI and elsewhere in the UK is that, in NI, large-scale investment is more recent. Scotland’s water isn’t privatised and they have coped better.

As well as an inquiry into the event itself, a strategic review is needed which should cover the following five points, which seem to me as a voter, taxpayer and water consumer to form a suitable framework for delivering an efficient water service:

1. A safe supply: this hasn’t currently been an issue here, but ask Galway residents about the possibilities. Safety must always be the first priority.

2. Conservation measures: Reservoirs have been low or empty recently due to burst pipes, but could be so in future due to heavier usage. The water agency needs to put out the message that water conservation does not have to affect health. The people who know about this are the Australians.

3. Method(s) of investment in infrastructure: The issues here are how to increase investment levels, how to implement a programme of improvements more quickly, and how investment will be repaid. It also seems odd that there are plans to sell off reservoirs.

4. Methods(s) of payment for water: This is currently the most controversial and politically unpopular aspect of water policy, although in future conservation measure may take over. A review should look at all options for revenue generation, including water rates; other rates and tax options; water meters; and penalties for businesses and landlords who cause significant loss of water through poor maintenance. The basic principles of water charging should be that the less well off are not penalised disproportionately, and the most difficult aspect of this is how to create a fair charging system that takes into account different household sizes. A means-tested water charge for minimum use per person plus a top-up meter system might work. Whatever about the detail, water rates should not be ruled out for populist reasons. The best argument against water rates is that it creates a separate revenue stream for the service, which then makes privatisation easier. I’m not aware that any politician in NI wants a privatised water supply, in which case the favoured option may be an increase in the regional rate.

5. Day to day management of the supply: need I say more? Review governance and leadership capacity as well as structure and communications.

It’s been interesting to observe the buck-passing once calls for resignations started. The Minister is blaming NI Water senior management and says he has no cause to resign. Senior managers are blaming the weather and under-investment. There have been a few comments elsewhere about recent changes in Board membership, but no suggestion that non-executive Board members should resign or be replaced (again). This incident should provoke a debate about accountability in Government Owned Companies.


DC said...

Trouble is that while no politicians have been calling for privitisation - I wonder what the public will think now?

Because even if the regional rate is increased to collect more money for the water system - and no one resigns over this recent disaster the public could view that as the State winning out as a vested interest in and of itself; if no one goes yet the public still pays more for failure the State has protected its own.

Rather than boost the morale in the concept of publicly run services, SF has ruined the notion of socialised services - throwing up all the old problems which were debated back in Britain during 70/80s - that politicians and group thinkers should not and cannot run public services efficiently.

So while the State will go ahead and charge water users more using the rates system - the public's confidence in the concept of the state running services must be well and truly knocked.

I think a few resignations would put more confidence back into the state and boost its leadership and ability to be seen to run things properly for the public, whether water or education (another topic and perhaps another resignation for another day).

Jenny Muir said...

Hmmm, not sure this will change the lack of public support here for privatisation, because there really isn't any at all.

More likely it'll turn into a political bunfight (which is happening already) and expose the weakness of enforced coalition. And then when charges of some kind have to be introduced (which they will), no politician will be prepared to take responsibility.

I think there is also likely to be a story about governance which we've not yet heard - how influential has the Minister been over the past few months instead of the Board? And today we hear UK Water wasn't called in - why not? Who knew?

nick said...

There seems to be a general consensus that the problem is underfunding and lack of a water charge. But according to NI Water the main problem is not money but the huge number of burst pipes in private and commercial premises which were (and still are) draining huge amounts of water from the reservoirs, aggravated by the properties being empty for the Xmas holiday and nobody shutting off the water.

If water-users could be fined for wasting water, or all usage was via water meters, this huge loss of water wouldn't have happened.

Jenny Muir said...

Nick, I'm sure this is a contributory factor but not the whole story, it's a very complex picture. But I agree, people responsible for premises that are unoccupied during holiday periods should be responsible for checking them.

andrewg said...

As a Galway resident, I can assure you that an unsafe supply is preferable to no supply at all. Unsafe water fills the radiators quite nicely, and if necessary can be filtered and/or boiled. The problems in NI now are of a completely different order.

andrewg said...

Oh, and sorry for the double post, but the last people we should be looking to for water conservation advice are the Australians. I've been there several times and the waste is shocking. Tub washing machines, large shower heads, garden sprinklers running in the middle of the day. They are the world's largest users of water per head.

Jenny Muir said...

Andrew - welcome. I must admit I hadn't thought that unsafe water has its place, it's just that I think our governments should be aiming higher, by and large! - but I take your point. Have there been any incidents on Galway of poeple not being aware that the water is unsafe or has the information been well disseminated?

And re. Australia - my experiences were different and changed my view about water conservation. I did observe some waste but certainly not in the gardens, where people seemed to be keeping to the regulations. I suppose I meant, though, that in policy terms the Australians area ware there's a problem and are at least in theory gearing up to deal with it, whereas here we don't value water at all.

andrewg said...


In Galway during the boil water notice, people talked of little else! Of course, before the problem had been identified there were several people who came down with cryptosporidiosis and I'm sure a few afterwards. But we didn't have it as bad as others - nearby in Gort, they have had boil water notices on and off for the last three years as the local council have struggled to bring the local reservoir up to standard. It's remarkable what you can get used to...

Jenny Muir said...

The last three years... Do you thik the councils are capable of running a water service, by and large? Reading the Irish Times last week I though Dublin seem to have been doing well, but perhaps economies of scale elsewhere would be a better idea.

andrewg said...

There's also the distance factor - it's relatively cheap to build a new reservoir in the hills above Dublin, compared to supplying a large rural area with often challenging terrain. Water provision here on the west coast has traditionally been patchy. For example, there is still no clean running water in the village of Kilreekil. There has been talk of a national water board along the lines of NI Water, but unfortunately the latest news from up north hasn't helped sell the idea.

Jenny Muir said...

I can understand that! But I would have though cost-sharing in those circumstances would help, and of course there are various models of national water boards. Unfortunately a single service board does lend itself to privatisation and at least politicians in NI have no appetite for that.

andrewg said...

A single board is actually a barrier to (successful) privatisation - although I'll admit that hasn't stopped some governments before. A public monopoly is preferable to a private monopoly, but diversity of supply is preferable to both.