Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: New Budget seems tough but balanced

Sammy Wilson, once regarded as the Clown Prince of the DUP, is proving to be an able Finance Minister in the power-sharing Executive.

The first thing that must be said about his long-awaited draft budget in response to the Westminster government's Comprehensive Spending Review is that its timing - before the Christmas recess - is welcome. To have allowed it to drag on into the new year would have sent a disastrous message about the competence and ability of local politicians to face up to harsh realities.

Further comment has to recognise that the devil will be in the detail which will only emerge after mature reflection on yesterday's proposals. It is too early to be dogmatic on how the measures outlined will filter through to the lives of people on the ground. Yet it appears to be a realistic response to unpalatable cuts in the Northern Ireland block grant. Cuts in public services and the loss of jobs seem inevitable and it must be remembered that for those affected by either, life in the coming years will be tough.

The decision not to introduce water charges and to increase the regional rate simply by the level of inflation are measures which will mitigate the impact on household budgets. That will be especially welcome for those on low incomes or those civil servants - particularly those just above the £21,000 threshold - who will face a pay freeze.

It is right that health services should be partially ring-fenced - indeed given extra money - but there will be increased pressure on many other areas of public spending including social services, roads services and education where there is an already urgent need for funding.

While Mr Wilson was bullish about the prospects of raising £840m, £500m of it from the sale of public assets, there must be doubts surrounding this surrender of the family silver.

Land and property values have slumped in recent times and it is by no means certain that the market has yet bottomed out. If his calculations - and his belief in the robustness of his business case - prove wrong, they will leave a huge black hole in the budget.

Predictions of 5,000 new jobs in the long term also appear to fall into the wish list category. The local economy is still feeling a very severe pinch with unemployment rising by 8.5% in the past year, compared to a 9.7% drop in the UK as a whole. Obviously this budget is more about damage limitation than in providing a stimulus to the economy and even those measures which are aimed at economic revival appear a little lightweight.

During the next eight weeks of consultation we will be better able to gauge the full impact of the budget proposals but the final verdict is likely to remain that it is something of an inevitable curate's egg - digestible only because there seems little else to offer.

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