Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Households £1,000 better off under devolution: Robinson

Households across Northern Ireland will be an average £1,000 better off than direct rule could have provided, the Assembly was told today as the Executive's first Budget was finally unveiled.



Finance Minister Peter Robinson said he believed the Executive had made the " best fist" in their final blueprint which was "no mean achievement" in a four-party coalition.

Significant increased allocations for housing, the health service, the arts and roads, as well as details of a £90m Innovation Fund were announced as part of the package agreed unanimously by ministers but still to be approved by MLAs.

Describing the package as the building blocks for a new and more confident province, Mr Robinson said confirmation that the regional rate will be frozen in cash terms over the next three years would give households an average £1,000 boost.

"Let those who say that devolution makes no difference explain that logic to the average household which will be £1,000 better off than they would have been if direct rule had continued," he said.

But the DUP deputy leader also warned that Northern Ireland needs to shake off what he termed the direct rule mindset, an attitude that financial coffers are bottomless and that the over large public sector is justifiable in a region smaller than Yorkshire.

And he argued that the public service culture of apportioning blame which had developed be replaced with a new culture of taking responsibility.

The finance chief said a return to devolution in circumstances where it is likely to last was the best guarantee for future prosperity in the province.

The main individual winner was Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie who has been allocated an additional £205m to build 6,000 social and affordable houses in the next three years - 1,500 by March of next year.

Thanking Mr Robinson, the SDLP Minister said: "This is a much better budget than what was originally proposed - better for those on waiting lists for those who are homeless and those who want to reach the first rung on the housing ladder. Now I have certainty in my budget I can finalise my plans for housing."

In a unique move, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey will be given first call on the first £20m available each year from underspends by other departments.

The minister is also being given increased flexibility in terms of managing his department - any savings above the 3% efficiency targets applying to all departments will automatically go back into health.

Mr Robinson said current expenditure on health and social services would exceed £4bn a year for the first time.

Mr McGimpsey said his allocation was the best outcome possible and a " good news story" for the health service.

It also emerged that more than half of the £90m for the Innovation Fund will be coming from the Republic's Government, which has agreed to contribute £42m over three years.

Officials made clear the North-South Ministerial Council will not be involved in monitoring the money which will be spent within Northern Ireland, although it includes a number of cross-border research projects.

The groundbreaking fund is also made up of a remaining £25m from former Chancellor Gordon Brown's package for Northern Ireland a further £27m from the Executive.

Higher than anticipated revenues from the regional rates, as well as lower than projected subsidies for the Northern Ireland water company, freed up the additional resources, which also included an extra £4m over the next two years for the arts.

Mr Robinson said of the 9,500 responses to the draft budget proposals, funding for the art had been the main theme in terms of the quantity.

The extra £40m for roads will allow a number of schemes, including the A2 Broadbridge and Green Island and the A32 Omagh to Enniskillen schemes.

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