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.

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  • “result of becoming mutualised”

    Shane Lynch, the regulator has waded into the debate following the announcement that Ireland is to move to a single water utility with metered charging.

    “Referring to planned billing in the Republic, he said: “Northern Ireland will be the only place that doesn’t have water charges in a few years’ time. Is there ultimately an opportunity to do it on an all-island basis? Yes.””

    Lynch’s comments will generate a measure of heat in Unionist circles. They may well coincide with the views of the Minister 😉

    Felicity Huston, before she stepped down from the role belatedly last September, was a NED of Mutual Energy**. ME looks a bit like a select golf club ie membership by invitation and a great dearth of women in a body supposedly designed to represent the customers. Perhaps Margaret should get her teeth into this equality issue 🙂

    ** website needs updating.

  • fitzjameshorse1745 – fixed – unintentional!

  • Zig70

    Does anyone know how much of our rates currently goes to NIW? I love the Alliance / Lib dem thing of ‘we’re not afraid to come out with vote losing statements on principal’. Good luck with that.
    I’m not against water charges as long as it comes with a reduction in rates and without privatisation. Though I think Conor Murphy’s idea of bringing it into the department is worse than privatisation. Like a bad manager who smothers the department by trying to micromanage something he doesn’t have the skills for.
    The government system here needs a blank paper start and we shouldn’t really ask the politicians to hang themselves, but they aren’t daft enough to left someone else do it, so it’s going to be a drip drip approach. Though if Ritchie is committed to a UI then she should be advocating mirroring the system in the south to smooth the transition. I’d love to see the response. 6 county councils sounds reasonable to me.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Zig, that is exactly the point Tom Elliott was making, we need real figures of how much water will cost us over the next decade, and then work out how we pay for it, there is much too much guess work atm. at the least our bills should show how much goes towards NIW.

  • Carsons Cat

    So the participants it would seem can be summed up:

    Weir & Farry – knew what they were talking about.

    Ritchie – sounds like she was sulky and ‘stoopy’ – stuck to the party line, no matter how ridiculous that might be.

    McKay – hadn’t a clue what he was on about, but at least had the wit to keep his mouth shut.

    Elliott – talked in platitudes and vague nonsense that some “wee woman” in the street allegedly had told him.

  • Mick Fealty

    Zig, fair point. But in truth someone had to say something honest about the substance of the matter. Everyone knows that they have to pay for water in the rates bill, but no one knows how much, or how much goes to pay for it.

    The biggest reason for ring fencing that money through hypothecation is to make sure there is enough to pay for the kinds of investment that’s needed, regardless of the Whitehall cuts; whether through external borrowing, or money taken through water rates.

    That’s not easy to agree to when you are a Minister in a high spending department (as we heard) like Education or Health who can effectively raid the water pot to pay for something more pressing/urgent/electorally alluring.


    That was an unexpected blast last night with the educated audience not taking any crap from the main speakers. It’s something we would certainly be interested in partnering again. With a longer lead in time, I’m sure we could do more.

    My impression is that through the live blog and the Twitter conversation we reached at least as many people as were in the hall (and probably a great deal more) as well as providing some reliable and authoritative reporting.

  • One improvement would be to make sure that the physical audience is more often reminded about the wider streaming audience … and the need for people to use mics otherwise they won’t be heard on the interwebs. And by only getting through the four pre-arranged questions, there was no time to take comments from the floor, never mind from those online.

    While I’m not a massive fan of twitter-walls in the background, a moderated one might have helped bridge the divide.

  • Mick Fealty

    Agree on the moderated nature of the Twitter wall. Not keen on them at live events myself since they have a rudely disruptive quality to them that can be disturbing for audience and speakers…

  • But they can at least remind the in-room audience that they are not alone.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Thank you. Obviously it was unintentional and the result of “late night editing”. I had to point it up immediately as it just looked wrong.
    It was far too late last night for me to make any comment on the substance…..but actually there wasnt much.
    Mr McKay…the acceptable face of Sinn Féin just had to look like the acceptable face of SF so that the sophisticated audience could eel sophisticated about being in the same room.
    Mr Farry….might well have said the unsayable but he wont be saying that to DLA claimants when hes out knocking doors in Bangor in two months time.
    Likewise Margaret Ritchie was not making a speech to the SDLP Conference and its kinda unfair to say that she wasnt prioritising Irish Unity. Hardly going to be a big issue in May. Take Irish Unity as read.

    I take Mr Fealtys point that this was an intelligent audience. Happily the actual electorate are just plain folks like me. Which makes me wonder why any politician needs to go to this “misnamed” Husting.

  • Mick Fealty

    FJH. No politician needs to go to any hustings event, online or otherwise (http://eis.bris.ac.uk/~plcdib/burke.html).

    BTW, I’ve been watching “The Trap” over the last day or two. You should try it, I think you’d like it. It’s on Google Video.

  • Chartered surveyers ‘value property, look for structural defects in buildings. They also provide expert consultancy advice in property, construction and related environmental issues’.

    And we expect/need our ‘unchartered’ politicians to do a similar but even more difficult, more complex job …..

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Yes but chartered surveyors cost even more.
    Oh I think that if four politicians agree to show up at these things, then the fifth will have to show up. But really all it should take is for the five of them to have a cup of tea in Stormont and all agree not to bother and engage the electorate more directly.

  • “Yes but chartered surveyors cost even more.”

    We don’t expect school cleaners to run our schools yet we elect folks with fewer skills to run our government.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    yes…….we ELECT them.

  • 241934 john brennan

    Ritchie:”There’s a very small space of opportunity to negotiate a programme for government. But I would say quite clearly that there 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 do have a programme for government. But the programme for government simply relates to the current four year period (now ending) and not to the future four year period.”

    From the above and from my own reading of recent reports and broadcasts, The SDLP is of the view that the present draft budget is so shambolic it is not realistic enough to deal separately with items like water charges, unless included in an agreed long term plan –which doesn’t exist.

    The SDLP seems to be of the view that the Budget needs to be improved substantially before it can be regarded as fit for purpose. It is ‘patch and mend, lacking ….imagination” (Price Cooper Waterhouse consultant’s report) with no underlying principles. It lacks vision; it lacks a strategy and lacks any coherent program for Government.

    The budget meets some basic DUP requirements by leaving the UUP Ministries with most cuts in their departments of health and education. Predictably when faced with a choice of doing the right thing or shafting their political opponents – the DUP chooses the latter course.

    And they have sold £4billion of cuts to the self-styled champions of equality. SF has swallowed the prospect of doubling student fees, making third level education the preserve of the rich. This was achieved through the usual tactic of giving SF something for themselves alone.
    The £80 million slush fund known as the Social Investment Fund is the gift binding Sinn Fein into support for the cuts. SF doesn’t know what to do with the money apart from giving it to their friends. DUP doesn’t care what SF do with it. It was simply a price they had to pay.

    That particular slush fund should be reallocated to support vulnerable households, frontline services and job creation.

    SF has abandoned the poor in the North and attacks the wealth creators in the South.

    In the Ireland of equals, SF are green Tories in the North and red socialists in the South.

  • But they’re unchartered, fjh 🙂

    As has been pointed out some couldn’t run a message or a bath – and they’re spending your money 🙂

  • “Last week the minister confirmed that a team of audit, fraud, management and personnel experts had been sent into NIHE.” BBC October 11, 2010

    JB, any news from DSD about progress with this investigation? It doesn’t seem to have the same forensic investigation by the MSM and bloggers as NIW.