Hosepipe ban controversy ‘just one of many reasons why NI Assembly needed’

A DUP politician has said the contentious legal basis for the Province’s hosepipe ban just serves to show why the Assembly should be revived.

Peter Weir, trained barrister and MLA for Strangford, said the controversy about the matter is “symptomatic” of the political doldrums in which the Province now finds itself thanks to Sinn Fein blocking a return to power-sharing.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Water said it was sticking resolutely to its position, following a News Letter investigation which found the legal basis for its hosepipe ban lacks solid foundation.

NI Water also indicated the number of people in breach of the ban has now risen.

On July 6, the BBC reported that about 140 breaches had been reported to NI Water (which was the body responsible for enforcing the ban, rather than the police).

Today NI Water said the number of breaches was 273.

But it added that – despite a threat of a criminal record and £1,000 fine for falling foul of the ban – “no-one has been penalised” for any breaches.

The ban came into force on June 29. At time of writing, it remained in place.

An investigation by the News Letter’s Sam McBride stated the far-reaching nature of the ban – which includes watering a garden, cleaning a car, washing windows, cleaning paths, and filling paddling pools – is based on Great British legislation, not applicable in Northern Ireland.

What NI law does specifically allow, under Article 116 of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, is a ban on watering gardens or washing cars.

The greater powers available in Great Britain are as a result of the law being extended there in 2010 to close down loopholes in hosepipe bans.

This extension did not happen in Northern Ireland.

Given that there was no functioning devolved government when Northern Ireland’s ban was introduced (the first such ban for decades), no politicians were able to extend the scope of the Province’s older style law. Instead, any such change would have to be made by politicians in London.

Mr Weir, education minister before Stormont’s collapse last year, said “in the grand scheme of things, it may be seen as one of the more minor aspects” of the Stormont impasse, but that the issue is part of a “huge queue” of largely uncontroversial matters which devolved-level politicians now cannot deal with.

“Which is why we consistently said we didn’t believe the Assembly should have been brought down in the first place,” he said.

“It’s some of those practical issues which, if you’re looking to make a degree of change, actually require legislation. It’s symptomatic of a wider issue.

“Certainly the DUP stands ready to restore [the Assembly] tomorrow. I think it is particularly one party standing in the way of that.”

NI Water insisted Northern Ireland’s 2006 law “has been interpreted correctly” by it, and it is “content that the prohibitions contained within the hosepipe ban notice are in line with it”.

It added: “The ban was introduced following consideration and having sought both in-house and external legal opinion.”