Translink and NI Water facing significant financial challenges, auditor Kieran Donnelly reports

A new report has warned Translink and NI Water are labouring under significant financial challenges as a result of public sector expenditure restraints over recent years.

Translink's Foyle Street bus depot.
Translink's Foyle Street bus depot.

Northern Ireland’s Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr Kieran Donnelly, in a new report, notes that the annual budget allocation to the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has been falling short of meeting its needs.

The position was exacerbated during the height of the pandemic, said Mr. Donnelly. He pointed out that in mid-April 2020, public transport use fell to just 5% of 2019-20 levels.

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In recognition of the impact on Translink’s income and its wider financial sustainability, the DfI received an enhanced budget for public transport in 2020/21 and was able to provide significantly increased funding to Translink.

More investment needed in water infrastructure.

However, despite the increased funding in 2020/21, uncertainty of funding for future years remains and Translink anticipates a significant loss in 2021/22.

Mr Donnelly said: “As Northern Ireland’s main public transport provider Translink provides an essential public service that is a key component in supporting economic growth and social inclusion.

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"Investment in our public transport network can also contribute to addressing environmental issues such as congestion and climate change. The ongoing funding uncertainty is a significant risk to the financial sustainability of Translink.

"The Department for Infrastructure and Translink need to work with all departments within the NI Executive and the private sector to develop a long term public transport strategy which considers all options for the delivery of a sustainable public transport network to support the NI economy in the future.“

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NI Water also received additional funding during 2020-21, to address increased costs and the significant loss of income from non-domestic water charges due to the mandatory closure of many businesses throughout the lockdown periods.

Funding was also made available to help accelerate the delivery of essential water infrastructure projects, which will begin to address the deficit in wastewater investment that is affecting around 100 areas across Northern Ireland.

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Whilst the DfI has now confirmed that the funding required by NI Water will be made available during 2021-22, there remains a lack of clarity on the position for future years.

Mr Donnelly commented: “There has been chronic underfunding for water and wastewater services and funding levels have fallen below the required levels determined by the Utility Regulator.

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"Having the right drinking water and sewerage infrastructure is essential to enable economic growth and development and requires a sustainable funding model. 'New Decade, New Approach' recognises the need for urgent investment in wastewater infrastructure which is at, or nearing, capacity in many places across Northern Ireland.

"That commitment is welcomed and the DfI, NI Water and other stakeholders must continue to work together to develop a sustainable funding model that keeps pace with the need for investment.”