NI officials champion water reform

Years of underinvestment, public expenditure constraints and the need to meet statutory regulatory obligations while future-proofing against climate change are just a few of the important challenges facing Northern Ireland as it prepares its second, three-year business plan.

Over 130 delegates from across the UK packed the Hilton Belfast for WWT's first conference, Water NI 2009: Meeting the challenges, where they learned from the industry's most senior officials that, despite fundamental uncertainty over funding and future governance, there is a widely shared commitment to progress and bedding down the reformed water industry structure.

"We need to show leadership," said Ronan Larkin, director of finance and regulation at NIW, in a mood of dogged optimism shared by all the speakers. "NIW inherited an aging infrastructure, poor data, inefficient systems and a loss of Crown Immunity on day one. But we don't complain. There is strength to be found in this."

As if to remind delegates the circumstances NIW operates in are not the easiest, Conor Murphy, minister for regional development (DRD), was unable to make the conference because his home had been attacked the previous night. His speech, given by John Mills, Water Policy Director at DRD, reiterated uncertainty around funding and confirmed the minister's recent advice to postpone the introduction of charging by householders for another two years.

NIW was to be self-financing by now, according to the original plan handed over by Direct Rule ministers in 2007, but one of the first actions of the devolved government was to remove charging and initiate a two pronged review of charging and water service governance.

Jo Aston, director of water regulation at the Utilities Regulator, was optimistic despite what she called the "impossibly tight time-frame" for PC10 (2010-2013). Water reform in NI was needed, she said, because of legal infractions, the need for longer term planning for water resources strategy and to drive down costs and improve efficiency. The Utility Regulator's challenge, she said, was to be accountable to the assembly and not to a minister, and independence was very important.

Her plea, referring to the still-awaited consultation on governance of the water sector, was that the new structure be given a chance to work.

"We're all very young and I hope we're able to grow up together and make it happen," she said. All speakers agreed that putting NI's water infrastructure right would require long-term planning and secure resources. A full report will appear in July's WWT.

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