Belfast Telegraph

Hawking of family silver now inevitable

By Rebecca Black

Selling the family silver to pay off debts is not a new concept, but in Northern Ireland we have been more reticent to undertake such measures than other parts of the UK.

It is a policy that the Conservative Party seems particularly fond of, with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers encouraging the sale of assets for more than a year now.

In December 2013, she spoke of a possibility of the Government being prepared to hand over Ministry of Defence property to the Executive and allow it to keep the proceeds - if it would sell off public assets such as Belfast Port.

Stormont owns a huge amount of property and assets across Northern Ireland, as assorted as Donaghadee harbour to our forests, buildings and public transport system.

With the Executive's reluctance to introduce revenue-raising measures such as water rates in draft budget proposals so far - and now having a £700m loan to pay back to the Treasury - there appears to be few other options.

Asset selling has its critics, and even supporters have voiced concern that they should be sold for a good price.

Northern Ireland is the last part of the UK and Ireland to continue public ownership of transport, and Scotland is the only other part of the UK that retains the water service in public ownership.

Putting either Translink or NI Water on the market will be a complicated business. Both currently rely on subsidies from Stormont to stay afloat and both urgently require significant investment in their infrastructure.

NI Water is the most appealing of the two, with a growing profit year on year, and Chinese interest indicated.

It is understood that Translink may be split into a train service and a bus service if offered on the market.

With revised budget proposals currently being worked on in the Department of Finance based on the new loans, it is clear that the financial pain has merely been postponed unless new money can be found.

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