NIW 'unprepared' for big freeze crisis

Published Thursday, 03 March 2011
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Northern Ireland Water was "not prepared" for the burst pipes crisis, which left 450,000 people in Northern Ireland cut off from supply over the Christmas and New Year period, the Utility Regulator has found.

Shane Lynch's inquiry said the crisis cost the company £7.5m.

"This does not reflect the considerable costs that many individual households and commercial premises incurred," the report said.

It found there was a failure of the company's executive leadership and that communication with customers was inefficient. At the height of the crisis, a million people phoned the NI Water helpline.

The report also highlighted that NIW's emergency planning for the winter freeze was deficient.

At the time it was suggested that the network was too old to cope with the unprecedented weather, however the report found that the water mains in Northern Ireland are "relatively new" compared with other parts of the UK and performed as well as could be expected.

It said: "There is no need for an immediate change in mains infrastructure investment levels. However, there is a need for some further capital investment focused on improved flexibility of mains operation and better monitoring.

"There is also a need to think about the future investment needs arising from water resources management and a changing climate."

“Many of the steps recommended within this report have already been put in place and we will press forward to implement those remaining as quickly as possible.

NIW’s interim Chief Executive, Trevor Haslett

The company's chief executive Lawrence MacKenzie resigned earlier this year after facing widespread criticism over his handling of the crisis.

But the 121-page document said that frontline operational staff did perform well during the winter freeze.

Welcoming the publication of the report, Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy said: "NI Water's response fell far short of what was needed."

"The emergency resulted in a significant failure to deliver the most basic of services to people and NI Water has to learn lessons from this especially in relation to communication with customers during such incidents."

The Utility Regulator specifically investigated the role of NI Water in the crisis, while the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister also commissioned a separate inquiry into the Department of Regional Development's role.

Commenting on the findings about his own Department, Mr Murphy said: "The report has concluded that I was fully engaged for the entire period in seeking to deal with the situation and performed all my roles and responsibilities effectively, in a manner fully consistent with the governance requirements.

"I was further reassured that my senior officials were found to have discharged their roles and responsibilities effectively throughout the freeze thaw event."

Antoinette McKeown, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council, said: "Consumers want lessons to be learned from previous failings to ensure that such a crisis is never repeated. They want concrete assurances from the Executive that changes to improve NI Water's preparation and response to supply outages, regardless of the cause, will be made with immediate effect. "

Northern Ireland Water's interim Chief Executive, Trevor Haslett, said he was fully committed to taking forward all the recommendations proposed by the Utility Regulator.

"We in Northern Ireland Water fully accept that many lessons need to be learnt from what was an exceptionally difficult time for many of our customers.

"The past year has been a difficult time for this organisation for a variety of reasons and we have been placed under the utmost scrutiny."

"I am convinced that working together with our various stakeholders and our dedicated workforce, we can provide our customers with a service that we can all be proud of."

Earlier on Thursday, a damning report by the Public Accounts Committee found that a "culture of ignoring" established procurement rules at the company led to failures totalling £46m.

© UTV News
Comments Comments
Jamesbelfast in Belfast wrote (1,427 days ago):
I think we need to get things into perspective. The report clearly stated that the weather was very unusual and there is nothing anyone coud have done to prevent it. What we experienced was similar to that in many other nothern countries who either invest heavily or make appropraite arrangements - where in most case it is private money which does so - not the taxpayer Furthermore it also mentioned that the majority of leaks where on private or commercial property so in essence NIW could do nothing about the majority of leaks even if they had both the responsibility and manpower to do so. So people of N.I. wake up - we all have to accept some responsibility both morally and financially. Yes there are lessons to be learnt not only by NIW and the relevant government minister but also the public at large. Under current rules NIW cannot go on to private property to carry out repairs.
Patrick in Newry wrote (1,427 days ago):
People get the politicans they deserve. if the people of Newry and Mourne take an interest, a proper interest, in social and political affairs and use their vote accordingly, then there is a level of accountability. They won't, they will vote for a man wrapped in a flag and they deserve whatever fine mess DRD and its future minister foists upon them in the not too distant future. If one things for sure, Conor Murphy has failed to take responsibility and said on Thursday that he would do everyhting the same way again if he had the choice. Of course, the good people of Newry and Mourne will still blindly vote for the man in the flag, and SF will queitly change ministers after the election. Like i said, people get the politicians they deserve.
Jim in Toronto wrote (1,428 days ago):
Of course Northern Ireland was unprepared for what happened. The super cold weather that occurred at the time was unprecedented. It caused widespread damage to underground water pipes and interrupted water service to the general public. Can anyone explain to me how one is supposed to be prepared for temperatures such as occurred this past winter? Short answer is, no one can. It should be considered for what it was, an act of God. Even where I live, in Canada, you would think that we of all people should be prepared ... not so. There is hardly a week goes by in winter that we don't have a broken water-main or two. Water supply is interrupted from time to time and is usually fixed within a half day or so. As a matter of fact a main broke at the bottom of my sons street around 11pm Christmas eve night and the guys worked to fix it until about 3am. It happens. The weather and temperatures that you had over that period was unusual and extreme and under these circumstances NIW did the best they could.
Tommy in Limavady wrote (1,428 days ago):
Talk about stating the obvious, the dogs on the street could have wrote this report. How many thousands did this take, pure shambles the lot of them in the Big House. Knock it down and put up the Big Top, they might perform better in it. CLOWNS!!!
Billy in Belfast wrote (1,428 days ago):
Time for the Electorate to put aside their political differences and for Northern Ireland Public also to put aside their religious differences and hold these Clowns to account in May Elections. We fought each other for Centuries and we deserve better Government that this current Circus. All sides of the Political Divide needs to get ourselves a workable Government that is fit for purpose.
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