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.


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty