Residents could be set to face a whole raft of new charges as Northern Ireland grapples with a dire financial outlook.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, has today (Wednesday) written to the Permanent Secretaries of the Northern Ireland departments, directing them to launch public consultations on measures to support budget sustainability and raise additional revenue, under his powers in the NI Interim Arrangements Act.
Public consultations will include similar measures to those that already exist in other parts of the UK, such as introducing domestic water and waste water charges, drug prescription charges, and increasing university tuition fees.
Separately to this exercise, the Secretary of State will also review the level of the domestic and non-domestic regional rate, given the importance of a balanced budget.
The purpose of these consultations is to gather views and contributions from stakeholders and the public on budget sustainability so that a restored Executive can use this insight to make decisions and take the necessary actions to put Northern Ireland’s finances on a more sustainable footing and pave the way for improvements to public services.
The UK Government has already provided over £7bn in additional funding support, on top of the Barnett based block grant since 2014. The Northern Ireland Executive receives around 20% more per head than equivalent UK Government spending in other parts of the UK. And yet, following the choices made by successive Executives, public finances are clearly not sustainable. Providing excellent public services requires generating revenue.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris said: “In order to improve the sustainability of public finances, generating revenue is not merely an option but a critical necessity.
“Of course, it is my clear wish that these matters were being dealt with by a fully functioning Executive and Assembly. And we are working tirelessly to bring that about.
“In the absence of an Executive, public consultations will be run by Northern Ireland departments on measures for supporting budget sustainability and raising additional revenue.
“Conducting these consultations will enable Northern Ireland departments to identify ways to improve the sustainability of public services and public finances, paving the way for long awaited improvement and transformation of these services that we all rely on and want to protect.
“I am keen that the public and all interested parties have an opportunity to consider the range of options being examined and to feed in their views.
“It is my expectation that a returning Executive will consider responses to these consultations and use this to make the necessary decisions to put Northern Ireland’s public finances on a sustainable footing. It is important that we do not lose momentum on this work.”
The Secretary of State will continue to engage with the Northern Ireland departments. Final decisions to implement any measures should be taken by the elected leaders of a restored Executive. Urgent action needs to be taken to get Northern Ireland’s finances under control and to deliver much-needed and long-promised public service reform.