Belfast Telegraph

£300m Stormont savings scheme fell way short of expectations, say MLAs

By Allan Preston

A Stormont savings scheme designed to put more than £300m of funding to good use has been criticised by an Assembly committee which described it as an "opportunity lost".

In a report published today by the Public Accounts Committee, it was found that Invest to Save (ITS), a scheme started by the Stormont Executive, fell wildly short of expectations.

The aim had been to green light government projects that could clearly demonstrate savings and wouldn't normally get funding.

Of the £311m set aside between 2010-15 for ITS, only £254m was spent with a third of the approved projects failing to deliver any savings.

The report stated that projects such as the UK City of Culture and NI Direct "while no doubt having their own merits… contained no forecast financial savings".

In other cases, government departments were accused of using ITS money to fund mainstream activities "to help them survive a budget cut" by rebadging old schemes as new.

In one example, the department of Health had been given £95m to spend on ITS projects, but reallocated £52m of the money to "priority areas".

The report went on to say that three phases of ITS funding were introduced too hastily without checking they were effective.

This was slammed as "unacceptable" given that over £300m was being made available.

The public accounts committee chairperson, Sinn Fein MLA Michaela Boyle, said she hoped lessons would be learned from the experience.

"The Invest to Save scheme represented an ideal vehicle to make a real difference and add value to delivering services as well as generating savings. This was an opportunity lost."

She continued: "In practice, however, some projects did not deliver in the way that they should have and many of those approved did not identify any quantified savings."

Among the problems, she cited a lack of formal targets and the absence of proper scrutiny from the Department of Finance.

Five recommendations have been put forward to avoid a repeat of the failings from 2010-15.

These include:

  • A clearer selection criteria for projects to be funded by ringfenced money. This includes more straightforward objectives and a detailed assessment of costs and benefits;
  • Closer monitoring of what savings each funded scheme is actually achieving;
  •  Future projects like Invest to Save need enough preparation time to make sure higher quality projects can be suggested for funding;
  • The focus on what the schemes can achieve for the public needs to be clarified, rather than just using funding to offset budget pressures;
  • Greater central oversight of all spending of ringfenced money by DFP.

Ms Boyle said so far she believed that DFP had listened to the criticism.

She added: "We are encouraged by the department's assurances that it has tightened up guidance on ring-fenced funding.

"It is a positive sign that the department has introduced more rigorous evaluation and monitoring arrangements for the £30m Change Fund and other cross-cutting reform programmes."

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