Nichola Mallon opposes water charges, but won't rule out rises in household rates bills
Northern Ireland's new Infrastructure Minister has outlined her staunch opposition to water charges - but said discussions "will have to be had" over possible rates rises instead.
Infrastructure is set to form a key part of the Executive's spending programme, with several major road schemes running to tens of millions of pounds in the pipeline.
Nichola Mallon said she is determined to progress as many flagship projects as possible, but acknowledged that difficult decisions may have to be taken to deliver on the Executive's wide-ranging spending plans, which also include pledges on health, education and justice.
Last night the UK Government said £2bn would be made available to support the new Executive - well short of the £5bn which economist Esmond Birnie estimated would be needed.
In her first major newspaper interview since being appointed to the Executive, the SDLP politician discussed issues ranging from investment in waste water infrastructure to roads projects and Belfast's controversial bus lanes.
Sitting in her ministerial office at Clarence Court in Belfast city centre, Ms Mallon (40) gave an assurance that water charges will not be imposed on her watch.
"Whether as a minister or as an MLA, my job is to help struggling families, not to add to their burden," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
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"It's the SDLP's policy that we're not in support of water charges.
"In fact, a number of political parties around the Executive table, including the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, have also come out to say that they share our view on it; that there won't be the imposition of water charges."
Asked if that means we will instead see a hike in household rates, which currently incorporate the cost of water, she replied: "These are discussions that we have to have".
She added: "At this stage we haven't really had the chance to get round the Executive table and delve into deep issues."
Ms Mallon said their focus so far has been to "collectively address the pressure points in terms of pay parity for our low paid nurses and health care workers" while also "working together in our continued negotiations with the Treasury in terms of ensuring that the British Government honours its financial commitments".
Northern Ireland's creaking waste water infrastructure which is at, or very near, capacity across the region is one of the new minister's key priorities, with £2.5bn needed to fix the water and sewerage systems.
But while "the need for urgent investment is an upfront commitment within the New Decade, New Approach agreement", Ms Mallon said there are, nevertheless, no cast-iron guarantees on funding.
"I'm very keen that it has to happen because if we don't invest in our waste water infrastructure then we cannot meet a number of the Programme for Government objectives," she said.
"It's the key to unlocking our potential and it's the key to unlocking investment and growth."
She added: "We're still in negotiations with the Treasury about the financial commitment from the British Government." Other projects in her bulging in-tray include the A5 and A6 roads, the York Street Interchange, Narrow Water Bridge, the high speed rail connection between Belfast and Dublin and the Ulster canal, with associated costs expected to hit £1.2bn.
Again, the determined politician indicated that she hopes the necessary funding will be forthcoming.
"Infrastructure projects are named front and centre in this agreement, which we have entered in good faith with all political parties, but also with the two governments and we will continue to work with them to ensure that the commitments are all honoured," she said.
In terms of the cost and time frame specifically associated with the York Street Interchange, Ms Mallon said she has "sought an early briefing" with her officials on that project, after which "I'll be in a position to advise".
She added: "During my two-year tenure I want to progress as many key issues as possible but I want to ensure that we have greener infrastructure as well, and that we have greater sustainable public transport to connect communities."
On Belfast's controversial bus lanes, Ms Mallon acknowledged that there "has been some frustration" with them and said she is "a big believer in the use of public transport".
Ms Mallon, who signalled her commitment to reducing her carbon footprint by arriving at Stormont in an electric car on the first day of work on Monday, said that part of her job entails "encouraging people to change behaviours".
"We need to look at encouraging more parents and children where possible to walk to school. We also need to look at things like the promotion of e-cars and more e-charging points across Northern Ireland and in rural areas, and how we can encourage people to switch to greener options."