UNITE THE UNION has condemned budget cuts imposed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, after a report emerged revealing that Northern Ireland’s Department for Infrastructure is actively considering a policy of ceasing wastewater treatment entirely.

Northern Ireland Water is a Government owned company set up in April 2007 to provide water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland. The company now sits as an Agency within the Department for Infrastructure.

The policy consideration comes as a result of the budget set by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 27 April 2023. That left a £691 million (24 per cent)  funding gap, necessitating the Department for Infrastructure to consider “a number of unpalatable options”.

In a preliminary equality impact assessment screening, the Department for Infrastructure assessed the impacts that would follow the cessation of waste water treatment by Northern Ireland Water. The report confirmed that it “would result in the discharge of screened raw sewage at coastal wastewater treatment works”, reducing the percentage of the population served by compliant waste water treatment works to only 25 per cent.

The policy would mean the pumping of wastewater to treatment works would cease, resulting in, “blockages in sewer networks and the likelihood of out of sewer flooding into homes and businesses and onto public streets”.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham blasted the austerity budget being enforced by Chris Heaton-Harris in Northern Ireland: “The Secretary of State’s plan is clear. The people of Northern Ireland have to pay for the crisis. Workers paid for the last economic crisis in ten years of austerity. Not this time round.

“The fact that the Department for Infrastructure is actively considering imposing a move that would devastate water quality and breach statutory responsibilities demonstrates the total disregard the government have for this the most vital of public services. Unite will not stand by and watch this government dismantle local services, public health and the environment.”

Unite represents the majority of those employed in waste water treatment both directly by Northern Ireland Water and by outsourced providers. Regional Officer for NI Water is Joanne McWilliams who said: “At a time when water companies across Great Britain are committing to investing additional funds in wastewater infrastructure, it is very difficult to understand how our own Government would be advocating cuts to wastewater provision here in Northern Ireland.

“It is worth noting that the Department for Infrastructure, as shareholder, has received over £450m in dividend payments since 2007.  Our members have worked tirelessly since the formation of NI Water to deliver improvements in customer service and efficiency.

“Our members working in Northern Ireland Water will not sit back idly and watch as austerity budgets decimate a critical public service, devastate our environment and threaten public health. We need a needs based budget from Westminster that will adequately fund public services in Northern Ireland.”

* Source: Unite the Union