Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Harbour Estate: If you're going to sell goose that lays the golden egg then price must be right, says economist

By Rebecca Black

Sell it, but only if the price is right, a top economist has said.

Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey was speaking as speculation continues to grow over the potential sell-off of the Belfast Harbour Estate by our debt-stricken Executive.

Ukip MLA David McNarry has insisted that talks are pressing ahead on the sale of the Harbour Estate, hinting there is interest in the vast property from China.

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has refused to confirm or deny this, commenting only that any move to sell all or part of the Harbour Estate would require Executive agreement.

Chairman of the DRD committee at Stormont, the DUP's Trevor Clarke, said he is opened-minded about the idea, but a Sinn Fein spokesman underlined its opposition to the selling of the asset.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Ramsey said he would like to see more assets in private ownership but emphasised that the price is king.

"Price ultimately determines everything, because if you think of how in the past Gordon Brown sold off the UK gold reserves in the early 2000s, he picked almost the worst possible time unbeknown to him," he explained.

"Whereas if he had sold them off in 2011, the value was at a record high.

Mr Ramsey said for Northern Ireland the timing of a Harbour Estate sell-off would have been perfect if it had taken place at the height of the property boom.

"In broad terms what you have got with the port is a goose that lays a golden egg. If it is continuing to deliver and lay these golden eggs on a yearly basis, you are basically selling off the goose.

"In principle, I would be for having more private sector involvement in running the economy rather than state control. This is an example of something which could be run by the private sector. The key issue is that we maximise the price that we could get for this asset.

"It is important that we maximise the benefit and the value that we get out of that windfall in terms of investing in infrastructure and the economy."

Mr Clarke said, however, that a proposal has yet not come before the DRD committee.

He said he would take a pragmatic view of the idea of selling off the Harbour Estate.

"It would really depend on the terms - what you would get for it and what the outcome of that would be," he said.

"You would need to see what you are getting and making sure there would continue to be investment in the harbour. There has been a lot of money spent at the harbour in the last few years by DETI and our department so we would be concerned about that.

"It is still all very vague at the moment. Sometimes it can be prudent to sell an asset off. I wouldn't be one of those people who are precious about retaining the crown jewels. Everything should be put to a good use. I would take a pragmatic view about it."

Meanwhile, Mr McNarry insisted that the sale of the Belfast Harbour Estate is a "very serious business proposition".

"My understanding is that progress is being made in selling it off," he said. "It has to be given serious consideration, due to the dire straits that the Executive is in to raise money."

But the Ukip MLA also stressed that price is the key.

"I'm in favour of it being taken forward by private money, but I don't want to see it being sold off at a bad price," he said. "I want it sold to serious private developers, whose heart and soul will be in the harbour and its future."

Belfast Telegraph