Belfast Telegraph

Translink could be sold as Stormont crisis may force transport and NI Water privatisation

Harbour will also go private, says MLA

By Adrian Rutherford and Rebecca Black

Northern Ireland's public transport network could be privatised as part of the £2bn financial package for Stormont, it has been claimed.

Ukip MLA David McNarry said he believed that the transfer of ownership of our bus and rail system was on the table.

And he said it could be followed by the sale of NI Water.

The Department for Regional Development, which has overall responsibility for transport and water, denied the claims.

An SDLP talks participant told the Belfast Telegraph the sale of assets had been mentioned in negotiations, but not specifically the sale of Translink and NI Water.

However, Mr McNarry, a member of Stormont's DRD committee, said he understood the transfer of both utilities had been discussed.

It is believed to be necessary as Stormont faces up to paying back recent loans from the UK Treasury. Last month politicians agreed to embark on a major programme of public sector redundancies, paying off thousands of civil servants.

The pay-offs will be funded by a £700m Government loan. Westminster is understood to be advising the sale of assets to help pay back the loan.

"I am told this will happen - this is what is needed to meet David Cameron's pound of flesh," Mr McNarry insisted.

"It is clear if you look at the Stormont House Agreement that we have to sell our assets.

"The assets that can raise money are Belfast Harbour, which is going to be sold, and NI Water.

"It also means getting rid of a transport system which is costing an arm and a leg to run."

Mr McNarry said he understood it had been "agreed in principle" at the talks that NI Water would be sold and transport privatised.

Although this has been rejected by the DRD, it is not the first time suggestions of a privatised transport system have been mooted.

In September 2013 a report by the regional development committee recommended that private operators be allowed to tender for the running of services.

A report said it should include the planned Belfast Rapid Transit system.

First Minister Peter Robinson later said the Executive had no intention of privatising rail and bus services.

Mr Robinson said it was important that people continued to get value for money when they used public transport.

Translink receives around £140m a year from the public purse, while NI Water says it receives around 64% of its £430m income from government.

In terms of their value on the market, NI Water has been estimated as being worth between £500m and £800m, while Translink is harder to put a price on. It is understood if put on the market, Translink would be split into two companies - buses and trains.

Economist John Simpson expressed reservation at the idea due to the subsidies NI Water and Translink receive to stay afloat.

"NI Water is only profitable because of the formula that is used to give it revenue from the taxpayer," he said.

"Neither are a particularly easy way of raising money and both are a one-off deal - you sell the family silver and then what are you going to do next time? The short answer is that Northern Ireland needs more revenue, the Executive needs to face up to the fact it is allowing us all to pay £500 a year per household less than if we lived in Britain. If there is a real need to raise more revenue, it is needed on a continuing basis, and the best way to do that would be to alter the degree to which the Executive is subsidising households."

Mr Simpson also said that while the budget pressures may be relieved slightly following the Stormont House Agreement, they will still be difficult.

"We are now waiting for (Finance Minister) Simon Hamilton to re-do his budget calculations. He hasn't got enough from the Stormont talks to take the pain away, the budget will still be difficult even though it may not be quite as difficult as the budget he put out for consultation in November was," he said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Regional Development said: "There are no plans to privatise either NIW or Translink."

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph