Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
20 February 2007

In a debate on the Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 in the Grand Committee of theHouse of Lords on 21 February 2007 Lord Trimble said,

'This is a rather curious thing to be called a Budget. Normally, when you think of budgeting, you think about what your income will be, where you are going to get it from, the total of that income, and then you think about expenditure. At least one hopes that you think about it in that order. If you think about it in a different order, it can be embarrassing. But this document, called a Budget, is merely parcelling out expenditure; so it is not a Budget in the real sense. That may be because the financing of Northern Ireland operates in a different way. There are, however, a couple of sources of income that would be under the control of the devolved Administration if there were one: the regional rate, water charges and others. But in this document we have no clear statement on how the sum is made up, where it comes from and what choices have to be made in determining the total spend. It is merely dividing up the cake. The size of the cake is a given in this exercise. So the use of the term Budget is perhaps a little misleading.

There is a point in making these observations. An election is going on. I do not want to fight it here any more than anyone else does, but I do note that some of those fighting the election are making a lot of noise about the need for additional resources to be given to the devolved Administration. Some months ago the Chancellor was persuaded to make a statement, although I am not sure it involved additional resources. But these parties are now calling for even more money. The Minister is undoubtedly aware of that. I would appreciate her observation on this. It is not as if—I hesitate to say this—public expenditure in Northern Ireland is currently ungenerous. But the begging bowl is being rattled and it would be interesting to see the reaction to that.

As the Budget order involves expenditure across departments, it has been traditional for those of us from Northern Ireland who take part in these debates to use them as an opportunity to raise specific issues. I shall do so but I shall be restrained; rather than gathering up all my hobby-horses, I shall pick up only two. The first—if I need to justify raising it—comes under the heading of the Department of the Environment with regard to conservation planning services, and so on, in the hope that something can be done to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the Planning Service. I think that this comes down to additional expenditure. The Planning Service has had to deal with a tremendous increase in the number of planning applications, which is partly a reflection of the increased prosperity and is therefore welcome. But the service is having great difficulty coping with the work.

Part of the reason for the agency’s difficulty is the difficulty in retaining expert staff, because the rewards of private practice are so much greater than the rewards in the public service. Steps have been taken over the past few years to make additional resources available to the service, but I hope that more can be done. The delays occurring in the Planning Service have a significant negative effect on development and consequently on the local economy. Perhaps I may give an example from my former constituency in the Banbridge area. A development there—Bridgewater Park, a combined industrial and commercial site—is finally coming on stream although the proposal was raised well over a decade ago. The planning delays in bringing it to fruition have been inordinate.

We are running into difficulties from the Planning Service in a related proposal affecting the small town of Gilford. This very imaginative proposal could be considerably positive not only for Gilford itself but for the region. It involves converting a former mill into a hotel and developing a new golf course nearby which will link the two together. It will greatly enhance the region’s tourism potential. This very positive development, involving multimillion pound investment, is now imperilled by the Planning Service. The problem is coming not simply from planning but from environmental and conservation considerations, which are fine in themselves but which should be taken and balanced against the positive economic benefits that there would be for the region. The matter is still very much in progress, but it should be mentioned, because it would be more than a shame if this development was frustrated because of the way in which it is being handled through the Planning Service.

I appreciate very much the comments that were made about the noble Lord, Lord Laird. It was said that because of the noble Lord’s absence, we would not have any mention of Waterways Ireland; I am now going to fill the gap on this matter. I will mention Waterways Ireland, but not in terms that my good friend would use. During the negotiation of the Belfast agreement, I was very much determined that waterways would be among the list of potential cross-border co-operation. I very much wanted that on the list for one reason and one reason only; namely I hoped that this would be a way in which we could advance the restoration of the Ulster Canal, which is a cross-border canal. It was not a cross-border canal when it was constructed; the border came into existence subsequently. If it were to be restored, it would be a cross-border canal. It is a project that ought to be advanced. From a tourism and leisure point of view, we are limited in the possibilities for tourism in Northern Ireland. We are always going to be engaged in various forms of niche tourism, but the use of waterways for leisure purposes is such a niche; and with the lakes, the loughs and the rivers that exist, there is huge potential. Indeed, there was a feasibility study into the restoration of the Ulster Canal, and that feasibility study must now be well over 10 years old, or pretty close to it.

They have been restoring canals in the Republic of Ireland, and they have been enhancing the use of waterways for leisure purposes. It is a highly desirable objective. Not only does it increase tourism, but it is significant from the point of view of rural regeneration. The Irish Government are well aware of the value of this exercise, but unfortunately in the Northern Ireland departments there is scepticism about the value, and there has been and continues to be resistance in the Northern Ireland departments to this operation. The matter is topical again because in the recent plan for capital expenditure announced by the Irish Government, they once again put in their share of the money for the restoration of the Ulster Canal. Quite some time ago, they effectively said to their Northern Ireland opposite numbers, “There is our money on the table; where is yours? If it is put down, we can get started on this”. I hope very much that something will happen on that.

I want to put that into a slightly broader context. If you are going to get the full benefit of the leisure and tourist potential from the restoration of waterways, your waterway needs to link up with major urban areas. That is the case in England and Wales, because the waterways were designed to carry goods and raw materials to areas that were then industrial areas but are now urban areas. The reason for the need to have the link-up to the urban areas is that from the point of view of the initial viability, it is people from those urban areas who might be persuaded to buy a boat and then to use it moving from the urban areas out into the countryside. Restoring the Ulster Canal, which would link Lough Neagh with Lough Erne through Monaghan, is good in itself, but if we really want to get the full benefit from it we need to restore the Lagan navigation as well, to have a network that stretches from Belfast through Lough Neagh to Lough Erne. It is no accident, from the point of view of restoration of the Irish canal network, that the Irish have started from Dublin with both the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal and are working out across from Dublin towards the Shannon waterway system.

So if we want it to be successful at the Northern Ireland end, we need to put in the Lagan navigation as well. It could be done for a fraction of the cost of the Ulster Canal restoration if the environmental heritage department could be persuaded not to list the derelict locks, or to remove the listing. The listing is such that it will enormously increase the cost of restoration. From an environmental heritage point of view, the listing will achieve no significant benefit if the effect is to keep the locks derelict.

On my next observation, my view differs from that in the feasibility study into restoration of the Ulster Canal a decade or so ago. I think that it is desirable not to gold-plate the operation. When the Erne-Shannon link was put in, it was gold-plated. It has automatic locks—you swipe the card through and the locks work. It might sound like a good idea, but it is a bad idea. Do the locks the traditional way so that the boater had to get out, get his windlass, wind up the paddles and then open the locks. It is good physical exercise: I lost half a stone doing it last summer, and I am looking forward to losing a bit more this coming summer. In case noble Lords feel that I should declare an interest, I shall not, because my boat is on the English waterway system and will not come to the Irish waterway system. There is no point in having narrowboats on the Irish waterway system because they cannot cope with open water. But that is another matter. Working the locks is part of the attraction of using waterways and turns it into a valuable family activity by giving everyone something to do.

From my experience over the years I know how much families enjoy the locks. Making it easy to use them might be all right for those who are just going round in their gin palaces and are not up to doing a little bit of work; but if we are to attract those whom we would want to attract, we should not gold-plate the system. I thank the Committee for its indulgence of me as I gathered up those hobby-horses for their canter. I look forward to the observations of the noble Baroness.'

To read the debate in full click here

21 February 2007

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