Friday, 17 December 2010

Mealy mouthed on water charges

I'm reluctant to have yet another pop at the Ulster Unionists, but they do so frequently lay themselves open to criticism.

Take the latest furore surrounding John McCallister and his comments on water charging.  The UUP deputy leader suggested on the Nolan Show that household bills may be a lesser evil if they were to lead to better protected public services.  It was an eminently sensible comment.

There is a strong parallel between water charges and student fees.  Neither water nor education is ever free.  Somebody is picking up the bill, whether the cost is applied directly, or pocketed more surreptitiously from the public purse.  

No water charge means a sacrifice elsewhere.  No amount of pathetic, fantasy land, little Ulster, neo-Keynsian press releases from the DUP should persuade anyone otherwise.

But here's the difficulty.  Certain UUP figures rushed to disclaim McCallister's comments and now the party has issued a mealy-mouthed clarification stating that it is happy with the status quo, vis-a-vis water charges.  Apparently its deputy leader was musing on the position in 2007 (or something)!  

(Insert a Paxmanesque drawn out 'yessssssss' - copyright Ultonia)

The issue of water charges has been around since Peter Hain used them as a stick with which to beat the DUP and Sinn Féin into a power-sharing Executive.  Yet the UUP still doesn't know where it stands on the issue.  In its press release the party calls for an 'open and honest debate' on the bills.  

What on earth has been keeping it?

I'm convinced that the Alliance party is pointless, but among all the parties in Northern Ireland it is the only one of any size which has slaughtered the absurd holy cow that water charges must be endlessly deferred.  That shows some guts.  

The UUP has joined the rest, hmming and haaing.  Sometimes indicating that it's prepared to countenance charges, then wheeling back out of populism, or in order to mollify its left wing.  Yes, the DUP is inconsistent too, but that shouldn't hinder the Ulster Unionist party making its position clear.

This reluctance to form a solid position on any issue is quite a recurrent theme for the UUP.  Look at David McNarry's economy document which exhorted the Executive, to erm .... do unspecified stuff.  

With the best will in the world, the UUP is not going to recover until voters have some idea what it actually stands for.  Being 'unionist' and not too nasty is simply not enough.  The party really can do better.


K D Tennent said...

A true Unionist would support water charges - because that's what we have in the rest of the UK.

Joanne said...

Agree with KD. Having paid my water rates in GB, it is very easy for me to say 'Get over it, NI'. I would like to see more detail in the rates calculation, and therefore a reflected reduction in rates once water charges levied. How does my Council spend my £? Community charge for all UK dwellers?

Anonymous said...

People in Northern Ireland already pay for water. The McCallister proposal was to make them pay twice i.e. £100 flat rate on top of that which they are already paying through the Regional Rate.

Anonymous said...

People in NI do NOT pay for water they make a small contribution to its cost.

Please want to bleat about a reduction in services yet don't want to pay for what they use, no one pays my heating bill or telephone bill, so why should they pay my water bill?

Joanne said...

My favourite was a radio listener who called in because they felt this was 'a nonsense. Water is free, it comes out of the sky'.

Chekov said...

Lol. So stick yer bath tub in the back garden and detach yerself from the supply!

Anonymous said...

Water Rates have always been paid for in local rates.
in Northern Ireland.

See documented evidence below:

The reason WR are paid separately in mainland UK is because Mrs Thatcher sold off water & Sewerage from public control to private enterprise in 1989.
Only if the NI execuitive decide to sell W&S to private enterprise will there be a separate WR bill.

Regional rate

The regional rate is set annually by the Northern Ireland Executive and is applied to each district council area in Northern Ireland. This pays for such services as:

emergency services
water and sewerage

K D Tennent said...


Yes - but:

1. Water is still state owned in Scotland, yet you must pay a separate water rate there.
2. Water companies in England and Wales receive no public subsidy. It would be interesting to see what subsidy NI water gets, given that local authorities generally receive around 65% of their funding from government. My guess is that the NI consumer probably bears only about 25% of the cost of water supply, if that. Added to that is the cost of infrastructure replacement as much of the Victorian infra is life expired. Why should I pay your water bill as well as mine here in England?

To get people onside they should privatise NI water and allow only people in NI to buy shares, perhaps with a two-for-one offer. Those buying the shares will then benefit from a serious windfall when the inevitable buyout from Severn Trent comes!

Anonymous said...

John McCallister's unfortunate error seems to have lost the UUP at least one councillor

Anonymous said...

"Why should I pay your water bill as well as mine here in England?"

Nonsense, NI citizens pay for both water & sewerage in their regional rates, and have done so since 1922.

"To get people onside they should privatise NI water and allow only people in NI to buy shares, perhaps with a two-for-one offer."

The reason Margaret Thatcher sold off water & sewerage to private enterprise in 1989 was because sewerage systems was in total chaos. The hyping up of new private water bills was a con trick to make the public pay for a century of poor maintenance of victorian sewerage systems by past Westminster governments & local councils.

Furthermore NI has only 1.7 million population and our water and sewerage systems is nowhere near the total chaos England & Wales was in in 1989. So why should the NI privatise water & sewerage because England & Wales did?

Chekov said...

Actually Northern Ireland Water is incredibly inefficient and if water charges were fairly applied in Northern Ireland they would be the highest in the UK. Liam Clarke  is in barn-storming form about the basis upon which they're deferred. Part of the impetus for water-charging when it was mooted by the Labour government was the lamentable state of NI's sewerage system and its failure to meet EU standards. So stop spouting anonymous nonsense please.

Anonymous said...

If I am spouting nonsense Chekof, why has the leader of the UUP and other 16 UUP MLA's not come out and and support McCallister?

Chekov said...

Because they're spineless. They don't want to hand initiative on an 'emotive issue' to the DUP.

K D Tennent said...

Maybe you should declare your interest here Anonymous?

Of course the privatised system in England and Wales is far from perfect - but it has, in the main, funded the renewal of the system, and given firms an incentive to do this. As you note, the sewerage system in England and Wales was 'in a mess' - so why should I have paid for the replacement of NI's Victorian pipes, which has clearly already been funded in the state sector, when I have to fund the replacement of those in my own country? I'd be very interested to know what the funding balance of NI water is between 'regional rates' and government subsidy. I have a sense you might know as well...

Anonymous said...

KD Tennent, you, are the one who have to produce documentary evidence, to prove that NI water is partly paid for by taxpayers of England & Wales. Not me, I have already produced evidence ( below) that NI regional rates pay for NI water & sewerage, and will do so for the next four years (rising annually by inflation) according to the recent budget release by NI finance minister Sammy Wilson MP MLA.

Chekov said...

Scotland operates separate water charges and Scottish Water isn't privatised.

K D Tennent said...

NI Water's last annual report, 2008/09 does not mention rates as a source of income. Instead, in notes on what constitutes the company's 'turnover' on p.51 it notes:

- The DRD provides substantial
revenue funding to the business and
will continue to do so until domestic
charging is introduced;
- The DRD also provides a capital loan
facility to fund the capital expenditure
for the business.


Turnover represents:
(i) The income receivable (excluding
VAT) in the ordinary course of business
for goods and services provided and,
in respect of unbilled charges, includes
an accrual for estimated consumption
not yet invoiced; and
(ii) Customer subsidy provided by the
DRD relating to the deferment of the
introduction of domestic charges that
were planned for 1 April 2007.

Rather nebulous, but its interesting to note that the word 'subsidy' is used and there is no mention of Local Authorities as collectors of funding. It is, indeed, possible that NI water funds its operating costs from NI rates.

But what the cost of capital? Section d) on p52 suggests that capital expenditure is met by 'grants, contributions and capital subsidies', some of which originate from central government. Even if UK taxpayers do not fund the day to day operation of NI water, it would appear that they play a role in fundng capital expenditure.

I will concede this to you Anonymous - NI Water is makes a profit, in accounting terms at least - some of which is returned to the government in taxes and occasional dividends. But the point remains - is it really fair that the whole UK picks up the tab for capital expenditure when English and Welsh water customers partly pay for it through their bills?

Anonymous said...

KD Tennent, following talks that resulted in the St Andrews Agreement being accepted in November 2006, an election to the NI Assembly was held on 7 March 2007 and full power was restored to the devolved institutions on 8 May 2007. All ministerial decisions ( except for foreign office and MOD) are now under the control of NI assembly since policing and justice were transferred on 12 April 2010.

As a UUP member, veteran of HM armed forces and NI senior citizen living on a state pension I am delighted with the finance minister Sammy Wilson's decision not to charge a separate water rates bill, at least until 2014.

If you still think some of your tax (I presume you live in England) is being used to subsidise water & sewerage bills here in NI you are not happy about, then I suggest you go and see your MP and make a complaint.

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