Opinion

Newton Emerson: Could water charges plug the hole in Stormont's finances?

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Any serious debate on introducing water charging to help plug the hole in Northern Ireland's public finances must be carefully separated from the issue of water privatisation
Any serious debate on introducing water charging to help plug the hole in Northern Ireland's public finances must be carefully separated from the issue of water privatisation

Water charges should be considered to fix Stormont’s budget, according to the new Northern Ireland Fiscal Council. Secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris is signalling he concurs, although that has to be set against his agenda to force the DUP back to work: the same threat was used to secure the St Andrews Agreement.

If there is to be a serious debate on water charging it must be carefully separated from the issue of water privatisation, which does not work. Although charges increase the risk of Northern Ireland Water being sold off by government they would not make it inevitable, as shown in Scotland. Alternatively, water could be taken off government by mutualising it, as in Wales, where it is run by a non-profit public benefit company.

Nor does mutualisation necessarily mean charges. Its real financial advantage is letting the company borrow privately against its income, a freedom recently granted to Northern Ireland’s housing associations. Stormont could continue providing a mutual with an income on behalf of households, although it would have to find more money, probably by raising domestic rates.

There should also be some realism about ability to pay. Wales has the same average household income as Northern Ireland, yet council tax and water charges there are double our average rates bill.

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Sinn Féin has been widely praised for attending today’s coronation. As journalist Sam McBride has noted, the SDLP will get no praise for its attendance, although it would have been condemned by republicans had Sinn Féin not turned up.

Such are the cruelties of politics - the UUP would empathise. However, by trying to finesse his position, Colum Eastwood has somehow achieved the worst of both worlds. The SDLP leader has said he is attending “to show respect to people from different traditions who share our island”, while also filing complaints with the government and Buckingham Palace that the cost of the coronation is “immoral”, “unjustifiable” and “just wrong”.

There is little point in a gesture if you appear to be condemning it yourself.

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A grotesque incident of intimidation against a young Catholic mother in Lurgan has raised serious questions about sectarianism in Northern Ireland, plus a specific question about social media use by politicians.

Carla Lockhart, Lurgan’s DUP MP, appeared to be a Facebook friend of one of the culprits. This has provoked a flurry of online insinuations, although the connection is clearly trivial. Lockhart has 20,000 Facebook friends, equivalent to her entire vote in the last general election. She presumably accepts every friend request by default, as do many elected representatives. Are the benefits of such profligate online engagement worth the risks?

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Some politicians and commentators have queried a Liverpool University opinion poll, published in TheIrish News, as its results for second-preference votes do not match transfers in recent elections.

Polls should not be above criticism, obviously, but preferences and transfers are not the same thing. Under PR-STV, votes only transfer in full or in part if other candidates are elected or eliminated in particular sequences. While outcomes are not random they can be extremely arbitrary.

In last year’s assembly election, Alliance got three times more transfers from the TUV than from the DUP because the DUP ran just enough candidates to get elected without large surpluses in battleground unionist constituencies.

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An alarming article in The British Medical Journal has pointed out that the Windsor Framework has still not fixed the medicines sea border. Although drugs licensed separately in Britain and the EU can now enter Northern Ireland through the green lane, any differences in the EU licence terms must still apply.

As an example, TheBMJ cites the breast cancer drug alpelisib, approved in both the UK and the EU but not for patients who have had hormone therapy in the EU’s case. That means a third of breast cancer patients here cannot obtain alpelisib by any means, publicly or privately, although it is freely available through the NHS in Britain. There is no official acknowledgement of the problem, let alone plans to address it.

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One of the naivest hopes in Northern Ireland is that Belfast City Airport wants a proper rail connection. A study into improving the link between the terminal and the nearby Sydenham rail halt was ordered last October by Sinn Féin caretaker infrastructure minister John O’Dowd. The all-island rail review, awaiting Stormont’s return for publication, is also believed to have examined the issue.

The airport’s view may be judged by the fencing it has just put up, doubling the length of the walk between station and terminal. This follows a tripling of its passenger drop-off charge in March.

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Active travel charity Sustrans is calling for 20mph speed limits in residential areas in Northern Ireland to improve road safety. It is a worthy cause but the heart sinks at the prospect of a decade-long campaign to maybe get Stormont to change the law, which would then certainly be ignored and unenforced.

Instead, why not urge people to drive at 20mph from today? Only a few would have to do it to make everyone behind them do it as well.