Belfast Telegraph

The most worrying part of the Budget... the bit no-one has seen yet

How the submerged details of Stormont’s blueprint could be devastating for the NHS and our schools

Northern Ireland’s ‘iceberg’ Budget is coming under attack amid growing fears that the real pain is still to be seen.

Only the tip of the Stormont Executive’s blueprint has so far been exposed — with most of the substance still below the surface.

But predictions of the devastating impact the cuts will have on our education and health sectors are beginning to emerge.

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey has warned of thousands of jobs being lost in the local NHS, while educationalists have delivered grim predictions of redundancies for teachers, classroom assistants and support staff.

While the overall share-out of cash between Government departments has been disclosed, ministers have yet to unveil their priorities.

With politicians and civil servants now set to take their Christmas break, it may well be the new year before individual departmental plans on where the axe will fall will be revealed.

Economist John Simpson was scathing over the lack of detail revealed in Sammy Wilson’s Budget this week.

He said: “The 74-page Budget does not provide any reader with enough information to make an informed judgment about any area of public policy and where it is going. I would have expected a much fuller statement.

“It seems to be to be a Budget statement which is a compromise in that they have got the arithmetic between departments, but we do not know the detail of what it means yet.

“It is impossible to see whether there are subtle changes of policy involved in what ministers are proposing or if they have gone in for a general salami-slicing, because we do not know how each department is going to use the money in future compared to how they use it now.”

Ministers are expected to begin setting out their savings plans within the next week, but Mr Simpson said they should also detail their spending plans. “A savings plan is not the whole picture,” he added.

There are few specifics, for example, over how the £250m reduction will hit capital projects — and how many jobs may be axed in the health service.

Housing associations are being asked to contribute £80m of their assets over the next four years and Belfast Harbour Commission is facing a £35m levy, perhaps rising as high as £125m over the period — but with no details on if this is voluntary, compulsory or if it will require legislation.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson (below) said his colleague, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, has secured the best budget settlement in the United Kingdom, with 77% of his overall budget protected.

But Mr Simpson said: “Mr Wilson may be using that phrase but there is no way of compiling the evidence to prove or disprove it because we don’t have the figures.”

Meanwhile, experts have cast further doubt over whether the sell-off of Government-owned assets, including land and property, can achieve Mr Wilson’s target of raising £500m — a crucial part of the revenue-raising plans to help stave off even deeper spending cuts.

Brian Lavery, managing director of the Belfast office of property firm CB Richard Ellis, said: “Achieving (that figure) is certainly an ambitious target considering the lack of liquidity in the current market, particularly when you consider that plans to raise £180m under Workplace 2010 fell short of the mark despite market conditions being better at that time.”

And Stephen Deyermond of commercial property consultants TDK said: “We can’t say what will happen two or three years down the line. They could sell now and make a huge loss, which would defeat the purpose of the exercise. Or wait a few years and incur more running costs — but again, the situation could be worse, instead of better.”

Mr Wilson has insisted the values of land and property have been properly costed.

“The one thing that I did not want to have in this Budget was fantasy figures or Monopoly money that would never materialise, hitting us, therefore, with problems further down the road,” he said.

“Now that departments have received definitive outcomes as part of the draft Budget they will be able to determine the actual level of savings they will need to make to manage within this allocation.”

“The scale of the savings required is such it may not be possible to achieve it solely through reductions in bureaucracy and improvements in efficiency. Therefore, all departments must undertake a thorough assessment of core functions.”

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