Passage of reservoir legislation matter of life and death, says Muir

The passage of legislation allowing the Infrastructure Minister to deal with a number of reservoirs where urgent interventions are required is a matter of life and death, Alliance MLA Andrew Muir has said. 

The party’s Infrastructure spokesperson was speaking after the Transfers of Functions Bill was approved by MLAs in the Assembly today. It is designed to implement a safety regime for reservoirs across Northern Ireland. Members of the Infrastructure Committee have previously been told a delay in transferring the powers to the Minister meant urgent repairs required at nine reservoirs here could not be implemented. One of those Reservoirs is located within Ards and North Down Borough Council area but cannot be named for security reasons. 

“I am pleased the Executive Office have finally passed this crucially important piece of legislation after years of needless delays,” said Mr Muir. 

“This genuinely is a matter of life and death, and the Executive Office has failed in its duty to people by not bringing it forward earlier. In addition, the inaction has needlessly delayed planning applications across Northern Ireland, at a time where we should be doing everything we can to facilitate new homes, economic growth and jobs.” 

“This is only the first step in ensuring the urgent repairs at the nine reservoirs are implemented. The Infrastructure Minister now has to commence the Reservoirs Act and go through the correct legal procedures before the necessary remedial actions are taken. I urge her to move with the greatest possible speed.” 

Hansard of Andrew Muir MLA’s contribution at NI Assembly on 1 June 2021 below: 

Mr Muir: I speak as the Alliance Party's infrastructure spokesperson and as a member of the Infrastructure Committee. The approval of the motion today is required to correct an omission in the transfer of all the functions of the Rivers Agency from DAERA to the Department for Infrastructure in 2016. The motion also deals with other issues, as other Members have outlined, but I will speak primarily on the reservoirs and infrastructure. 

In the absence of formal powers, the Minister for Infrastructure has been unable to commence the Reservoirs Act, which is required so that the Minister can introduce orders and regulations to implement the reservoir safety regime provided for by the legislation, which is based on industry best practice for the management and maintenance of reservoirs. In summary, therefore, the delay in the transfer of functions has had a material impact on the Minister's ability to implement a regime that is vital for ensuring reservoir safety in Northern Ireland. 

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree with me that the delay was not helped by a three-year absence of this place, which was brought about by some of the parties that have to rectify some of the problems that we are addressing today? 

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his intervention. The reason for the delay and why we are standing here today is threefold. The first part is the transfer in 2016. Secondly, these institutions did not sit for three years. We can never allow that to happen again. We failed the people of Northern Ireland by not having these institutions, and that is a serious issue. Thirdly, there was a delay in seeing this motion today. Devolution was restored in January 2020. It is now June 2021, and this motion is before us only now. Let us be clear on the reasons for the delay and also be clear that, by passing this today — hopefully, we will — this is not the finish; this is the commencement of orders. We could be a long way away from the reservoir safety regime being implemented, so this is not good enough. 

As the Department for Infrastructure has estimated, 83,000 people live within the inundation zones of our 179 reservoirs. Furthermore, there are nine reservoirs, which cannot be named for security reasons, where urgent interventions are required to deal with flood risk. I know of one of those, which I will not name today, that requires immediate work. However, without the full commencement of the Reservoirs Act, the Department has not had the power to compel that work to take place. We are still reliant upon goodwill and the attempts to invoke powers years and years after the Act was passed. Officials have confirmed that properties are located near those nine reservoirs, and there would be a risk to life and property if any of those reservoirs were to catastrophically collapse or fail. Even more concerning is the fact that, for security reasons, none of those living within the inundation zones of those nine reservoirs has been informed of the need for urgent interventions. 

In summary, today's transfer of functions is not some mere administrative quirk but an essential step — and it is just that: a step — in addressing an extremely serious issue that has potentially life-or-death consequences in Northern Ireland. The question that needs to be answered, therefore, is why on earth it has taken so long to bring this before the House. This has had a massive impact, particularly upon planning applications, as other Members outlined. I know of a number of planning applications that are now held up because the Assembly did not deliver. That is having an impact upon economic well-being and growth and on the ability to deliver housing. 

We are nearly 18 months into the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, and it is only now that this matter is being dealt with. Why was this not proceeded with as a matter of urgency, and how can the Executive Office be so relaxed about it? The last time this was discussed, I understood that it was in the Executive Office. There are far too many things stuck in the Executive Office. We have a situation where you cannot even get issues onto the agenda, never mind discussed or agreed. 

People in Northern Ireland have become accustomed to certain aspects of government here moving at a glacial pace. As we have seen with COVID-19, however, when there is an emergency situation, the people of Northern Ireland demand action, and they demand action fast. It seems that, in the matter that we are debating today, the Executive Office and the two main parties that control it have totally failed in that regard. It is by sheer good fortune that no damage has been done as a result of the severe delay in bringing this before the Assembly. 

In conclusion, I will be supporting this today, and I hope that everyone else will, but I expect a full and clear explanation from the Executive Office as to why it has taken 18 months to bring this before us today, given the seriousness of the issue for people living in Northern Ireland.