04/03/2011

NI Water Takes Blame For Freeze Chaos

Northern Ireland Water was ill prepared to deal with the Christmas water crisis that left 450,000 people without mains supply.

A report by the Utility Regulator has found that the winter freeze - that cost the company £7.5m - and saw a million people phoning the NI Water (NIW) helpline at one time proved it to be poorly prepared to deal with the magnitude of the crisis.

However, a separate report, also published this week, is supportive of how the Department of Regional Development handled the crisis.

The Stormont Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy was at the centre of a storm of controversy surrounding failures in management at NIW.

But the independent report, compiled by Phil Holder and Heather Moorhead for the First & Deputy First Ministers' Office, concluded that his Department acted in a "manner consistent with its governance requirements in relation to Northern Ireland Water" and vindicated the Minister responsible.

It considered both the role of NI Water and the role of the Department for Regional Development (DRD) and its Minister throughout the incident.

Sinn Fein Minister Murphy said: "There is no doubt that during the incident, that despite the efforts of NI Water staff and contractors, 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."

Shane Lynch, the Utility Regulator's Chief Executive said of his report: "Our investigation establishes that the execution of NI Water's emergency planning procedures was deficient, its communications were very ineffective and there was a failure in the necessary executive leadership within the company during the freeze/thaw incident."

NI Water Chief Executive Laurence MacKenzie resigned in the wake of the crisis, having blamed the rapid thaw, after a period of record low temperatures, for causing an unprecedented amount of burst pipes in the system.

In conclusion, the Minister added: "NI Water are already taking forward the implementation of actions points and immediate lessons learnt relating to the (freeze-thaw) incident and the conclusions and recommendations in this report will form an important part of strengthening their response to any future severe weather incidents."

Meanwhile, Minister Murphy also said confirmation that the Government-owned company had effectively mishandled the allocation of contracts worth £46m proved he was correct in sacking four members of the NIW board last year.

He said a Public Accounts Committee report that criticised the oversight of NIW provided by Conor Murphy's Department was also confirmation that they had effectively mishandled the allocation of lucrative contracts

Conor Murphy commented: "This report clearly confirms there was a culture of disregard for procurement processes in the company which led to serious failings in procurement procedures totalling £46m.

"These findings vindicate the actions I took to address this, including the removal of four non-executive directors at NI Water over a separate issue.

"I tackled these issues head on - such was the seriousness of the procurement governance failings at NI Water that were brought to my attention."

(BMcC/GK)

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