NI executive launches water bills review

Controversial water bills for Northern Ireland will not be introduced in 2007-08 after the Stormont executive launched a review of water and sewerage financing.

The review will include the future of the Northern Ireland Water company, which was set up under direct rule. It is expected to report in the autumn and no water bills will be posted until then.

The issue of water charging proved crucial throughout the Northern Ireland election and subsequent power-sharing agreement.

All four parties in the executive opposed the charges in their campaign, but the British government warned bills would be posted unless Sinn Fein and the DUP could reach a power-sharing deal.

Reflecting on Northern Ireland this week, the prime minister Tony Blair remarked that it was a sign of progress how the election in the province had been fought on “bread and butter issues”.

First minister Ian Paisley’s announcement of the review was welcomed by Fred Cobain, regional development committee chair.

“I am pleased there is going to be a fundamental review and that the minister has said all of the issues are on the table including the government-owned company,” the North Belfast MLA told Northern Ireland’s U TV.

“I have very real concerns about the way the government-owned company was imposed on all of us by the direct rule ministers without any proper examination of all the alternatives.”

Regional development minister Conor Murphy added: “The business plan for the water company was put in place on 1 April by direct rule ministers.”

He told the BBC: “We’ll want to look at all of that again. I’m not sure what scope there is for changing the structures that have been put in place, but we’ll certainly want a review of how it proposes to carry out its business.

“It will be an issue for the executive as a whole, the whole issue of how water and sewerage services are proposed to be financed.”

Delaying water charges will cost the assembly £75 million, but this will be paid for by the extra funds conceded by Gordon Brown.

The power-sharing executive met for the first time this week. In a statement following the meeting, the executive said it would continue to seek extra funds from the UK chancellor, necessary to “address the challenges that lie ahead”.

Ministers from all four parties attended the meeting. The DUP refused to attend the last executive meetings and deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness, said he was “excited” by their presence.