Friday, 29 June 2012
Northern Ireland, is it time for water charges?
If you live in the UK you've almost certainly either heard of or been affected by flash flooding over the past 2 days. The infrastructure that's supposed to deal with excess water and avoid the situations seen across the country just hasn't been adequate resulting in widespread calls for better and more efficient drainage systems. I want to focus on Belfast, Northern Ireland and why it's in a unique situation compared to the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland is unique because it does not pay water charges, is it time for a change?
£135 million pounds, that's the cost to bring Northern Ireland's water and sewage systems up to minimum EU standards. The fact that Northern Ireland needs that size of an investment shows just how poor the existing system is and goes a long way in explaining the scenes over the past number of days, but where will that money come from without introducing water charges?
The simple answer is money would have to be taken away from other projects in the Department for Regional Development's budget or if necessary re-allocate funds from other departments. Saying that it's highly unlikely that money would be taken from other departments, Northern Ireland is financially strained in almost every government department and taking money from schools, hospitals, the emergency services and other areas to prevent flooding is never going to happen meaning money would have to come from the existing DRD budget.
The DRD has an annual budget of £926m, £342m of which is for water and sewage services. It seems like a lot but remember that the £342m for water and sewage doesn't include the £135m required to improve the existing system. The question is whether Northern Ireland is willing to sacrifice things like better roads and resurfacing programmes to make up the additional money? I've no doubt that anyone with flood damage would say that's a fair trade but in reality it isn't. I don't want to go into a lot of a detail as to why it isn't a fair trade but for example sacrificing better roads would affect everything from the already ailing economy to response times for emergency services, from tourism revenue to unemployment levels, the list goes on. The money has to come from another source, water charges.
As of 2011 Northern Ireland had around 720,000 households, if each was to pay the proposed £400 in water charges the DRD could generate upwards of £250m a year in addition to their existing budget. That would be more than enough to cover a substantial upgrade to the system and more importantly keep it up to date for the foreseeable future.
Gone are the days of direct rule when parliament would throw money at Northern Ireland in an attempt to further the peace process, the money has to come from within. Political parties have used water charges to gain votes, it helped their cause in the short term but ultimately isn't a sustainable position long term. Northern Ireland has a simple choice, introduce water charges or get used to the scenes of the last few days because unless something changes it's going to happen again.
*Article was written on the 29th of June 2012 following flash floods in Belfast*