Northern Ireland Water facing Belfast Council legal action over refusal to connect homes

NI Water stock image
-Credit: (Image: Michael Cooper)

Belfast Council has agreed to look at a potential legal challenge against NI Water over an alleged failure to connect the water supply to new homes.

Elected members at the most recent meeting of the full Belfast City Council at City Hall ratified a committee decision for the council’s head lawyer, City Solicitor Nora Largey, to look at a potential challenge against NI Water, which is a non-departmental public body.

The original decision was made at the council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee meeting, during a secret “restricted” session away from the public. The minutes from that committee, published for the full council meeting this week, reveal little of the allegations made by Belfast Councillors against NI Water, or the nature of the endeavour by the City Solicitor.

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Asked for further details about the council decision, the Belfast City Council corporate communications teams referred solely to the minutes in the full council agenda.

The minutes state: “The committee agreed that the City Solicitor explore the legal options available to the council to address the failure of NI Water to connect water supplies to social homes.”

Sinn Féin Councillor Micheal Donnelly proposed exploring legal options against the water company at the committee meeting. At the full council meeting this week he said: “Around NI Water’s refusal to connect homes to the sewage system - we believe it is legally wrong.

“We have a bold ambitious plan here, as part of the Belfast Agenda, for 66,000 people living in over 30,000 (new) homes. That’s our stuff, but the real stuff is the housing crisis across all of Belfast.

“We have people sofa surfing, people living in overcrowded homes, people aspiring to have a home, and with developments sitting here ready to go NI Water are just point-blank refusing to connect them.

“So I welcome the decision made by the S,P&R Committee that we will explore legal options, but I want to reaffirm tonight that we explore all legal options to move this forward. Because it is morally wrong in a housing crisis that we have people who can’t get a house when homes are built.”

The council’s Chief Executive John Walsh said at the meeting: “I am happy to report back in terms of the legal advice in due course. The general course is that if a development has obtained full permission then it is not lawful for Northern Ireland Water to refuse to connect it.”

SDLP Councillor Carl Whyte said: “We had a very robust discussion about this at the S,P&R Committee, and I think the Chief Executive has just stated the position. Northern Ireland Water has a statutory duty.

“If you are a domestic applicant for a domestic property, and you get planning approval, they have a statutory duty and legal requirement to connect you to the network, and that is what they are in many cases failing to discharge.”

He added: “They have created a new system, where you have to apply to Northern Ireland Water for approval before you submit a planning application for your domestic property, i.e. your home, when (they) possess no powers of approval or rejection on planning applications, or anything else.

“Their role is as a statutory consultee to respond to your planning application, when they make their views heard, and the planning authority for Belfast, which is this council, then makes a decision.”

He told the chamber: “It is important that members all understand when your constituents are contacting you about this new level of application that Northern Ireland Water have put on their website. (It is important to remember) that they do not have the power to reject any application - that belongs to this council, and that needs to be made clear to Northern Ireland Water.”

Northern Ireland Water were asked for a response to the allegations, the Belfast Council motion and the endeavours of the City Solicitor, but in a statement made no specific comment on them.

The NI Water spokesperson said: “NI Water's infrastructure underpins every aspect of life in Northern Ireland. It is the foundation of public health; it can unlock economic growth and help restore the natural environment.

"NI Water works with key stakeholders, the Department for Infrastructure, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Drinking Water Inspectorate, the Charity Commision for Northern Ireland and the Utility Regulator to determine water and wastewater investment needs.

“NI Water strives at every opportunity to ensure that Northern Ireland's water and wastewater assets are reflective of the needs of 21st century infrastructure.

“NI Water has demonstrated its commitment to supporting sustainable development across the whole of Northern Ireland, as well as Belfast, and provides positive planning responses, including the phasing of development, in as many situations as it can.

“The sewerage system within Belfast is currently overloaded, and, although NI Water must honour prior commitments to connect to our system via extant planning approvals, we have a commitment to protect our environment."

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