Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 4 October 2015

It's still not plain sailing for our port

Published 27/12/2006

The article Port in a Storm, (Belfast Telegraph, December 12) questioned the Department for Regional Development's motivation in its recent consultation on the powers, status and governance of the public trust ports in Northern Ireland.

Two contributors suggested "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

The implication was that the decisions taken by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2001 and 2002 had effectively settled the debate about trust port status for the foreseeable future.

But since 2002, there has been a fundamental change in the status of trust ports throughout the UK, arising from an earlier decision made by the Office for National Statistics.

This has had the effect since April 2005 that trust ports are treated as public corporations.

One consequence is that for the first time, the trust ports in Northern Ireland come within the public expenditure system and must get Government approval for their borrowings.

As the Department for Regional Development consultation paper published in June 2006 pointed out, it is questionable whether trust ports operating within constraints of the public expenditure system could derive full advantage from having extended commercial freedoms.

However, to take the trust ports out of public corporation status to give them greater commercial freedom would involve removing the very controls that the Northern Ireland Assembly had wanted to put in place to ensure proper public accountability.

There is no doubt that public corporation status, which is the result of current public control over the trust ports, will increasingly impact on their ability to act commercially.

A key purpose of the recent consultation on the Northern Ireland trust ports within the Ports Policy Review was therefore to invite answers to the question: Do we want the trust ports to have greater commercial freedom or do we want to retain current levels of public accountability and control? This is the question that will need to be resolved as part of Ministers' decisions following consultation.

B R D White Director of Ports and Public Transport Division, Department for Regional Development

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