ANGLERS and environmentalists are rightly angry at the disclosure NI Water has successfully appealed large fines for pollution incidents. The agency is ‘more interested in avoiding heavy fines than avoiding serious pollution’ claims Friends of the Earth. NI Water says it appeals less than one in 10 cases and has a duty to ‘safeguard public money’. Both are correct. It is too easy to demonize any one group of people, the water agency, industry or the farming community, and make them the environment’s number one enemy when the real problem, and its solution, lies in the political arena.
Northern Ireland has an outdated water and sewage system, largely built by the Victorians, which is in dire need of huge investment to make it fit for the 21st century. A Conservative central government will not pay for this and European funding is no longer available thanks to Brexit. The bulk of the money must be found here and we either pay for it through rates levied on home owners and businesses or a pay-as-you-use system which involves the installation of water meters at every household.
The Irish Republic is wrestling with the same problem which has provoked protests in the street. In England and Wales the water industry was sold to the private sector and every home receives a water bill alongside energy bills. In Scotland a middle course was steered by creating a publicly owned water company. However the Scottish government can raise investment through taxation unlike the Northern Ireland Executive.
Alongside this investment must come an effective watchdog in the form of an independent environmental protection agency with the power to provide a real deterrent for those who willfully damage the countryside with pollution, whether state agency, private company or citizen.
By imposing punative fines on NI Water, a publicly funded agency, we are merely fining ourselves, the ratepayers and taxpayers, and failing to grasp the nettle. Successive administrations at Stormont have dodged this problem because no major party wishes to be seen to put up taxes. This failure of leadership means we must live with poor quality beaches, such as Ballyholme in Bangor, and regular fish kills such as the one which destroyed the beautiful Carrigs river in County Down earlier this year.