Four days after the snow storm ravaged much of the east of Northern Ireland, the last 200 or so homes without electricity should be reconnected today. But with over a hundred thousand homes and businesses hit by outages over recent days, there are serious doubts about whether our electricity system is up to scratch.
The electricity supply network is owned and managed by NIE, which was bought by ESB in December 2010. ESB, which operates the Republic’s electricity supply system, is adamant that other countries’ networks would also have been knocked out by such a severe snow fall.
Bernardine Maloney, corporate communications manager for ESB, says: “It was caused by the storms in Northern Ireland, which were very unique. It can happen to any electricity network.” ESB insists that there is no greater need for investment here than would be expected in any network as part of ordinary maintenance and renewal.
The level of electricity network investment is determined by the Utility Regulator, which decides on the trade-off between price controls and investment spend. A spokeswoman for the Utility Regulator says: “Even in the most robust systems, some loss of supply can be unavoidable in such adverse weather conditions.” The regulator has proposed a further £396m of investment to maintain the NIE network performance and continued growth in demand, after the current price control system led to a 28% increase in capital expenditure.
Patsy McGlone MLA, chair of the Assembly’s enterprise committee, which monitors the electricity industry, avoids jumping to conclusions about the cause of the crisis. He says his committee has heard different views on the state of the network. “It depends who you talk to,” he says. But he adds: “It seems that at the first sniff of snow, the electricity goes off and that doesn’t seem to happen elsewhere.”
McGlone adds that his committee will soon visit NIE’s response co-ordination centre in Craigavon. “I want to hear from the technical people what their problems are and how they are dealing with them before saying anything,” he says.
Concerns have been raised previously about the state of our electricity network. A report three years ago by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors concluded there were serious problems with most of our infrastructure, highlighting the need for urgent investment in energy – particular in renewables – water supply, waste management and transport.
RICS rated the quality of the electricity network as only Grade C – needing significant investment, with a significant risk of infrastructure failure within five years. “The aging network, parts dating from the 1930s, and the overall asset base require significant replacement,” said RICS.
Former secretary of state Peter Hain MP shares those concerns, which he raised when in office. “I was worried both in terms of the grid infrastructure, but also the need for extra home grown, secure energy, renewable energy from wind, marine, tidal – which is why I prioritised it myself,” he explains.
Jimmy Spratt MLA, who chairs the Assembly’s regional development committee, is fulsome in his praise for the Roads Service in clearing the snow from the highways, but he is clear that there are problems with other parts of our infrastructure dating from the time of direct rule.
“In terms of the infrastructure of NI Water, there is still a problem,” says Spratt. “During the 35 years of the Troubles there was not sufficient spent on the water infrastructure. There is still some way to go, but there is now a good spend on a year to year basis.”
The Strategic Investment Board shares this perspective and has put together an investment programme that aims to spend £13.3bn between 2011 and 2021 on public sector infrastructure improvement, which does not include the private sector spending needed for electricity and telecoms.
The SIB’s latest Investment Strategy explains: “A lot has been achieved since 2008. We have already delivered capital investment at unprecedented levels, despite the economic downturn. This is starting to put right the legacy of underinvestment that we inherited from direct rule.”
There are signs that the issue of our infrastructure weakness is again becoming a political priority. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness pointed out on Twitter a few days ago that Gordon Brown, when Prime Minister, promised the UK Government would invest £18bn in our infrastructure. But the coalition government has made clear it does not regard itself as bound by the promise of the previous administration and will not deliver this.
Yet the economic necessity is absolutely obvious. If we are to attract inward investment and expand our home grown businesses, we must have three things: a competitive tax system; a strong skills base; and world-class infrastructure. We are not competitive either on tax or skills and only our infrastructure good enough is our broadband and ports and harbours.
If we are serious about creating jobs, not to mention providing reliable services to our citizens, our infrastructure must improve – and cope with an apparently increasingly dramatic climate. So who is going to pay? Either the UK Government accepts its moral obligation, or all of us face higher bills. It seems clear where that choice will lead.
Not for the first time, it feels as if devolution is being held against us by a government that seems to care little for Northern Ireland.