The sell-off of public assets in the North is in full swing. The latest resource on the chopping board is the Waterfront and Ulster Hall, two Belfast City Council run venues in Belfast. On Friday 21st August, at the Council’s Strategic Policy and Resource Committee, a majority of councillors voted for the creation of a “Council Owned Company” to oversee the running of the Waterfront and Ulster Hall.
What this means, in essence, is that these venues and public assets will no longer be run by Belfast City Council but instead by an unelected “Board of Directors”. Whilst it is not a full privatisation of the sites, this move would be a clear step in that direction.
There is no evidence to show that outsourcing these sites will bring any tangible benefit to the Council and the public. Instead, the decision has been driven by an increasingly neo-liberal consensus amongst the big parties here: that public services should be allowed to run down and a more “commercial” approach taken towards the sector.
Both the Waterfront and Ulster Hall have benefited from huge investments of public money over the years. With this proposal, what little influence the public had over these sites will be lessened further. Those that work in the venues, some for many years, will no doubt worry their terms and conditions will be under attack at some stage in the future.
The case of the Waterfront, however, is not an isolated decision. It is part of a wider agenda to hand over services, venues and assets from both local councils, and the Stormont Assembly itself. In Belfast last year, control of leisure facilities was outsourced to an unelected private organisation, GLL. This move has had a detrimental impact on workers in the service, with ongoing attacks on their pay and standards at work. Undeterred, Belfast City Council now plans on pushing through the same proposal for the Waterfront and Ulster Hall.
Stormont too has its eye on selling off of public assets. Belfast Harbour is one of the largest earmarked to go; with over 700 firms employing around 21,000 people on the estate. The area was valued three years ago at £850m, but a price tag of less than half that has been discussed at Stormont.
NI water has also been suggested as a possible revenue raiser, with DUP the Finance Minister hinting that water charges may be inevitable. Another service earmarked for privatisation has been Translink. With roads and transport suffering cutbacks of 20%, and bus and rail routes set to close across the North, politicians have suggested public transport might be better run in the hands of a private company. The problem is, of course, that privatisation only ensures one thing; profits for those in charge.
The good news is that we have time to stop this. The decision to hand over the Waterfront and Ulster Hall has to be ratified on September 1st by a full meeting of the Council. Trade Unions are currently engaged in industrial action short of a strike against these proposals. We need more of this, and we need to go further to full strike action if necessary. But we also need a wider movement that links all these different issue together. Whether it’s the Waterfront, welfare cuts or the privatisation of public services, we need feet on the street to take on the politicians. People Before Profit intends will do all it can to build such a movement.