Belfast Telegraph

Public must understand that difficult choices will be made


By John Simpson

The referendum is over. Now, government must adjust to the post-Brexit world. Despite the tremors emanating from the vote, normal public policy making must continue and the local institutions must function efficiently and services must better influence the rebuilding of the economy.

Until the UK actually leaves the EU, the next Programme for Government can usefully begin to prepare for a post-Brexit world.

The new ministerial Executive has deliberately opted for a preparation period to develop the Programme for Government which gives more time for improved consultation and public debate about best options and adaption to the anticipated removal of EU constraints. The Executive is currently delivering the inherited programme as adapted by the Fresh Start agreement which was put in place after the Stormont House talks in 2015.

In the current financial year, the Minister of Finance has delivered an agreed Government budget, living within the resources allowed by the Block Grant as supplemented by several special inherited concessions, including larger borrowing of capital and diversion of some local revenue into the moderated welfare reform programme.

The Executive plans to live within the allocated funds but acknowledges that, in the four-year period under review, Government budgeting may slowly become slightly more difficult as the UK Government tries to reduce its overall deficit. The starting point for a refreshed Programme for Government is the 100+ page consultative draft outlining 14 generic outcomes that will shape official policy. The 14 outcomes are then illustrated by 42 different indicators which will show how the Government is performing in relation to the generic outcomes.

This approach is more comprehensive and ambitious that was applied in 2010-15. Policy options should be developed against the background of specific expected outcomes. That offers a degree of clarity of purpose and method that should be constructive.

Two possibly more difficult issues emerge. First, whilst the 14 generic outcomes are not controversial, their pursuit may lead to possible conflicts of priority between differing outcomes. Second and already strongly in evidence, the 42 indicators to assess the outcomes are well chosen and interesting but not adequate for different strands of policy making.

The obvious danger is that ministers and civil servants will try to spread the impact of emerging policies too thinly: too many plans done ineffectively because resources are thinly spread.

Ministers do not usually or readily explicitly acknowledge that, because resources are limited, with regret, some good causes must have lesser priority. Explicitly difficult priority choices must now be made and understood by the wider public.

The Executive has asked for responses. As a first step, some chosen priorities must be identified. First, the Executive should maximise the current and capital funds that can be earmarked for policy priorities. This means that revenue should be increased where possible, including from domestic and business rates.

Revenue streams from public service charges are possible, including modest charges for some services such as prescriptions and a mechanism to make charges for water services (against an offset in domestic rates).

Capital funds, including financial transactions capital, should be maximised. Some capital should be released to infrastructure by the manipulation of the capital funding of the 'early leaver' scheme for the public service.

Second, the spending priorities must be narrowed down. Capital spending, sequenced for orderly delivery, needs to be scheduled for the A5 and A6, and the key parts of the A1 along with the Westlink-M2 junctions.

Recurrent spending must be directed to clearly identified skills needs, including carefully selected aspects of development in the Universities and FE Colleges. Some rearrangement of university priorities, aided by external evaluation, is overdue. University fees should be increased to English levels.

Finally, Invest NI and the local education authorities must be given revised remits to focus more clearly on high value-added investments.

There is a big agenda: only selected parts can be prioritised.

Belfast Telegraph

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