Why is road tolling not on our agenda?

Political parties seem loath to do anything to shift the dial of public finances

Brendan Mulgrew asks: why can't we have toll roads in the north?
Northern Ireland motorist don't twice about throwing €2.90 into the basket when heading down the tolled M1 towards Dublin. So why could we do not that on this side of the border? Why can we not even contemplate the possibility? (mikroman6/Getty Images)

The best thing that can be said about the budget agreed by most of the Executive last month is that it was agreed. But he worst thing is that it leaves every minister and department in a state where they cannot deliver even the public services which they currently delivery, never mind new policies or initiatives or even a hint of a transformation programme.

Quite how we got to this situation begs a number of questions of our political representatives, where we go from here is up for grabs. Will our political parties do anything to shift the dial of public finances? The signs are not good, not good at all.

The deal which underpinned the return of devolution involved a financial injection of £3.3 billion from the UK Government, although that package involved a bit of smoke and a lot of mirrors.

It was clear at the time that London was desperate to get the devolution doors reopened. And one has to wonder if the DUP - that party in particular, as they were the only one dealing directly with the Tories - pushed hard enough at the time to nail down specific commitments to fund our public services, immediately and in the longer term.

There was a lot of emphasis put on the fact that the Treasury had finally accepted that Northern Ireland had been funded from a lower than base level, indeed ‘fiscal floor’ became an established phrase in the political lexicon.

It is an important concession to have secured but in my experience as a special adviser (Spad) to a Stormont finance minister, the distance between the UK Treasury accepting a point of principle and translating it to a new spending policy, is a time period that can be measured in years, not months.

The £3.3bn deal also included a requirement for the Executive to raise £133m, a modest enough sum when set against the overall NI budget of £14.5bn, and even within the context of the £3.3bn on offer.

There were a number of ways in which this money could be raised, and the ideas floated over recent years have included increased rates, raising tuition fees, bringing back prescription charges, water charges, and scrapping blanket free travel for anyone over 60.

All of these possible revenue-raising proposals are worthy of genuine consideration, where the needs of the population are assessed against the ability of the better off among us to pay a little extra.

Unfortunately the Executive ministers were very quick to dismiss a number of measures. Within a few days it was made clear by Sinn Fein and DUP leaders that there would no increase in rates, no water charges, no tuition fees. Ruling such measures out is politically easy, maybe even popular in the short term among some people, but we really need now to move beyond populism and into an era of hard choices.

At a time when residential and commercial development is being held up across Northern Ireland because we can’t connect the water and sewerage systems, the Infrastructure Minister has ruled out not only water charges, but also mutualisation, whereby the water company is enabled to borrow money based on future incomes (such as the Welsh model).

There are different ways of measuring what contribution is made to public finances by Northern Ireland citizens. In the end though, it is clear that on the whole we are getting off more lightly than the populations of Great Britain. The average household here pays £1,000 less annually in rates and taxes than those in England and Wales.

We need major investment in our roads and water infrastructure. But is road tolling, for example, even on the agenda? Do you think twice when you throw €2.90 into the basket when heading down the tolled M1 towards Dublin? Why could we do not that on this side of the border? Why can we not even contemplate the possibility?

It is unquestionable that we have well off pensioners who pay nothing for public transport; across the population there are plenty of rich people paying zero for prescriptions. By dismissing so readily, and with such enthusiasm, some modest revenue-raising measures, the political parties are courting a populism which is damaging.

Brendan Mulgrew
Brendan Mulgrew

The truth is that the more well off people here are being protected from paying a little bit more and the causality is public services for the majority.

We did have a right to demand more financial support from the British government, we still do and I hope that debate is continuing. But we also have an opportunity, and an obligation to do more for ourselves. But I don’t think that debate has even started.

  • Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate ( Follow him on X at @brendanbelfast