Spratt calls for stability over NI Water chief's plan to resign

Trevor Haslett Trevor Haslett has told NI Water he wants to resign

The chair of Stormont's Regional Development Committee, Jimmy Spratt, has called for stability at NI Water.

It follows the news that the company's acting head is intending to resign.

Trevor Haslett is to step down after less than a year. He took up the post after the previous boss stepped down in the wake of last year's water crisis.

The government-owned company was set up in 2004 and its status was later modified so it also became a non-departmental public body.

Continuity

It is understood company insiders are hopeful that Mr Haslett will remain in post until January.

Mr Spratt is to meet the company's chairman Sean Hogan on Thursday.

He said: "One of the issues we will be pressing is that there will be some sort of continuity and leadership at this level, particularly over the winter period.

"Stability is needed I think given the changes that have been made.

Analysis

The immediate problem for Northern Ireland Water is finding a new chief executive and keeping Trevor Haslett in post while they do.

The bigger problem for the company, and its rulers at Stormont, is sorting out a structure that works.

Every chief executive since its formation has quit early or been pushed out the door. There is clearly a structural and systemic problem.

It's understood that Mr Haslett is leaving because he couldn't be given any security of tenure (he wanted a two year contract) and he wanted a pay increase from £130,000 to £150,000. The previous boss earned more than £200,000.

Although the board at NI Water were happy to approve such changes, it appears that Stormont ministers overruled them.

Politicians and civil servants have a history of meddling in NI Water's affairs. The company is now a non-departmental public body - following changes driven by Stormont - which means it is subject to tight controls of the Department of Regional Development.

It also means NI Water has to run its capital investment programme on a yearly basis - that means if plans are delayed due to unforseen circumstances the money can't be spent.

As an entirely separate company it could work on a three-year basis which allowed vital flexibility when dealing with multi-million pound projects.

Any new chief executive being hired from outside the company must be prepared to work for less than half they would earn at a comparable organisation, with an unhealthy dose of political and civil service interference thrown-in for good measure.

And there's the certain knowledge that if there are any problems, the political masters will happily demand your head on a plate.

"Trevor Haslett was providing that stability in terms of leadership, we will be looking to make sure that leadership continues."

Mr Spratt added that he was not aware of any political interference in the organisation.

"I think in relation to the structures that (they) have been inherited by the Northern Ireland Executive from direct rule," he said.

"It's a legacy of that."

The previous Northern Ireland Water boss Lawrence MacKenzie stood down amidst damning criticism of the company's handling of the water shortages during the big freeze last winter.

It is thought Mr Haslett has said he wants to return to private consultancy.

His imminent departure is understood to have taken company executives and directors by surprise with emergency meetings taking place on Wednesday.

Pay

In a statement, the company said: "NI Water chair Sean Hogan has confirmed that interim chief executive Trevor Haslett has indicated his intention to offer his resignation to the board."

Mr Haslett was formerly head of engineering with NI Water and previously worked as a director of a private civil engineering company.

He is the third chief executive to resign from the post.

As well as Mr MacKenzie in January, after what First Minister Peter Robinson described as the company's "shambolic" response to the big freeze, in 2008 Katherine Bryan resigned following controversy over a funding shortfall.

NI Water was created as a state-owned company in 2004 with Ms Bryan at the helm and its structure suggested that it would ultimately be privatised.

But the devolved government took a different view and the company has since been reformed as a non-departmental public body which means it falls under the control of the Department for Regional Development.

Previous boss Mr MacKenzie drew criticism for his level of pay, at £250,000. It is understood that Mr Haslett receives much less than that, closer to £130,000.

During the Christmas water crisis 450,000 people were left without mains supply.

It cost the company £7.5m and at the height of the crisis, a million people phoned the NI Water helpline.

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