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SF and DUP unite to prevent introduction of water charges in Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

Published 15/09/2016

Pleased: Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy
Pleased: Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy

The Executive has again agreed to block the introduction of water charges that would cost Northern Ireland households an average £400 a year.

The Executive has again agreed to block the introduction of water charges that would cost Northern Ireland households an average £400 a year.

Ministers yesterday voted to maintain their current position of opposing extra domestic charges, which involves an annual subsidy of around £300m to NI Water.

The charges would, if brought in, help offset the Treasury's cuts to the province's block grant caused by to the introduction of corporation tax powers.

But a joint Sinn Fein and DUP proposal at yesterday's Executive meeting - the first after the summer recess - will ensure the continuation of the policy against water charges for the foreseeable future.

Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said afterwards: "I am pleased that the Executive backed this proposal and that homeowners in the North will not be charged for water.

"Access to water is a basic right and we will ensure that water charges will continue to be blocked. Sinn Fein remains absolutely opposed to the introduction of domestic water charges, North or South."

A paper commissioned by the Executive more than 18 months ago, however, questioned whether the subsidy to NI Water was till "prudent".

It pointed out that Northern Ireland was unique in the UK with householders not paying a direct charge for water and sewerage services, although it conceded they do "make an indirect contribution through the domestic regional rate".

The paper argued, "Given this predicted sustained period of budget constraint in Northern Ireland, due consideration should be given to financing measures outside the usual Westminster allocations" - and included a range of ideas, with extra borrowing among them.

"Given the regional rate only constitutes part of the Northern Ireland total household rates bill, a question arises about the basis for the Executive's assessment of consumer confidence," it added.

"By not introducing water charges to Northern Ireland, the Executive is effectively left with no choice but to support NI Water financially, by approximately £300m a year.

"This subsidy is projected to increase in the coming years. Is it prudent that the Executive continues to subsidise NI Water to the extent it does?"

In the last debate in the Assembly, however, MLAs backed a DUP motion reaffirming the rejection "of the imposition of water rates on the people of Northern Ireland",

DUP MLA Trevor Clarke said: "We are all familiar with the fact that the water charge would be, on average, just over £400 per household.

"The average rates bill per household is approximately £800. For many, it is a struggle to find what they have to pay without an additional burden being put on them."

Alliance is the only main party at Stormont that has supported the possible introduction of water charges in the past, among a range of other options.

In the last debate, however, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle argued: "We oppose the introduction of additional water charges at this time because other Executive parties have failed to tackle waste and inefficiency in their departments.

"We do, however, need to give serious consideration as to how water and sewerage infrastructure will be adequately financed and governed if fit-for-purpose provision for existing and new customers, environmental protection, flood prevention and economic growth are to be achieved.

"Alliance believes that existing charges for water should be more open and transparent.

"Households should have an identifiable charge for water separated from the rates bill, with no household paying twice.

"That would provide a clearer picture of how our water and sewerage system is being paid for, with protections for vulnerable households."

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