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Wednesday, 9 October, 2002, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Sewage forecast sends ministers into spin
It was a bit like a journalist ruining a perfectly good story by checking the facts.
The planners in Northern Ireland started to investigate the sewage systems in 56 different locations to see if they could cope with the extra load new houses and businesses would bring.
The horror of their discovery was that only 35% of the whole sewage system actually met European standards - coping with new demands was the least of their problems.
The result was an instant halt to lots of development.
New housing projects were put on hold and even modest business developments were stopped - if a toilet was included in the plan.
It all got a bit silly at one stage when a businessman complained to the BBC.
His application for a change of use for a building, which already had a toilet, was stopped because it was claimed it would overload the local sewage system.
Of course it wouldn't and planners were left a little red faced.
So why did it happen? Before devolution, planning and sewage was the charge of the Department of Environment.
Scant attention was paid to the growing demands of European directives and slowly Northern Ireland racked up a series of non-compliances with the 'rules'.
The government of the day didn't just fail to put the legislation in place.
They also failed to make critical improvements to the sewage system.
Then with devolution and the Northern Ireland Assembly came a reorganisation.
The responsibility for sewage treatment was handed over to the newly founded Department of Regional Development.
In no time at all, the relevant DRD minister (there were two of them rotating in the job) was pointing up the need for a £3bn spend on water treatment and sewage, declaring that some of it was Victorian in age and sophistication.
Certainly, much of it was desperately in need of repair or replacement, the result of 30 years of poor investment during direct rule.
It also became apparent that the quality of waste water in Northern Ireland (that's the water that is left over after sewage is treated) was poor and fell far short, in many cases, of expected European standards.
An added problem is that the standards are ever increasing and the gap between those standards and what the DRD could deliver had been widening.
Enter the Department of Environment, who have the responsibility for policing the quality of the water that the DRD let drain into watercourses and the sea.
The DOE is also responsible for planning. As part of the process, planners have to ask their own department, before they allow a plan through, if the local sewerage system can cope with the new demand.
Suddenly their own department came back with the answer in the negative, again and again. The game was up.
A political snowball began to roll, gathering both speed and snow at the same time.
Before long, so many plans had been halted or refused that the whistle was blown by frustrated developers, architects and local politicians.
Fifty-six planning "hot spots" were declared where planning had been stopped pending something happening - but no-one was sure quite what.
The months passed while an urgent solution was sought. Would they have to build or modify dozens of sewage plants? It could take years, even decades? Where would the money come from? Would we run out of houses?
But this week, without warning, it was all over. What had been described as a "precautionary hold on planning applications" was suddenly lifted.
Apparently much thought, consideration and analysis had led to what the DOE called "a context for a solution".
The answer seems to have been based on trying to understand the problem, working out if it could be fixed in a way that might be accepted by Europe and determining where the money might be found.
But it left a few people shaking their head in bewilderment.
The DOE denies the event was embarrassing while others were baffled why it had done its laundry so openly in public.
Ironically, the guilty party, although they deny it, is really the DRD.
While they had inherited the problem of dodgy sewage systems, it was ultimately they who were responsible for ensuring the system could meet the demands, even if history ensured it couldn't.
It's the sort of issue that Northern Ireland's new politicians have had to learn how to handle.
Three years ago, few political observers saw the environment as potentially a politicians' graveyard - most suspected that the politically poisoned chalice would be traditionally the area of education or health.
These areas absorb vast amounts of money without seemingly pleasing anyone.
But the changing emphasis and demanding standards of the environment are stretching the public purse and patience to breaking point.
Politicians may want to be environmentally friendly, but it's a friendship that may not be reciprocated.
Having its liabilities split over two separate departments (despite the claims of 'joined-up government') creates an excellent banana skin awaiting its next victim.
And with every political observer forecasting the downfall of Northern Ireland devolution, the portfolios may soon be passed back to central government - where they are likely to moulder quietly for another period, while the sewerage system continues to do the same.
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