Looking back at RICS Hustings and talking to Elliott and Ritchie about water charges, budgets, programmes for government and culling departments

The RICS Hustings event wasn’t a damp squid, but there were few surprises.

  • Peter Weir (DUP) shone through as the most economically literate politician on the panel. He related the importance of the husting’s theme and the need for economic stability so that students wouldn’t “wander the world” like many of his peers had done to escape Northern Ireland.
  • Panel at RICS economic hustings

  • Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) slouched in her seat with her arms folded, and leaned in towards ringmaster Jim Fitzpatrick when she answered questions. Her number one priority was the economy and jobs … and not unification as she stressed in her party conference speech. She was the most ideological panel member, repeating her party’s policy of no compulsory redundancies for public sector workers and sticking to it when put under a good-natured but prolonged cross-examination by the chairman.
  • Stephen Farry (Alliance) came across as an economic heavyweight and got the best laughs. He stated that the public sector was foremost about delivering services and not about sustaining civil service jobs. He admitted that it was not popular to say so.
  • Daithi McKay (Sinn Fein) was the quietest of the panellists. He can’t accept the announced cuts and wants to mitigate against them by being imaginative, innovative and through parties cooperating.
  • Tom Elliott (UUP) urged parties to follow through with the economic promises they would make during the election campaign. He was perhaps the least theoretical on the panel, quoting examples from his family and businesses that he had visited.

Unfortunately, the panel only got to answer four questions during the hour and half session.

  1. Are domestic water charges not inevitable even though they’re not in the four year budget?
  2. Sammy Wilson announced plans to raise money from the sale of assets. This dwarves previous scheme to sell Civil Service buildings. Is the new revenue generation plan realistic?
  3. How will the construction industry get the steady pipeline of work it needs?
  4. How can we make our communities more (environmentally) sustainable in the face of economic pressures?

Audience and panel at RICS economic hustings

I caught up with Margaret Ritchie and Tom Elliott (separately) after the event and reflecting the first question at the hustings, I asked if water charges were not inevitable and should be prioritised over the next four years.

[Ritchie] I think that’s the wrong place to start this debate. What we must be talking about after – particularly – the Christmas debacle is to make Northern Ireland water efficient. To make Northern Ireland Water efficient what do you do? You don’t bring it into the department as the minister suggests, because it would simply be swamped by civil servants and nothing will ever happen. It would just be a perpetuation of the same thing. What you have to do is to make it like BT, like Northern Ireland Electricity which became efficient as a result of becoming mutualised. To become mutualised then they become commercially driven in the public interest and not in the interest of shareholders.

Would the efficiency raise enough money to compensate for the underinvestment?

[Ritchie] I honestly believe, as with NIE and other bodies, it brings about investment and brings about capital money that can be reinvested back into the company, thereby making provision for improving your infrastructure. We in the SDLP fully recognise that there’s a need for an improvement of the infrastructure. Some of it is so outwarn [sic] it has never been properly dealt with, both in terms of the water infrastructure, the waste water disposal and also the whole sewage infrastructure.

The words “water charges” didn’t pass her lips!

Asked the same question, UUP leader Tom Elliott answered with a similar reluctance to introduce charges.

[Elliott] Well I as a farmer have paid water charges all my life by a meter. What we really need to do is get to the exact figures. We need to see how much is needed in the infrastructure, how much it takes to run the water service, but more importantly, how much it’s going to take to run it over the next four to ten years. If there needs to be additional charges then we need to look at that in the vein that it is. But I can tell you it needs more efficiency within Northern Ireland Water and we do have to look at the possibility of maybe starting a process where you start to privatise it.

Do you think the efficiencies are enough to generate the money that hasn’t been invested in it?

[Elliott] It is clear that the efficiencies that may be saved now would not be enough to generate =enough finance for it. But there may be other options. We need to look at those other options. For the example, the possibility of venture capital investment into Northern Ireland Water where you have part privatisation. But you need to look at those options and we haven’t done that yet.

Both party leaders in stark contrast to Alliance’s Stephen Farry who volunteered that “we need water charges in Northern Ireland: we can’t go on without them” in his opening remarks, even before the subject was raised from the floor.

Yesterday morning Tom Elliott talked about the “game changer” of being able to agree a programme for government before running d’Hondt. I asked him if there was room to also renegotiate the four year budget?

[Elliott] I actually believe that after the elections the budget will be renegotiated. I think what we are at now is a process of getting through the election for some parties and that’s why it’s so frustrating. We need a programme for government delivered. We need a programme for government that the parties can work with and we need that developed so that we haven’t another four years of total stalemate on most issues. Then the budget needs to be reflected towards the programme for government.

Talking about the programme for government, Margaret Ritchie said:

[Ritchie] There’s a very small space of opportunity to negotiate a programme for government. But I would say quite clearly that the should have been a programme for government before the Executive were discussing and determining a draft budget. And in fact Sammy Wilson acknowledged that very fact to me, but they seemed to claim that we have a programme for government. But the programme for government simply relates to the current four year period and not to the future four year period.

With a stated intention of shrinking the number of departments, I wondered how rapid Tom Elliott’s timescale could be. Would you like to reduce the number of departments in May this year?

[Elliott] I would love to see it happening quickly but the reality of it is that it’ll not. We’ve already talked about this in the Assembly and Executive Review committee but there is a process we need to go through. We need to start that process and we haven’t done that yet. So what I’m saying is that we need to start the process of looking at the number of departments and number of assembly members. But that obviously needs to be done in conjunction with the boundary changes that may take place from Westminster. That needs to come in a cohesive approach.

Could you see departments shrinking within the next four year term or just at the end of it?

[Elliott] I think it needs to be done probably in the one block. But that could be done within the next four year period but certainly needs to be done by the end of it.

Asked the same question about an early reduction in the number of departments in May this year?

[Ritchie] Well that is also a very difficulty issue. We have never said that you shouldn’t look at the government departments, shouldn’t look at the numbers in the Assembly. In fact the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act that was a consequence of that was never meant to be set in stone. It was meant to be evolutionary. But with evolution still comes issues of trust and confidence, and you must be sure that power sharing is a cornerstone of that. Why is that? Because we still live in a divided society. So we must build a normal society and it’s all about building trust and confidence before you start going down that road. But there’s no harm in looking at it. We never said you shouldn’t look at it.