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Water charges ruled out in NI to address underinvestment

Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd has ruled out water charges as a way of addressing years of underinvestment in Northern Ireland’s public water and sewerage system.

Speaking ahead of a debate in the Stormont Assembly tomorrow Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd said charges were not the solution for the future funding of NI Water.

NI Water is a state-owned utility which is the sole supplier of drinking water and sewerage services to 710,000 households and businesses.

In 2021-22 the Department of Infrastructure funded it to the tune of £318m.

It supplies 605 million litres of clean water and treats 362 million litres of wastewater a day.

John O’Dowd said the solution to years of underinvestment did not lie in charging families (file image)

Its problems include leaks from pipes carrying drinking water and overflows from pipes which carry both rainwater and sewage.

It has struggled for years with its funding model and has argued that a new one is required, saying a lack of investment is holding back development in more than 100 towns.

Mr O’Dowd said current challenges were the result of underfunding by successive British governments.

“The solution therefore does not lie in charging hard-pressed workers and families for an essential public service,” he said.

He added: “I am in no doubt that we can collectively find the solution by truly and demonstrably valuing essential public services such as water and funding them appropriately.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly will debate an Ulster Unionist motion which acknowledges existing failings in the system and calls on Mr O’Dowd to “provide a detailed options paper on restructuring NI Water to include consideration of mutualisation”.

The issue of water charges has been a thorny one in Northern Ireland for years.

People pay an annual property charge based on the valuation of their homes. That helps fund public services including infrastructure development.

The threat of separate water charges has been used several times by the British government as a means of encouraging the restoration of power-sharing – most recently during negotiations around the most recent collapse.

A recent report by Northern Ireland’s Audit Office showed that £2.1 billion in capital investment is required to maintain and enhance the existing water and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

Creaking wastewater infrastructure has been responsible for numerous pollution incidents affecting water quality.

Between 2017 and 2021 there were 572 pollution events linked to sewerage works.


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