Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Rates next steps

1 / 2
Following the rates decision by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council there are a number of actions I believe are required to restore confidence in the administration of the council and those elected to office.
There must be a full analysis of the circa £7 million overspend identified in the latter half of 2023. This must include a line by line cost centre analysis of where expenditure deviated from the projected budget allocations in 2021/22, 2022/23 and 2023/24.
It is not enough to simply state that cuts of several million pounds will be made to lower the rate set, there remain significant issues when such reduction still results in a rate increase of nearly 10%. A comparison of each cost centre detailing initial projected budget, final agreed budget, total reduction and percentage reduction should be made available. For any reduction over 5% a brief explanation of impact on service delivery should be attached. Elected members must be clearly advised of the level of service proposed for each service area following budget reductions. Members are both responsible and accountable for the decisions they take.
Moving forward elected members should be provided with quarterly reports detailing the projected budget, actual expenditure and percentage deviation for each cost centre. All deviations of 5% either underspend or overspend should have an explanatory note. (This should involve limited additional work for staff as in the current financial situation the internal budgetary oversight the organisation should be carrying out should be more frequent)  
Moving forward, for each new revenue proposal councillors must be advised of the implications of additional costs on future rates setting. For each capital project councillors must be advised of the repayment costs, including interest per annum and the implications for future rates over the repayment term. Capital development also creates additional annual revenue costs to be added to the rates and these must also be considered at the point a decision is taken to proceed.
Normal economic activity will generate rates increases through interest rate increases, pay increases, supply chain inflation, legally required expenditure and projects council is already committed to. This means even on a do nothing trajectory future increases are inevitable, though now based on a higher baseline arising from the setting of this years rates. To limit further increases consideration must be given to limiting future borrowing to a lower headline capital borrowing limit and new revenue spending to be approved only where savings made elsewhere negate the proposed expenditure.
These initiatives will not reduce the likelihood of poor financial management decisions from previous administrations continuing to work their way through the system but they will begin to transfer responsibility for budget setting from council staff to elected representatives. Councillors will have been involved in the financial management decisions taken throughout the year and will not be faced with a catastrophic take it or leave it moment in future years.
This means a change in attitude from being spenders of the public purse to protectors of the public purse. This requires a change in the mindset of officers to understand the need for greater openness and transparency about financial governance with those elected to govern. It also means a change in mindset amongst some councillors, this is the job, previous administrations told you the job was to cut ribbons, it is not, for the foreseeable future your job is to understand the detail and cut rates.  
The problems will only be solved if councillors accept the challenge, if they do not then the problems will become worse and greater challenges and tougher decisions will lie ahead.

2 / 2

Sunday, January 28, 2024

"The law is our servant, not our master" Jenrick

When Robert Jenrick MP stated in the House of Commons, during the debate on the Rwanda Bill, "The law is our servant, not our master" he raised an interesting question about who the law serves. When he states it is our servant is he referring to it serving Parliament, the Conservative party or that small neoliberal wing of right wing ideologues seeking to take power. Shouldn't the law serve the people and have the capacity to protect the public from the abuse of power by a small cabal. His comments coincided with an excellent article by Sophie Hill in Computer Weekly and Byline Times ""
The idea of retired Colonel's, spies, civil servants and Spad's sitting around in gentlemen's clubs plotting the subversion of democracy isn't really as shocking as it should be. It's almost as if the 1960's and 70's Lower Sixth from Eton feel they haven't quite realised their perceived potential and still want their turn. It's not surprising to see some of the names, although the mention of David Burnside and Graham Gudgin does illustrate that the tentacles reach far and wide. This may be considered an old man's fantasy, acted out like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, it takes on a more serious tone when one realsises that they still seek to interfere in the governance of our society. James O'Brien's latest work "How They Broke Britain" tells another side of the same story, manipulation of society to deliver for a small selfish group of individuals. When you consider this in the context of Jenrick's statement it's very clear that such a group would find having the law serve them to be a useful weapon in their war on society.

Act of Disunion

As machinations continue within the Democratic Unionist Party on the return to devolution outside influencers will, no doubt, return to demands about the relying on the Act of Union to copper fasten Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

Before unionism becomes distracted by such commentary a better understanding of the origins of the Act and its limitations would aid the debate.

At the end of the 18th century Ireland witnessed the birth of the Orange Institution and the United Irishmen uprising, nationally Britain constantly fretted about the intentions of France. It was feared that turmoil in Ireland would provide an opportunity for a French invasion with a welcoming population and ultimately a serious threat of an invasion of England from two directions.

In London the answer was clear, if Catholic unrest in Ireland was an opportunity for France addressing that unrest would reduce or remove the risk of a French invasion of Ireland. The strategy to achieve that was to introduce Catholic emancipation, a policy with limited impact in England in terms of the population affected but a significant impact in Ireland.

Achieving this was problematic, at the time the Parliament in Dublin was a Protestant Parliament, more specifically a Church of Ireland Parliament which would never vote for Catholic emancipation. The answer was an Act of Union subsuming the Parliament in Dublin into the Parliament in London allowing for the passing of Catholic emancipation laws. To achieve this there were 2 Acts of Union, one to be presented to the Dublin Parliament the other to Westminster.

The Acts were designed to facilitate the change in Governance covering the number of MP’s from Ireland in the House of Commons, seats in the Lords, the merger of the Church of Ireland and Church of England, tax payments to the Exchequer and the now infamous Article 6 on trade.

Passage of the Bill in Ireland did not progress smoothly with the Parliament in Dublin voting against it. Not to be outdone the Governent set about persuading Members of the Dublin Parliament to support the Bill when it returned to be considered, there were of course seats in the Commons and Lords and various additional positions available to those who supported the Bill. 

It wasn’t only within the Dublin Parliament that opposition to the Act surfaced, members of the recently founded Orange Institution had grave concerns about the implications and expressed these views robustly when Grand Lodge took no position. Dr David Hume provides some interesting context to the correspondence lodges sent to Grand Lodge. For many the concerns centred on the recognition that having ceded authority to Westminster there was no protection against any future decisions taken by Parliament. 

The Bill passed and in the 223 years since it’s provisions have gradually been eroded and removed. Once passed the Government introduced a customs border in the Irish Sea for 10 years to address issues arising from the level of trade France had with Ireland and to limit French goods passing through Ireland to England. The newly created Unified Church of England and Ireland would eventually split back to their constituent parts. Partition saw the end of the majority of Irish seats in the Commons and Lords and Irish contributions to the exchequer. 

The initial point of the Act, to facilitate the introduction of Catholic emancipation was blocked by King George III as he felt it was contrary to his coronation oath. It was eventually introduced and progressively the issue of Home Rule came to the fore, with the Act of Union providing the legal authority to Westminster to take a decision but for the outbreak of World War I. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 then led to partition. 

The Act of Union provided the authority for partition, the suspension of Stormont, Anglo-Irish Agreement, Protocol, Windsor Framework and whatever follows, only the ultimate decision on the creation of a United Ireland falls outwith Parliament.

Parliament is sovereign, as those on the right wing of the Conservative Party express loudly in challenging the legal interpretations of courts. While the absence of a formal written constitution is considered a flexible, quaint historical feature of our Government the clarity and certainty from developing a codified constitution provides the opportunity for renewal. A constitutional process detailing the rights of citizens, the responsibilities of Parliament and the limits of Government would provide unionism with far greater security than centuries old legislation.

Unionism can spend its limited political capital in trying to interpret centuries old legislation in its favour or alternatively it can argue for a constitutional process to improve the protection of rights of all our citizens across the UK. Making a better union is the best protection unionism has.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

lnitial thoughts on council budgetary crisis.

Given the recent announcement of a £7 million shortfall it is clear that the financial management of the organisation has still not been stabilised. The major financial management issues were flagged from the time the organisation was first brought into being and those raising them, both staff and elected members, were side-lined and ignored. From the big issues of not understanding capital financing nor the revenue tail arising from development to relatively small issues which demonstrate a lack of financial controls significant change was always going to be needed.

One small example is that of oversight of the Mayoral budget. Mid and East Antrim Borough Council makes available a Mayoral allowance of £20000 to cover the costs associated with the Mayors term in office. It’s a significant sum of money and on occasions the use, by some, has led to further and ongoing investigation by outside agencies.

In 2017/2018 Cllr Paul Reid spent £24332.31 an overspend of over 21%, the risk of overspend was highlighted by staff in advance of the end of Cllr Reid’s term yet spending continued well past the amount budgeted.

In 2021/2022 Cllr William McCaughey spent £23276.52, an overspend of over 16%, according to a recent FOI request no one in the organisation raised the potential overspend as an issue. When asked to detail the financial controls put in place after the 2017/2018 overspend the council responded

“The overspend in 2017/2018 would have been absorbed within the overall Corporate Services budget as previously explained with no additional financial controls required.”

The sums involved may be relatively small in terms of a £7 million shortfall but the lackadaisical attitude to a 21% and 16% overspend is illustrative of a general institutional attitude to ratepayer’s money. It is no surprise that both members are representatives of the Democratic Unionist Party, from the creation of the new council there has been a sense from that party that being in power means taking no responsibility and not being accountable. To change that view requires a change in governance, a change in attitude from taking the public for granted to taking responsibility to truly manage the organisation in the best interests of the ratepayer not individual councillors.

A shortfall of this scale did not happen by accident, to determine the cause a proper investigation must take place overseen by an outside body not simply a consultant reporting to the council on findings and if necessary criminal proceedings should follow. But, to be clear, the issue has arisen within a culture and attitude manipulated and encouraged by the Democratic Unionist Party, their hands are not clean in any of this.


Friday, September 15, 2023

Lough Neagh

We have become used to hearing the term anthropogenic climate change used to define the human activity which is leading to the progressively catastrophic changes in climate. There are other challenges quickly coming to the fore, with the realisation that many have already occurred, anthropogenic ecological and environmental collapse will define our future as much as climate change. Lough Neagh is showing every indication that, if it hasn’t already passed a tipping point, anthropogenic ecological collapse is imminent.

I grew up only a few hundred yards from Lough Neagh, regularly traversing Rea’s Wood from the area behind the Deerpark Hotel to the mouth of the Sixmilewater. Later, when an elected representative, I was a member of the Lough Neagh Partnership and I pay tribute to the work of the Partnership and especially Gerry Darby in trying to highlight the many issues facing the Lough and its environs.

It appears that the current situation has arisen due to a number of factors coalescing at the same time. Increased nutrient levels, particularly phosphates in the case of algal blooms, from human waste, farm effluent, soil run off and possibly disturbance of the nutrients captured in the Lough bed by sand dredging. The increased water temperature from climate change is directly related to human activity and the use of fossil fuels, a trend likely to continue for many years. The impact of zebra mussels in clarifying the water and allowing photosynthesis to occur at greater depth is also considered a factor in the current algal bloom. 

But these issues and the associated algal bloom are only symptoms of a wider decline which has been known about and disregarded for many years. In the 1970’s the increasing levels of chlorophyll-a (the measure of algal growth) in Lough Neagh led to a phosphate reduction programme at waste water treatment plants feeding into the Lough. This led to a reduction in chlorophyll-a in the 1980’s but by the early 1990’s the chlorophyll level started to increase steadily. I’ve asked about the levels of chlorophyll-a and phosphorous in the Lough since 2001 but it is clear that the wide agricultural catchment area is a factor in nutrient levels increasing during the 1990’s.

The eel fishery in Lough Neagh has produced around 500 tons of eels per year and is world renown. However, in the early 1980’s the number of glass eels (juvenile eels) returning from spawning in the Sargasso Sea dropped by 90%. The fishery collective began at that stage to buy millions of glass eels annually to restock the Lough. In terms of economic sustainability this has ensured that a level of economic activity has continued, in terms of ecological sustainability it is an entirely unsustainable method of addressing the long-term survivability of the ecosystem. This becomes more challenging with the threat to the chironomidae (Lough Neagh fly) population upon which eels and the various fish species feed. 

How much the arrival of zebra mussels has contributed to this requires detailed scientific assessment, as does the impact of pesticide use in the agri-food sector. In general, the number of insects in the UK has decreased by over 60% in the last 20 years. We hear lots about the loss of pollinators but the impact of insect loss in general has a devastating impact on the survival of many species. One thing is clear, the loss of chironomidae of the scale feared will cause an ecological collapse of fish species in the Lough Neagh system.

Over 40% of Northern Irelands land area drains into Lough Neagh, most of this land is agricultural sustaining a sector heavily dependent on grassland. Northern Ireland has 3% of the UK’s population, 6% of land area yet 17% of the UK’s total cattle herd. That means 17% of cattle waste is disposed of over a small area with even this supplemented by artificial fertilisers. In environmental terms much of this activity is unsustainable in its current format. While there are concerns about the demand for continued unlimited growth of the intensive agricultural sector the current moratorium due to concerns about inaccurate figures on pollutant levels represents an opportunity to engage with the sector about the significant changes in practice that must occur.

The challenges facing the lough are such that concepts of community ownership are incompatible with delivering the robust legislative framework to manage the changes needed. The same applies to private ownership or rights to extractive commercial activity. Only a public body, properly funded and with a legislative framework based on protecting the ecological and environmental foundations of the entire system can begin the generational process of undoing the damage caused.

Commercial fishing is no longer viable or sustainable and in the face of ecosystem collapse it must be ended. A buy out of existing licences for eels and coarse fish must be a priority action.

Sand extraction has been permitted without a robust environmental understanding of the impact on the entire ecosystem. Current proposals to extend extraction must be refused and a negotiated end to extraction within a short period of time must be implemented in line with the transfer of ownership of the lough bed to the public sector.

Changes in agricultural practices are vital in reducing nutrient leakage, whether this is the end of surface dressing with slurry on agricultural land or other more acceptable treatment becoming the norm with many farmers, a three-year programme of supporting farmers to purchase the equipment necessary before introducing a ban on the activity will assist in meeting environmental and climate change targets.

Across the United Kingdom under investment in waste water infrastructure has created an ongoing environmental crisis. Northern Ireland is fortunate that it does not have the financial asset stripping of the private sector in the rest of the UK to contend with, but lack of political responsibility locally to invest in infrastructure remains an issue. A robust independent assessment of NIW contribution to pollution levels and nutrient levels is required as a priority.

The number of overwintering birds at Lough Neagh have collapsed in the last few decades, wider ecological collapse puts the remaining populations at risk. There must be an end to recreational wildfowl shooting on Lough Neagh.

The current limitations on environmental protection caused by the departmental structures in Northern must be removed by the creation of a fully funded, legislatively powerful independent environmental protection agency outside the reach of potentially sectorally partisan government Ministers.

There is no doubt that various economic interests are already preparing campaigns to influence key politicians that whatever actions are taken should not interfere with their business. There can be no longer, in any field, an economic justification to continue taking actions leading to anthropogenic ecological and environmental collapse. Lough Neagh is no longer an economic opportunity based on asset stripping the resource.

Thursday, July 6, 2023


In his book Ravenous Henry Dimbleby points out "With or without UK companies on board, the protein transition is coming." (Ravenous 2023 pg226) On the 21st June 2023 CNN reported

"Cultivated meat, also known as lab-grown meat, has been cleared for sale in the United States.

Upside Foods and Good Meat, two companies that make what they call “cultivated chicken,” said Wednesday that they have gotten approval from the US Department of Agriculture to start producing their cell-based proteins." (

In 2019 KFC announced a partnership with a company in Moscow to produce 3D chicken products from plant protein and cultivated chicken.

Finnebrogue a well known artisan food producer in Northern Ireland has announced a partnership with Ivy Farm Technologies to work together on laboratory grown Wagyu beef burgers.

The changes that will follow this new technology will be highly significant and will change the face of agriculture, particularly in areas like Northern Ireland where the growth of the chicken processing industry has seen massive investment and where the production of beef is such a fundamental part of the farming landscape.

Consider the production of the standard broiler chicken from egg to supermarket shelf. An entire industry exists to ensure the production of genetically suitable eggs before incubation and hatching. Transportation to farmers who have made significant investment in sheds capable of supporting 10's of thousands of chicks to finish point at around 6 weeks. Transported then to slaughter and butchering in processing factories. Much of the meat will be minced and used to create nuggets, goujons, Kyiv's and other processed products. 

The opportunity exists and is proactively being developed by the food processing industry to replace all of the activity in the previous paragraph between "Consider" and "factories" with a "lab grown" product. Large vats will produce chicken meat, grown from chicken cells, in vast quantities ready for processing and onward sale. Current breeding is based on quick growth rates, future product can be sourced based on taste or other preferred qualities.

Processors do not exist for the benefit of farmers, in a world where 2/3rds of all birds in the world are chickens the potential to save many of the costs of production will appeal to their economic models. They will welcome the opportunity to market their "real chicken" products as Environmentally friendly, Climate friendly, Chicken friendly healthy protein.

The outlook for beef will follow, imagine if McDonalds was to move to a similar model. There will still be beef from cattle, there will still be chicken from chicken's but the current model of production will have changed and such beef and chicken will come at a premium and the market will be much smaller.

Pretending that change won't happen isn't the answer, preparing for such changes will be fundamental to many peoples lives.


Monday, June 26, 2023


The statement above, made to the press by Tom Elliot MLA in the aftermath of the council elections, illustrates the dearth of understanding among some unionist politicians. His beliefs will be shared by most in the Democratic Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Party and some in Ulster Unionism. No doubt were all unionist parties and Loyal Orders to gather to reflect on the way forward for unionism they would double down on the sentiment. An echo chamber magnifying the sentiment threatens to sideline and isolate unionism in the short-term and end the union much quicker than Republicans can ever dream of.
Thankfully there remain unionists who recognise the shear futility of that approach.  It is a betrayal of public office to side line the challenges which the general population face, it is also the complete antithesis of what being part of the United Kingdom should represent.
The idea that politicians should treat as "side issues" collapsing public services, poverty, deprivation, poor health, bad housing and all the other challenges we face now and in the future is not what holding elected office is about.
To suggest that concern about having enough food for your children, or getting through to a GP surgery, or heating your home is a "side issue" shows an amazing disconnect from the lives of the people unionism seeks to represent. That disconnect works both ways as the inability of political unionism to turn out their voters shows.
The Union will not be protected by setting aside the issues affecting our citizens, it will only survive by showing that those issues are best resolved within the Union. That requires a political change at the heart of unionism, an end to the dogma of opposition to any change, an end to the insular view held by many that ignores the world around them. Only by making Northern Ireland work within the Union can we counter the fantasy future presented by Republicans.
Thankfully there remains within Ulster Unionism a core belief in delivering a better society as the way to protect the Union. That belief must not be diluted by being drawn to short-term comfort under Paisley's umbrella, or sitting in Jeffrey's tent. The fight that needs to be fought is not simply about the flying of the flag but about the values the flag represents. In that those who don't put the needs of our people first will be on the opposing side, meeting the needs of our people is the best defence we have for the Union.
Ulster Unionism has come some way in articulating the concept of a "Union of people", in light of recent comments we should go further, what is needed is a "Union for people" deliver that and we deliver a better life and a better future for all.

Rates next steps

1 / 2 Following the rates decision by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council there are a number of actions I believe are required to restore co...