Water charges in Northern Ireland are unlikely to be introduced for another two years, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has stated — but they will not be postponed indefinitely.
The Stormont Executive has yet to finalise any new decision on water charges but there has been speculation the additional monies needed to meet the cost of providing water could be raised through the regional rate.
But Mr Wilson said yesterday it was very unlikely the necessary legislation and underpinning arrangements could be in place to allow charging to begin by next April, the start of the next financial year.
A Department of Finance spokesman said the minister was setting out that the earliest possible date for charging to begin would then be April, 2012.
“I would far rather that the Executive would concentrate on our plan of how we can cut down the administration in Northern Ireland before we actually start finding ways of taking money off people,” the DUP minister told Radio Ulster.
And while he said he believed that the introduction of water charges is “inevitable”, he conceded the importance of the belief the Executive is making the best use of its revenue.
New Chancellor George Osborne, who is expected to detail the extent of public spending cuts on Monday, may seek savings in Northern Ireland of between £120 million and £150 million.
Mr Wilson said decisions beyond that point would be based in part on how much money is returned to the Department of Finance from other unspent departmental budgets.
Meanwhile, SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said she has received numerous complaints from businesses about water bills.
“If this is the payment regime Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy is intending to impose on domestic water users he needs to think again,” the Upper Bann MLA claimed.
“Nothing we hear about Northern Ireland Water, from board level to local level, inspires confidence.
“It is based on a privatisation concept which is going nowhere when what people want is a simple public service that delivers.”