Early reversal of previous Minister’s policy as fares rise scheduled

It shouldn’t actually surprise us in the slightest, and for once I can’t entirely blame the DUP’s collapse of the Assembly.

On 25th October, John O’Dowd announced as Infrastructure Minister that Translink fares would “remain frozen for another year”, but today it was announced that they would rise by an average of 7% from 6 March.

The Secretary of State made a statement to the House of Commons on 24 November 2022 saying he recognised “that steps will also need to be taken to improve Translink’s sustainability through uprating Translink fares. This will help to reduce the budget pressure, whilst ensuring that the increase remains below the level of inflation.”  The rise was well signalled.

I could quite happily blame the DUP for that, even as the Supreme Court judgement has confirmed that Parliament always had the authority to enact the Withdrawal Agreement and Protocol into British law (see also Article 4 of the Acts of Union), which implies that the DUP is objecting to the democratic decision of the British people in the 2019 General Election, but that isn’t entirely fair.

The reality is that Department for Infrastructure, as I have previously noted, is underfunded, and has been for years. Any incoming Minister for Infrastructure was going to be faced with having to balance the books – if Translink’s farebox income is inadequate to meet its outgoings due to fare freezes, then DfI is required to pick up the tab to keep it solvent.

Doubtless we will get the usual calls for Translink to be privatised in the comments, but if you want the Department for Infrastructure to pay more public money to private firms to run fewer services outside Belfast, that’s up to you, but that’s either more money in the regional rates or less money for road maintenance and NI Water.  I’ve already been through that argument, more than once.

However, the bottom line remains the same.  If you want cheaper bus and train services, the private sector will not be your saviour because their profits take precedence over your affordability (and operating as many quiet routes as Translink does goes against the profitable trading model).  The only choices are to divert spending from somewhere else or to take more money off us in the regional rates.

And irrespective of John O’Dowd’s announcement last October that fares wouldn’t rise, that circle has to be squared [what, the Circle Line again? – Ed] You already know what I think about that. Any incoming Minister, and any of SF, DUP, Alliance and UUP could have been faced with the same decision and reality that the DfI budget allocation isn’t enough to address the roads maintenance deficit, the water maintenance deficit, the Translink bottom line and freeze fares simultaneously.  Something would have had to give.

And that’s not an easy decision when trying to please everybody anybody.

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