New Executive should consider local tax rises but first it needs to tackle its low levels of trust..

David Gordon asks if it is time for an open conversation about the need to fund stretched public services, and bite the bullet hard:

The vast majority of us value public services – the schools that educate our children, the hospitals that make us better, the roads and public transport systems that keep us moving in our daily lives.

But just how much we are prepared to pay for them through taxation is seemingly a more complicated matter. Let’s take two examples close to home.

The current waiting lists in our health service are unacceptable. So would you happily accept a modest increase in your household rates to help fund a major push to eradicate those waiting times? Perhaps £10 a month extra? £15? Higher? Lower?

What about transport, and the recurring problem of gridlock around Belfast city centre? It would seem that only a massive investment in both public transport and the road network can satisfactorily address that issue.

Would you pay more rates for that? What about road tolls or a congestion charge? The chances are that any such proposal would be met with uproar – including from the middle classes who happily pay tolls on their way to Dublin Airport or “the rugger” at the Aviva.

It now seems to be one of the natural laws in politics – don’t increase taxes if you want to win elections. So be it. If that’s the case, then it is going to come with a price. There are some really serious pressures on public spending building up.

It is noticeable in Scotland that despite having enhanced taxation powers, none of them have actually been used. Belfast City Council aped Castlereagh’s early policy of freezing rate rises and suffered no damage at the polls. The last tax hike on the island was the Universal Social Charge, forced on the FF led

The last tax hike on the island was the Universal Social Charge, forced on the FF led government by a sudden catastrophic crash in income tax revenues. Even if it did contribute to an early recovery, the party certainly wasn’t thanked for it at the polls.

Gordon gives us some scary stats to chew on:

“In 2013 there were estimated to be 279,000 people aged 65 and over, with 33,000 of them over 85 years. This is projected to increase considerably in the next 20 years to 456,000 and 79,000 respectively.”

People living longer is a good news story. However, it will also add significantly to the demands on public services.

Older age brings what Bengoa described as “an increased likelihood of some degree of disability, dependency and illness”.

The report also said: “The rate of disability among those aged over 85 is 67% compared with only 5% among young adults. Dementia is also a growing issue for our older population, with 60,000 people projected to be suffering from the condition by 2051.”

Have you had enough disturbing statistics yet?

Here’s Bengoa again: “In terms of costs, users aged over 65 account for more than two-fifths of HSC spending – 42%, compared to their population share of 14%. Whereas the average cost of treating a 55-59 year old stands at £1,970 per head, this rises to over £6,000 for 75-79 year olds and £14,000 for the over 85s.”

There’s a legitimate caveat to all of this which relates to the degree of trust that people have in government may relate to the degree to which they are willing to offer up their hard earned cash to pay for public goods.

The speed at which apparently worthy projects (like SF’s 10 year health plan) were dropped with barely a thought to the financial consequences for said Health service, is hardly conducive to building sufficient trust to begin building investment.

As Baroness Onora O’Neill pointed out in one of her 2002 Reith lectures (long before ‘fake news’ was hashtagged and loaded into social gossip engines like Twitter), “deception is the real enemy of trust”:

In a world in which information and misinformation are ‘generated’, in which good drafting is a vanishing art, in which so-called information ‘products’ can be transmitted, reformatted and adjusted, embroidered and elaborated, shaped and spun, repeated and respun, it can be quite hard to assess truth or falsehood.

Paradoxically then, in the new information order, those who choose to make up information or to pass it on without checking its accuracy, have rather an easy time. Positions are often maintained in the face of widely available and well-authenticated contrary evidence. Supposed sources proliferate, leaving many of us unsure where and whether there is adequate evidence for or against contested claims.



  • murdockp

    Firstly, commiserations to the family, friends and colleagues of Martin McGuinness.

    This is an interesting article which is moving us into the dangerous territory of raising taxes.

    This place already spends £2,000 per capita more on public services than the rest of the UK. We have more civil servants and public sector workers per capita and we already pay more for Rates than the rest of the UK. I think we can all agree the system is broken and needs radical reform.

    NI does not need anymore money. It needs wholesale public sector reform and a serious look at outsourcing services to private sector firms that can do the job better and cheaper and more efficiently. The private sector can also start to provide services that the government should not be paying for. e.g. most people would be happy to pay a toll to cross the proposed Narrow Water Bridge if it meant the project went ahead which would mean the project would be a private sector project.

    We all know of fire stations where they just polish their fire engines every day and have little to do, who know of people receiving free DLA cars and boasting about it, we know the wealthy receive free prescriptions. There is much that can be done.

    The same goes for all other sorts of projects, the days of councils building conference centres and office blocks and endless red tape that stops economic progress has to stop and let the private sector take the slack and allow the public sector to spend the funds where they are needed. .

    This is not slash and burn of public services. This is just about working smarter.

    More taxes will just encourage the wealth creators / entrepreneurs jump on a plane.

    But I guess we are a socialist state, change and reform is next to impossible when the only decent jobs are in the public sector in the first place.

  • hugh mccloy

    NI water is a stealth tax and huge liability collector.

  • Tarlas

    All to true.

    It is time for some real leadership of this failed economic system. I hope that hiding behind cultural ideologies, may no longer be an option.

    The NHS is but one part, that is struggling; some blame the EU, yet I read an article by a journalist who had a minor motorcycle accident in France. He was impressed by the efficiency and thoroughness of their A&E health service algorithm.

    Some journalistic articles are suggesting that post Brexit a trade deal with the US; may entail a US style health service coming to a town near you.

    (My mother a retired Registered Nurse, had a minor emergency recently and after two days in hospital for telemetry assessment was released pending ultrasound/echo assessment, to determine cause. Apparently a 6 mth wait plus 6 week lead time to get results interpreted and forwarded to the doctor is average. We enquired what private options there were, and low and behold she could have been seen that afternoon or next morning. £350 quid and it was all over, complete with results for her doctor). What would the economic cost to taxpayers be; had a preventative event occurred during that 7 month wait? And alas all to many patients unable to afford private health, will become victims of failings in the NHS health care algorithm. We are getting closer to the US health care model than we think !

    Fintan O Toole produced an article on the peace process around 1999 on the economics of the troubles. The people and businesses that fed on the sickness; had and some still have a vested interest in prolonging strife to protect their interests. I think rather than increasing the tax burden, the diseased areas of this region need to forensically examined and the economic scalpel wielded.

    Brexit and the realities of it may be the catalyst that will necessitate the change.

    If so, it will be tough!

  • chrisjones2

    Agreed… the problem is the ineffiiciency waste and duplication of services across the board. Pouring new money into a broken system just leads to a bigger broken system.

    I listend to a vox pop in the election among Fermanagh voters. It was simple. Omagh had a huge new hospital. They wanted one in Fermanagh – and a local cancer centre like the one in Belfast and all looked to Arlene to deliver it

  • Paul Culloty

    Re the main issue, Fine Gael campaigned in the last Dáil election to eliminate the USC, but both FF and the Social Democrats managed to redirect the narrative towards concentration on public services, and parties operating on that basis either held their own or gained support, compared to FG’s decline. Certainly, the USC has rather fallen down the priority list since.

  • hgreen

    Absolutely tolls should be introduced to pay for new infrastructure projects. A conjestion charge should also be considered for Belfast as well to pay for essential public transport and cycling improvements.

    As for health. The disaster that is social care funding is a political decision by the Tories. We shouldn’t let them off the hook on this by introducing additional taxes on N.I. citizens.

  • Old Mortality

    ‘The disaster that is social care funding is a political decision by the Tories.’
    That is a wholly devolved matter. Stormont is free to spend as much or as little on it as it wants. NI has universal free prescriptions, England does not.

  • hgreen

    This is a common yet specious argument. Levels of taxation and thus revenues which feed through to the devolved administrations are set by the U.K. Govt. Thus the disaster that is social care funding is a political decision by the Tories.