Warning over under-funding of NI’s buses, trains and water system

Concern has been raised over the finances of Northern Ireland’s water and public transport services.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 9th August 2021, 9:28 pm
A Translink-run Ulsterbus
A Translink-run Ulsterbus

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly highlighted a “chronic underfunding” of water and waste water services.

He also said that “ongoing funding uncertainty” was a “significant risk to the financial sustainability” of Translink.

In a report to the Stormont Assembly, Mr Donnelly said public sector expenditure constraints over recent years had resulted in the annual budget allocation for the Department for Infrastructure falling short of meeting its needs.

He said against that “already challenging backdrop”, the Covid-19 pandemic “continues to have a major impact on the finances of Translink and NI Water”.

Mr Donnelly noted additional funding for NI Water to address losses in non-domestic charges due to many businesses being closed at the peak at the coronavirus pandemic.

But he said there was a “lack of clarity” in terms of the future.

“There has been chronic underfunding for water and wastewater services and funding levels have fallen below the required levels determined by the Utility Regulator,” he said.

“Having the right drinking water and sewerage infrastructure is essential to enable economic growth and development and requires a sustainable funding model.”

Mr Donnelly said the January 2020 New Decade New Approach deal, which resurrected power-sharing government at Stormont, “recognised the need for urgent investment in wastewater infrastructure which is at, or nearing, capacity in many places”.

“That commitment is welcomed and the DfI, NI Water and other stakeholders must continue to work together to develop a sustainable funding model that keeps pace with the need for investment,” he said.

Turning to Translink, Mr Donnelly said use of public transport fell to just 5% of the normal levels in mid April 2020 as the public abided by the Government’s stay at home message in the battle against Covid-19.

He said the department received more funding for public transport and was able to significantly increase funding.

However, he said despite this increased funding, uncertainty around funding for future years remains, and Translink anticipates a significant loss in 2021-22.

“As Northern Ireland’s main public transport provider, Translink provides an essential public service that is a key component in supporting economic growth and social inclusion. Investment in our public transport network can also contribute to addressing environmental issues such as congestion and climate change,” Mr Donnelly said.

“The ongoing funding uncertainty is a significant risk to the financial sustainability of Translink.

“The Department for Infrastructure and Translink need to work with all departments within the NI Executive and the private sector to develop a long term public transport strategy which considers all options for the delivery of a sustainable public transport network to support the NI economy in the future.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) said: “Given the importance of our public transport network in tackling the climate crisis, connecting communities and contributing to economic and social wellbeing, the minister will continue to engage with her executive colleagues to secure sufficient funding for our public transport services as part of the executive’s overall commitment to improve the lives of all of our citizens.

“In terms of water and wastewater services, the minister has been clear in ensuring that the executive is aware of the scale of investment required to improve the capacity in our wastewater infrastructure, and of the cross-cutting benefits that this will bring in terms of economic growth, environmental safety and enabling connections for additional public housing.

“The minister has provided the full level of funding as determined by the Utility Regulator for the first year of the new Price Control (PC21 2021-22), however sustainable funding is critical if we are to deliver this vital service as efficiently as possible and to deliver the necessary improvements.”

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