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Ireland steps up a gear

Water & drainage - Northern Ireland's water industry is on the cusp of radical change, Water Service development director Trevor Haslett tells Bernadette Redfern.

Northern Ireland's water infrastructure has suffered in recent years from under-funding as the government tried to balance investment with other areas of public spending.

But Water Service development director Trevor Haslett does not dwell too much on the past.

Capital investment of £735M over the next three years is being pumped in by the Department for Regional Development, with support from Northern Ireland's Strategic Investment Board.

Beyond this, the introduction of domestic water charges next year will see public funding phased out, but will for the first time give the Water Service a dependable cash flow. There is an estimated £3bn worth of work to do.

Northern Ireland's water sector workload is just about to boom, and Haslett is wholly absorbed in planning for the future.

'Traditionally the problem has been a lack of appropriate investment in the system. We have had to compete with roads, schools and hospitals and ended up with a low base level of compliance. So we have a lot of work to do, ' Haslett says.

The secure revenue stream provided by the introduction of domestic water charges allows the province's Water Service to plan workload some time ahead, and enables longer term strategic programming. This includes setting up two 20-year public private partnerships (PPP) deal worth a total of £300M, making Water Service the first UK water organisation to embark on a PPP arrangement.

Haslett says two PPPs, Project Alpha and Project Omega, are well advanced but have not yet been awarded. 'Project Alpha, for which bids are being assessed, will mop up outstanding water treatment work required to meet the requirements of the [European Union] Drinking Water Directive in five locations and is worth approximately £180M.

'Project Omega deals with three wastewater treatment sites and is worth around £120M. It has passed prequalification and successful bidders are working on the next stage, with bids due in early September, ' he reports.

Both PPP contracts have bundled together smaller projects. 'All the sites are in a similar area so it made sense to package up the work, reducing Water Service capital expenditure in the early stages, ' Haslett explains.

To get the rest of the £2.7bn worth of work done, Haslett says Water Service plans to use other delivery mechanisms that are relatively new to the sector in Northern Ireland. These include framework arrangements and design and build contracts. In addition, a new engineering and procurement directorate is to be set up to handle capital procurement and the purchase of all goods and services.

'The Water Service has introduced extensive use of design and build, both as the normal procurement route for individual capital schemes [worth over £5M] and in the case of frameworks, as it shares the risk among those stakeholders best placed to manage it, ' says Haslett.

The introduction of framework arrangements and long term planning is starting to bring stability to the Northern Ireland water sector. Combined with the surging workload heralded by the water industry spending bonanza, and government investment in other Northern Ireland infrastructure, it is encouraging contractors to move north from the Republic and establish firm roots, he adds. 'We are starting to see some of the contractors we lost to the Celtic Tiger taking a renewed interest - along with several new faces.'

In terms of construction, the Water Service's priority for the immediate future is ensuring wastewater treatment works comply with the European Union Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.

A nal warning recently from the European Commission - which could see the UK hauled before the European Court of Justice and fined hundreds of thousands of pounds - found 14 sites across the UK that were not adequately treating wastewater effluent (NCE 3 February). Nine of these locations were in Northern Ireland. Work has begun on all but two sites, and Haslett is confident that most will be compliant by the end of 2006, with the rest by the end of 2007. Whether this is good enough to prevent the EU invoking infraction proceedings and hefty fines remains to be seen.

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