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This week, ICE Northern Ireland launched its 2016 Manifesto, ‘Building Our Quality of Life,’ at Stormont Parliament Buildings.
The launch comes at an auspicious time; not only are we mere months away from the 2016 Assembly elections, but we have also recently seen the impact that lack of infrastructure can have on society. The recent flooding of homes and businesses across the UK has brought infrastructure into the national dialogue. Now is the time to seize the moment and use our collective expertise to profoundly influence Government.
Our Manifesto has outlined three key areas – Delivery, Resilience and Skills – that political leaders and decision-makers need to act on over the next five years. It includes 10 recommendations that call for the completion of several key projects, a focus on infrastructure maintenance and the creation of a civil engineering apprenticeship to address skills shortages.
ICE undertakes a needs assessment of our infrastructure each year, identifying the areas most at risk – our most recent review also features in the Manifesto. We found the most vulnerable areas are: North-South Interconnector, publicly owned energy from waste facility, roads maintenance and wastewater. If we do not resolve these issues, Northern Ireland will become a worse place to live and work.
Unfortunately, Northern Ireland is beset with budget cuts, NIMBYism and lack of political will. Just a few months ago, Stormont teetered on the verge of collapse for weeks on end. Amidst political chaos, it is difficult to find cross-party backing for even the most popular, publicly supported initiatives.
It is up to us, as industry experts, to make the case for these necessary infrastructure projects. The North-South interconnector will help lower energy costs and make our supply more secure. An energy from waste facility would not only negate the cost of exporting our waste and paying for some of the highest energy costs in Europe, but would also contribute to the circular economy through the creation of jobs. The deterioration of our roads network and a growing backlog of maintenance now exceeds £1 billion. The NI Executive must prioritise maintenance of our network and not leave it to be funded by the leftovers from the financial monitoring rounds.
Furthermore, whilst we have an abundance of water in Northern Ireland, making it suitable for consumption and disposing of sewage does not come without cost. The EU recommends water charging to sustainably manage water consumption, and currently Northern Ireland is the only region in the EU to not implement this strategy.
We are encouraging the Executive to consider the benefits of releasing c. £280m of the block grant through the introduction of domestic water charging. With exceptions in place for those unable to pay, ringfencing this user charge will better protect our people and environment and provide high quality water and sewerage services.
As an independent body, ICE is in a unique position to influence both public and private bodies. We must leverage that position in the coming days in order to get the political backing for infrastructure it so sorely needs. We must also continue to foster collaboration and ahead of the election, and throughout the next Programme for Government, in order to secure quality of life for the people in Northern Ireland.