DCSIMG

No water tax before 2016

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  • by Philip Bradfield
 

The Minister for Regional Development has confirmed to the Assembly that water rates will not be imposed on Northern Ireland’s struggling taxpayers for at least another three years.

Speaking following the debate on the Water and Sewerage Services (Amendment) Bill in the Assembly yesterday, Danny Kennedy of the UUP said his party was honouring its ongoing commitment not to introduce additional water charges during the term of this Assembly.

He said the bill under discussion yesterday “extends the period by three years in which DRD will pay a subsidy to NI Water in lieu of household water charges”.

However, Alliance East Antrim MLA and regional development spokesperson Stewart Dickson warned that deferring water charges risks “spiralling into years of further neglect of Northern Ireland’s water system”.

And UKIP MLA David
McNarry warned that if the department funds the costs for the next three years it will, by default, cost other public services around £846m.

Mr Dickson warned that the bill under discussion yesterday risks deferring the charges “without a sustainable plan for the future funding and governance of Northern Ireland Water”.

Mr Dickson said “there is a strong case for the introduction of water charges”. He added: “The current subsidy diverts millions of pounds from other essential services such as schools and hospitals, which affects the most vulnerable in our society disproportionately. It also limits investment in our water and sewerage infrastructure, and this cannot be removed from the recent flooding, which has highlighted the need for funding.

“A system of fair charging would ensure that services do not suffer, without the most vulnerable having to foot the bill. Moreover, the current governance arrangements do not afford management the flexibility to plan for future improvements.

“A steady and more reliable funding source would allow NI Water to borrow on favourable terms, providing additional revenue for investment in infrastructure. We need a model which is majority self-financing, with charging that is fair and based on the ability to pay. Only then will NI Water have the financial flexibility needed to plan ahead and provide the world-class water service that we desire and that Northern Ireland deserves.

“This Bill is short-sighted, in that it defers charging to a future date but contains no provision for the immediate period after this date. We now have an opportunity to plan ahead for the post-2015 period, particularly given the significant lead in time for any change to charging. It is an opportunity that we must grasp, lest we spiral into further years of deferral and neglect of our water system.”

Minister Kennedy said after the debate: “While there may be questions about the future of the water industry in Northern Ireland, there is no question in my mind that this legislation is the right thing to do now. It makes good a commitment not to introduce additional household water charges in the current Programme for Government and it provides space, time and opportunity for a mature, thoughtful and sensible future debate on options and on approaches that may be taken in the next Assembly.”

In yesterday’s debate he told Mr Dickson he was “somewhat disappointed” in the Alliance MLA’s contribution to the debate, “because he started off positively but then referred to this as a ‘short-sighted’ Bill’.”

The minister used a quote from Sherlock Holmes to describe his predicament between a water system that needs investment and the opposition to introducing water charges.

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” Mr Kennedy said.

Mr Kennedy’s party colleague, Danny Kinahan MLA for South Antrim, defended the minister’s stance.

“This Bill will protect households up and down the country from water charges,” he said. “This is not the time to be bringing in universal water charges, a charge which would apply as equally to those most vulnerable in society as it would to those most able to pay.

“I am however shocked by the approach of both Stewart Dickson of the Alliance Party and the new UKIP Representative, David McNarry MLA. In the past the Alliance Party have actively campaigned for water charges, but then supported today`s Bill. We now also have David McNarry suggesting that water charges should be considered which is in direct contradiction to the position of the long serving UKIP Councillor, Henry Reilly. David McNarry is not only out of touch with his own party colleague, but also with the mood of the general public.”

UKIP MLA David McNarry said in yesterday’s debate that the problem should be dealt with sooner rather than later.

“The challenge of paying for water needs to be thoroughly researched, and the public need to be engaged throughout that process,” he said. “I trust that Minister Kennedy will proceed to initiate a process between now and 2016. If we come back or somebody comes back here three months before 2016 and says, ‘Let us talk about water’, we will not be prepared, and we will not stand a chance.”

He told the News Letter: “Nobody wants to take up the challenge about water charges but we are walking into subsidies of £282m a year for the next three years. I would caution against sleepwalking into this. I think the public should be polled on their preference; should we find a way to finance the necessary costs or do we want to accept a reduction in spending on other key services?”

Ian McCrea MLA of the DUP sits on the Regional Development Committee, said his party made a manifesto commitment against introducing water charges.

“We are against double charging - part of the regional rates already goes towards water provision,” he said.

A spokesman for Sinn Fein confirmed last night that it too was against introducing water rates.

Mr Dickson said “there is a strong case for the introduction of water charges”. He added: “The current subsidy diverts millions of pounds from other essential services such as schools and hospitals, which affects the most vulnerable in our society disproportionately.”

He added: “This Bill is shortsighted, in that it defers charging to a future date but contains no provision for the immediate period after this date. We now have an opportunity to plan ahead for the post-2015 period, particularly given the significant lead-in time for any change to charging. It is an opportunity that we must grasp, lest we spiral into further years of deferral and neglect of our water system.”

Minister Kennedy said after the debate: “While there may be questions about the future of the water industry in Northern Ireland, there is no question in my mind that this legislation is the right thing to do now.

“It makes good a commitment not to introduce additional household water charges in the current Programme for Government and it provides space, time and opportunity for a mature, thoughtful and sensible future debate on options and on approaches that may be taken in the next Assembly.”

In yesterday’s debate he told Mr Dickson he was “somewhat disappointed” in the Alliance MLA’s contribution to the debate, “because he started off positively but then referred to this as a ‘shortsighted’ Bill’.”

Mr Kennedy’s party colleague, Danny Kinahan MLA for South Antrim, defended the minister’s stance.

“This Bill will protect households up and down the country from water charges,” he said. “This is not the time to be bringing in universal water charges, a charge which would apply as equally to those most vulnerable in society as it would to those most able to pay.”

UKIP MLA David McNarry said in yesterday’s debate that the problem should be dealt with sooner rather than later.

“The challenge of paying for water needs to be thoroughly researched, and the public need to be engaged throughout that process,” he said.

“I trust that Minister Kennedy will proceed to initiate a process between now and 2016. If we come back or somebody comes back here three months before 2016 and says, ‘Let us talk about water’, we will not be prepared, and we will not stand a chance.”

He told the News Letter: “Nobody wants to take up the challenge about water charges but we are walking into subsidies of £282m a year for the next three years.

“I would caution against sleepwalking into this. I think the public should be polled on their preference; should we find a way to finance the necessary costs or do we want to accept a reducation in spending on other key services?”

Ian McCrea MLA of the DUP sits on the Regional Development Committee, and said his party made a manifesto commitment again-st introducing water charges.

“We are against double charging - part of the regional rates already goes towards water provision,” he said.

A spokesman for Sinn Fein confirmed last night that it too was against introducing water rates.

 

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