From yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph:
The last week has been highly frustrating for nearly 60,000 householders in Northern Ireland unable to access the water supply, and soon became an international embarrassment for us all. Yet, amid the talk of heads rolling and the inevitable buck passing, those responsible for the shambles have struck upon a common foe to blame for it all – the “Troubles”.
From Environment Minister Edwin Poots to NI Water’s own spokesperson Liam Mulholland, the “historic underinvestment due to the Troubles” has been the easiest thing to blame. That way, no one needs to take responsibility for the shambles, and Ministers and officials can all remain in position while the rest of us make do without water.
This is unacceptable, partly because it is simply not true, and partly because it suggests those with seniority (and paid accordingly) have no responsibility.
Firstly, the current shambles is due partly to decisions made within the past year by the Minister responsible. Only in January it is known that NI Water’s Chief Executive offered to resign, yet the result of this a few months later was not only his maintenance in position but the removal of four NI Water Board members – notably, four members with significantly more experience of the actual service they were delivering than those appointed by the Minister to replace them. If NI Water is “unfit for purpose” (as it is according to the First Minister) then those Ministerial decisions had a lot to do with it. This has nothing to do with what was going on decades ago, and everything to do with decisions taken just months ago.
Secondly, it is true that there was underinvestment in Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure, but the failure to tackle this has little to do with the “Troubles” and more to do with the unwillingness to do in Northern Ireland what was done in England (privatisation) or Scotland (effectively mutualisation) – both of which involved household charges for water. These moves, in both those jurisdictions, allowed for the necessary investment to be made in the water and sewerage infrastructure without depleting funds for other public services. This problem was as obvious at the height of the “Troubles” or upon restoration of devolution as it is now – but all those making great play of their determination to avoid water charges (i.e. avoid reform of the water/sewerage infrastructure at all) forgot to mention the penalty for that avoidance, namely the one 60,000 householders have just paid.
Thirdly, the greatest frustration put to me by constituents in affected areas was not that the water system had failed, but the appalling lack of communication. Where NIE has an emergency hotline for elected representatives and the PSNI makes great use of social media such as Facebook to keep people informed, NI Water had no such structure. Queries by phone were impossible, queries in writing went unresponded to, and what information did appear was inaccurate. On top of all that, NI Water spent its time effectively blaming householders rather than demonstrating any empathy with those struggling to cope with their failures. This has nothing to do with the “Troubles”, or even political failure – it is simply gross incompetence.
I spent much of the past year compiling the research and briefings for the “Breakthrough NI” report on tackling poverty and exclusion here. If there was one headline to come out of the finals report it was that the “Troubles” cannot be used as an excuse for inaction on such serious issues. While not wishing to understate the impact of decades of communal violence, Belfast and its hinterland have social problems much in line with those of any other post-industrial city in the British Isles. The fact that it also has a devolved settlement with local legislators is supposed to be an advantage so that they are more responsive to local people’s needs and aspirations, not a licence for highly paid Ministers and officials to shirk all responsibility by blaming the past for all the ills of the present. The political refusal to act on tackling worklessness, or educational underachievement, or rising debt levels – rather than just blaming everyone else and/or the past for the problem – is just as inexcusable as the inactivity in delivering proper water facilities and competent communications structures.
Devolved Ministers have all the trappings of seniority – plush offices, chauffer-driven cars, well-paid advisers, good salaries – and no one will begrudge them that provided they take responsibility for their departments and for their actions. The challenges they have to meet and the questions they have to answer with regard to water (or indeed other public services) have not changed, during or after the “Troubles”.
Those challenges and questions have always related not to the past, but to the future. What structural changes are to be made to NI Water to ensure it is fit for purpose and that people with relevant expertise are in position to deliver this essential service? How is the money to be raised to invest in water infrastructure to the same standard as that elsewhere in the UK? What fundamental reforms are to be made to our public service delivery systems to ensure they function effectively round the clock and that information is accurate and efficiently publicised?
It is plain that the current Minister – subservient to his own officials, already involved in a corporate governance shambles at NI Water, and primarily responsible for the failures over proper gritting of footpaths before Christmas – does not have the confidence even of his own colleagues to deliver on any of this. Those guilty of the gross incompetence surrounding the whole shambles in the delivery of an essential public service have no business remaining in position either.
However, calling for heads to roll is the easy bit – which is no doubt why so many people are doing it. Delivering the necessary reforms of corporate governance, infrastructure finance and public service delivery is much harder. To do this, our Ministers and senior officials must forget about blaming the past, and get on with shaping the future.