Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Wednesday, 27 April 2005 18:18 UK

Water ownership sparks high charge fears

By Mike McKimm
BBC Northern Ireland environment correspondent

In a bizarre chain of events, the death of an earl in the south of France could have financial repercussions for water consumers in Northern Ireland.

Aerial view of Lough Neagh
Lough Neagh provides 40% of Northern Ireland's drinking water

French police had been looking for Lord Shaftesbury since he disappeared there last year.

In Northern Ireland, for the past two years, the government's own advisory body, the Water Council, has been urging it to buy Lough Neagh from its owner: one Lord Shaftesbury.

Lough Neagh is the biggest freshwater lake in the UK and 40% of Northern Ireland's drinking water is taken from it. Work is already under way to increase this amount.

The Water Council, worried that such a strategic resource should be in public control, urged the government to buy it.

Using the Environmental Information Regulations Act 2004, the BBC has managed to obtain documents that show a reluctance by government to take ownership of the lough.

We need to know not only what we are going to pay now, but if there are other secrets lurking beneath the surface
Eleanor Gill
General Consumer Council

In a series of letters, they told the council that there was sufficient legal protection for water supplies already in place.

But the council is concerned that if the lough was to be sold to another owner, the public could end up paying extra for its water.

Could a new owner legally charge for water abstraction? A key government inter-departmental email the BBC has seen, says it could.

To the question; "Could a private owner charge for water abstraction?", the legal answer given was "yes".

Eleanor Gill of the Northern Ireland General Consumer Council is worried about the revelations.

The 10th Earl of Shaftesbury

"This is very alarming. What we need is total openness and transparency," she said.

"We need to know not only what we are going to pay now, but if there are other secrets lurking beneath the surface."

The council is worried that it will be the water consumer who will have to pick up the bill in the future if the lough's ownership becomes critical.

At the minute, water is extracted for free from the lough.

Next year, Northern Ireland consumers will start to pay for their water by way of specific charges, set to be some of the highest in the UK.

Any new charges would also be passed on, including extra charges for Lough Neagh, were they to be made.

'Benevolent nature'

It is this that made the Water Council sound its warnings to government.

However, at the time, it all depended on the benevolent nature of the present owner, the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Indeed, just days after the Water Council sounded its warning in 2003, the Department of Agriculture played the matter down, saying "we have no evidence that a change of ownership is imminent".

Lough Neagh
At the minute, water is extracted for free from Lough Neagh

But now, with the discovery of the earl's body in France and the circumstances that surround his death, the possibility that the lough could go on the open market increases.

The DoE have admitted to the BBC that although they were advised by the Water Council in October 2003 to buy the lough, they have still made no approach to the earl or his estate 18 months later.

The BBC has also learned that the question of ownership isn't a new one.

It is understood that several years ago, the earl approached the government offering them the rights to the lough, but this was declined.

That opportunity could well have died with Lord Shaftesbury.

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