Waterways budgets: cut by one third in six years

I wrote here and here about the RoI budgetary allocations to Waterways Ireland for 2014, here about the difficulty of establishing exactly what WI’s budget is and here about some questions I have put to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on the matter.

But, while a focus on the procedural woods is important, I may have been neglecting the implicational trees. I am recalled to a consideration of the details by two written Dáil questions asked by Gerry Adams [SF, Louth] on 19 November 2013, one of Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and the other of Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Reading the runes is reminiscent of Kremlinology, but it seems to be possible that Waterways Ireland will have to make significant cuts in its spending, cuts that will reduce the services it provides to waterways users.

The questions and the answers

This is what Gerry Adams asked Brendan Howlin:

To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the total budget for each All Ireland Body established under the Good Friday Agreement for the years 2010 to date in 2013; and any proposed budget reductions to the these bodies currently being considered.

And this is what he asked Jimmy Deenihan:

To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the total budget for each of Waterways Ireland, Fóras na Gaeilge and Ulster-Scots Agency for the years 2010 to date in 2013; and any proposed budget reductions to these bodies currently being considered.

Ignoring the details given for bodies other than Waterways Ireland, we learn that its allocations from its two “sponsor departments”, DCAL in NI and DAHG in RoI, were:

2010 €38.99 million
2011 €35.18 million
2012 €31.15 million

These figures appear to include capital and current expenditure.

For some reason,

The 2013 Budget allocation to the Body are subject to on-going discussion by the two Sponsor Departments.

But Jimmy Deenihan said

My Department’s REV provision for Waterways Ireland for 2013 is €25.463m, a 6% efficiency saving on 2012. My Department’s Estimates provision for 2014 is €24.183m, a 5% efficiency saving on 2013.

The extent of the cuts

I don’t know how to get from a REV provision, or indeed an Estimates provision, to WI’s total budget for 2013 or 2014. One possibility is that the figures include capital and current expenditure. In that case, the RoI contribution to WI’s 2013 budget would be €21.383 million current and €4.080 million capital [PDF; see p160]; adding the NI 15% contribution to current would bring that to about €25.156 million; the €4.080 million capital makes €29.236 million. Perhaps there might be a small amount extra for NI capital spending. By the same logic [and I repeat that I don’t know whether this is the way to do it], the 2014 Estimates provision gives €27.752 million plus NI’s capital spending. Without NI capital spending, the total is 71% of the 2010 figure, so WI will have had its total spending cut by 29% in four years.

Another crude calculation is that the 2012 figure of €31.15 million is 80% of the 2010 figure. Knock off Jimmy Deenihan’s 6% in 2013 and 5% in 2014; the 2014 total comes out again at 71% of the 2010 figure.

But that’s not all. Brendan Howlin said:

In common with other public sector bodies North and South, the North South Implementation Bodies are expected to deliver their objectives in a cost effective and efficient manner. In order to provide a framework for this, my Department and the Department of Finance and Personnel, have issued guidance to the North South Implementation Bodies requiring them to achieve a minimum of 4% efficiency savings per annum in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

So we have to cut another 4% in 2015 and 4% in 2016, by which stage the total will be just under 66% of the 2010 figure: a cut of one third in six years.

Coping

The brunt of the cuts has been borne by the capital budget; we have no figures for expected NI capital spending from 2013 onwards, but on the RoI figures capital spending by 2016 will have been cut by 70%. That seems to have been the general pattern in the Irish public service: cut capital spending first, cut staff costs last.

WI’s operating income is negligible: in 2011 it was €71,000 from licences, €120 from property and €193,000 from permits, lock charges etc, as well as a few other bits and pieces; it is almost entirely reliant on its sponsor departments. So if it is to cope with reduced departmental income, it must either devise new and significant earning opportunities quickly or make serious cuts to its services.

WI’s spending is categorised under five headings, one of which (currency gains or losses and interest) involves a tiny amount. The other four are depreciation, which can’t readily be cut, staff costs, “programme costs” and “other operating costs”.

The “other operating costs” are:

Travel
Recruitment costs
Training and conferences
Contracted in services
Compensation/provision for liability claims
Premises running costs including utilities
Health and safety
Communications
Other operating lease rental
Printing and stationery
Computer running costs
Rent
Audit fee
Marketing and promotions
Insurance and legal fees
Pension administrator costs
General expenditure.

The 2011 total was €5,026,000. None of the individual items looks as if it could provide huge savings, although I imagine each category is being shaved.

The programme costs are allocated to individual waterways; in 2011 (the latest available accounts) the total was €8,082,000, and 63% of those were incurred on the Grand, Royal and Barrow. The Royal’s programme costs were up in 2011, with the reopening, but the Grand’s were cut by 25% and the Barrow’s by 17%. You can’t keep cutting at that sort of rate every year, but I suspect that the Grand, Royal and Barrow will continue to be cut more than the Shannon, Erne and SEW (the Lower Bann cost is tiny).

WI’s main cost is staff: €21,903,000 in 2011, up very slightly on the previous year. I don’t know what cuts have been made in hours or rates (I have heard that there is an overtime ban) but I suspect we haven’t seen the last of them.

At this stage, I imagine that the easy cuts have been made; further cuts may require some combination of

  • reductions in services to users
  • major changes in work practices
  • cuts in staff costs.

There are interesting times ahead.

One small pointer

I noted that, when Jimmy Deenihan spoke in the Dáil on 16 October 2013, he said that WI’s “core activities and targets” included

… keeping the waterways open for navigation during the main boating season.

The last five words [emphasis mine] may be significant: Mr Deenihan may have been hinting that boating is no longer to be regarded as a year-round activity.

5 responses to “Waterways budgets: cut by one third in six years

  1. Why is the cost of running the Lower Bann navigation so tiny compared to the others? Is it being done more efficiently? Is it significantly more (or less) navigable?

  2. I don’t know, as the annual reports and accounts don’t give enough detail, but some thoughts come to mind. It’s fairly short, 38 miles compared with the Barrow’s 41, but has only five locks compared with the Barrow’s twenty-three. I don’t know how heavy the traffic is. With the linear navigations, I think some of the cost depends on who is responsible for (ie has to pay for) crossings: bridges, culverts, cables etc. And it could also be that other functions (eg flood/water control) are shared with other bodies: I think WI has or had a service-level agreement with the Rivers Agency on some matters.

    So you’ll see that I know little about it, and I’d welcome information from others, but I’d be wary of making comparisons between costs of different waterways without knowing more about how they are operated. bjg

  3. Pingback: Waterways Ireland’s pensions burden | Irish waterways history

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