Saturday, 2 May 2009

Stealth tax

The decision of the Minister of Environment to boost Planning fees by 20% will come as some surprise to those of us who have listened to the First Minister's commitment to reducing the size and thence the cost of Government.

The Planning Service processing of planning applications is supposed to be a self financing arm of Government. The cost of delivering the service is meant to be met by those who make applications. Given the current downturn in the demand for new homes there is a resultant decrease in workload and income. Now in business terms the consequences are clear, an increase in costs or a reduction in staff. Yet is this to be the option in Government, especially where the First Minister and his Finance Minister are so commited to reducing the size of Government. What is to become of those staff who no longer have a sufficient workload, will they be redeployed to address the scandalous delay in the delivery of Area Development Plans? Will they be used to meet demands on planning service resources normally paid for under the normal budget process. Is this simply another stealth tax? If the priority is only to save staff then how does this fit with the priority to reduce the size of Government, if staff are not to be released where then are all the financial savings to come from?

Of course this issue does not stand alone in the scheme of things. The recent decision of the DRD Minister to approve a 10% hike in Translink fares only a few weeks after concerns were raised about the ability of the Executive to continue to fund free transport for Senior Citizens raises the same question. Are we simply watching an administration, frightened to tell the truth, introducing a series of stealth taxes on the people of Northern Ireland. Effectively the creation of a system where the public have no say in the priorities for government and where those leading the process have no experience of life outside the sheltered framework of politics, protected by political largess from the economic realities of life and decision making.

Fagan and the Artful Dodger were experts at distraction and pick pocketing, Peter and Nigel may soon be good enough for Stormont to replace the West End stage for our own production of Oliver.

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