Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Rates update

Following on from my rates blog focussing on the crisis in Mid and East Antrim Borough Council I decided to check how council was dealing with staffing issues in a financially constrained environment given that most expenditure is related to staffing costs.

Last year I had asked for comparison figures for the number of staff in 4 different categories in 2015 at the councils creation and on 1st June 2023. Since then I sought the same figures for 1st February 2024. The results are in the table below

Employees – Full time.  P/T.   Fixed term.  Agency
01 June 2015     530.     163.      26.                102

01 June 2023.    513.     112.      28.                189

01 Feb 2024.      526.      116.     19.                184

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that an organisation in the midst of a financial crisis would review it’s staffing complement, especially where close to 25% of the staffing complement are agency workers, some having been in the same position for many years with fewer employee rights than their co-workers.

Since the beginning of the council elected representatives have demanded that this issue is addressed, under the previous administration this was resisted vehemently. Councillors must now challenge this administration and its relationship with a number of recruitment agencies especially those which have been in place for many years. One wonders if councillors are being provided with all the information they require to fulfil their roles.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

NIW challenges

Following concerns raised by social housing providers about conditions being applied to planning applications on behalf of NIW preventing development the following FOI was submitted to NIW.

“Can you provide, for each council area, the planning reference numbers for each residential development where NIW has recommended refusal on the basis of insufficient waste infrastructure from 1st September 2022.”

The response is attached.

A small number of applications where NIW have recommended refusal have been granted approval after further engagement between the applicant and NIW. The solutions have included small developments of 1-2 properties where the need to connect to the foul sewer is replaced with the use of an STW, the opportunity to do this is limited by the size of the site and need for separation distance.

In major residential developments a considerable developer contribution to the enhancement of the sewage network has allowed the scheme to proceed. The resulting network development will also facilitate the development of further housing schemes numbering in the hundreds of properties. While this is seen as a developer contribution the reality is that the additional investment is reflected in the purchase price of individual properties, essentially a sewage levy. Given that it is paid through increased mortgage payments this represents an additional hidden tax burden which contributes to cost of living pressures and contributes to house price inflation especially where construction is curtailed in other areas. Such approaches are possible in a very small number of larger schemes where the capital investment can be recouped, for small schemes this is not an option. It is also not an option for social housing schemes where the construction is delivered on a fixed contract cost per unit.

Where other approvals have been issued these have been conditioned, some with a requirement to agree a solution with NIW before development starts, alternatively no development above sub floor level without agreement on a solution with NIW or no occupation of completed development without agreement on a solution. In practice, while this allows planning service to process applications, this acts as a barrier to investment. Developer led social housing projects cannot proceed without unencumbered planning permission, small scale development is blocked until a solution is found. While building to sub-floor level or even completion keeps the planning permission live there is no incentive to build without clarity on the return on investment period.

Belfast City Council Planning Department have taken the approach of setting aside NIW concerns about capacity of the system with the following form of words or similar, the recent approval for hotel accommodation in Chichester Street Belfast was despite a NIW recommendation to refuse.

“NI Water has objected to the proposal on the basis that there is insufficient waste water treatment capacity available to service the proposed development. They have also advised that the foul sewer network cannot presently serve this development proposal without significant risk of environmental harm and detrimental impact on existing properties. Importantly, NI Water makes allowance for existing significant committed development across the city. Such development, which includes un-implemented permissions across the city, will not all come forward at once.” LA04/2022/2216/F Centre House, 69 - 87 Chichester Street, Belfast 146 bedrooms

Belfast City Council estimate there are 20,000 properties where approval has been granted and development has not proceeded to completion. This situation will only continue until these are developed or NIW provide a detailed analysis of risk acceptable to the City Council. The potential exists for a significant release of foul water into the environment at a point in the future.

Causeway Coast and Glens Council have now taken the approach that applications will not be accepted without a pre-existing recommendation for approval from NIW. This reduces the time that applications remain in the system, comparable to issuing approvals with unachievable conditions, again designed to meet processing targets.

In the process of assessing these applications it was noted that an application in Mid and East Antrim for a light industrial unit required for an inward investment leading to 60 jobs had recently been approved with a condition requiring NIW approval before construction. A further FOI was submitted based on the original FOI request but focussed on non-residential development and the response is attached.

An application in Fermanagh and Omagh was granted approval subject to the approval of a flood evacuation plan, the granting of applications in high risk areas with flood evacuation plans is something that should be reviewed at Departmental level.

NIW requires significant short-medium term structural investment, without which all development is at risk impacting housing prices, social housing provision, economic development and key infrastructure such as schools and medical facilities in a number of key geographic areas. Options for increasing investment as part of a mutualisation framework need to brought forward.

NIW is neither funded through the rates, nor are its services free, notwithstanding the belief that the third rail of payment cannot be touched politically, the long-term financial certainty it requires must be addressed in some way. An absolute restructuring of the rates system, at neutral cost to business and residential ratepayers may provide options.

A number of developers are considering how to reduce system demand in line with other areas where water supply is limited. Currently NIW estimate a usage level of 145 Litres per person per day. The introduction of grey water systems, low flush toilets, low water usage washing machines, dishwashers and showers has the potential to reduce this below 100 litres. This reduces demand on the sewage system, making their argument for being given access to existing infrastructure. This also reduces the cost to NIW of providing clean water which remains a significant energy using process. In the medium to long term such an approach may need to be regulated through building control regulations/standards. Metering obviously provides an incentive to reduce costs but again, for now, that is not considered a politically acceptable option.

Questions need to be raised with Invest NI and the Department of Economy in relation to the limits on economic development occasioned by NIW to question whether investors are being directed away from those areas with limited or no capacity for treatment of foul water.

Further enquiries were made of DAERA and NIW in relation to testing for Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS). The responses are attached, while NIW has been testing for these for a few years DAERA (NIEA) have not yet commenced testing. This may be due the underinvestment in environmental testing under pervious Ministers and as such we do not have sight of problem areas if they exist. It is possible that NI has not had the history of particular manufacturing which would lead to the production of these substances though a number of sites would come to mind for investigation. It is likely the public awareness of the health concerns about these substances will require additional investment in both NIEA (or independent successor) and NIW. Under this Government there will be divergence between EU and UK on the assessment of risk and limits of PFAS in water. Northern Ireland should take the view that protecting public health is the key imperative.