Scrap troubled A5 plan and use £300m budget elsewhere: Wilson
The Executive should cut its losses on the troubled A5 road project and spend its massive £330m budget elsewhere, the Finance Minister has demanded.
As he took stock of Chancellor George Osborne's budget on Wednesday, Sammy Wilson also predicted Northern Ireland would eventually be handed the powers to set corporation tax at an acceptable price – but not quickly.
The DUP minister's proposal to ditch the A5 scheme – Northern Ireland's biggest roads project ever – risks a blazing row with Sinn Fein. The party is the strongest champion of the road, which runs through Sinn Fein constituencies for its entire route.
"They are not acting rationally on this issue. It is hard to get any logic out of them," Mr Wilson told the Belfast Telegraph.
He intends to raise the issue at the Executive and suggested spending on the A6 – which runs from Londonderry through Dungiven to Toome – would be a better use of the money.
As well as being Northern Ireland's biggest civil engineering project, the A5 work represents a major boost to the construction industry. Work is currently halted because of a court challenge from local protest groups on environmental grounds. At present the Department of Regional Development, where Danny Kennedy (right) of the UUP is minister, is seeking to reverse the order that halts the scheme.
"Even if the department wins in the end it could take around a year and a half to take that through the court and complete whatever additional environmental work is required.
"That would be much too late to spend the money on the A5 in this budget period," the Finance Minister said.
"It would be a total disaster to sit on £300m for a year or even two when we are crying out for work.
"I'd urge Danny Kennedy to look for another road scheme – and there is one that is sitting there which could proceed quickly.
"The A6 from Londonderry through Dungiven to Toome would improve the movement of goods, services and people just like the A5. It would improve the accessibility and productivity of the north west."
Mr Wilson said it was particularly important to spend the capital budget and deliver an economic stimulus before the devolution of corporation tax.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister David Cameron will grant the First and Deputy First Ministers a rare audience in Downing Street to discuss the issue.
The business tax is charged at 21% in Britain, falling to 20% in 2015. The Executive wants to reduce it in Northern Ireland to at least match the 12.5% charged in the Republic.
However, under EU rules we must pay the difference from our block grant and there has been prolonged haggling over the exact amount involved.
"I am now fairly certain that we can get the costs down to a level that will be unpleasant but bearable. I am not sure that we can get it in soon," Mr Wilson said.
He predicted Mr Cameron would not make a decision before the referendum on Scottish devolution on September 18 next year – and that implementation would take longer still.
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Under Treasury rules, Northern Ireland departments can only carry over £50m from one year's budget to the next. When spending on one project falls through, departments normally have to find others that are ready to proceed quickly. Sammy Wilson has argued that this rule could be waived but that cannot be guaranteed – and, regardless, the Finance Minister said money needs to be spent now to stimulate the economy.