Sinn Fein minister: parties want tap tax via back door
Conor Murphy has accused other parties of seeking to introduce water rates by the back door.
The Sinn Fein Regional Development Minister has hit out at other parties’ support for a mutualised water company to replace Northern Ireland Water, which would mean the company would be owned and run by its customers rather than the state.
Mr Murphy, who has responsibility for the troubled Northern Ireland Water service, directed his fire mainly at the SDLP, accusing it of suggesting that a mutualised water company, run in the interests of its customers without shareholders, could mean free water. The DUP and Alliance parties also favour the mutual model.
Welsh Water, the UK’s only mutualised company, charges customers more than privatised companies elsewhere in the UK. Its annual charge to households for water is £411, compared to the UK average of £356.
“Since we are not paying dividends to shareholders any profit we make goes back into the organisation to further improve services for customers,” said Sally Gronow, director of corporate communications for Welsh Water.
Bond holders (private investors) who lend money at low rates secured against Welsh Water’s income and its property. Since there is no subsidy from the Welsh Assembly, the mutual company must charge customers in order to raise finance. “I have listened to Conall McDevitt (of the SDLP) saying NIW was bankrupting the Executive and we need to find another way without water charges. You would almost think that nobody would have to pay if there was mutualisation,” Mr Murphy said.
Sinn Fein wants NIW brought into full public ownership so that the Executive could intervene directly if there was a crisis like the one last winter.
Mr Murphy admitted this would involve continued subsidies from the block grant Westminster pays us. Like a person taking out a mortgage, a mutual company could spread the cost of investment by borrowing.
However the costs would still have to be met, with interest, and could only be paid by cuts in other services or charges to customers.
Mr Murphy said “I will be bringing a paper to the Executive spelling out the alternatives. We need to take a decision in full knowledge of the facts,” he said.