Lights out warning over budget cuts
Tens of thousands of street lights in Northern Ireland could be out over winter due to budget cuts, a minister has warned.
The department in charge of roads and street lighting is having to save £15 million and will not be able to pay private contractors for repairing broken lamps.
The two largest parties in Stormont's ministerial executive, Sinn Fein and the DUP, are at loggerheads over whether to implement the coalition's so-called bedroom tax and a failure to break the deadlock could result in a more widespread cull of public services and job losses this autumn.
Roads Minister Danny Kennedy said: " This has the potential to result in tens of thousands of street lights being out across Northern Ireland over the winter period."
It is unlikely that all lights will fail during the dark days and evenings of winter and an in-house contractor at Mr Kennedy's Department for Regional Development will endeavour to keep the road network in as safe a condition as possible.
There are around 275,000 street lights in Northern Ireland. Last year 80,000 faults were reported. If that happens this year only a small proportion will be attended to by DRD's own staff.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton accused his colleague of exaggerating the impact of his budget problems; the Roads Minister said he was neither exaggerating, crying wolf nor flag waving for more money from the executive.
"I know and I am prepared to stand over the impact that I know that these cuts will have on front line services."
He added: "When lights go out and are not repaired, when potholes appear and are not immediately addressed, people will see the standard of service going down."
He has also stopped approving some new work to generate savings on road and footpath maintenance, pothole patching, gully emptying, grass cutting and traffic sign maintenance.
The minister added: "I have also had to take the difficult decision to stop funding external contractors for the repair of street lamps that fail, unless they pose an electrical hazard to members of the public."
The cumulative budget shortfall for road construction and street lighting is £7 million.
Gordon Best, director of the Quarry Products Association in Northern Ireland, said: "We could be looking at 300-400 job losses, at a time when the politicians and the economic indicators are telling us that the economy is recovering."
Sinn Fein MP Francie Molloy claimed the minister's cuts to road repairs could cause more accidents and cost lives on the roads.
Mr Kennedy is a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, which is in mandatory coalition government with Sinn Fein and the DUP but which can be outvoted on major decisions by the two larger parties.
The Newry and Armagh MLA abstained from the ministerial Executive's budget vote last week. Stormont departments, excluding health and education, are to have their budgets cut by £78 million.
Mr Hamilton has also warned that further cuts, amounting to £87 million, will be required if a deal on welfare reform is not agreed.
Sinn Fein has adamantly opposed the changes imposed by Westminster, which would see state housing benefits for those renting homes with an extra room cut.
Supporters refer to the policy as an effort to tackle the "spare room subsidy", but critics have dubbed it the "bedroom tax".
The DUP has been pressing for the change to be adopted in Northern Ireland and the Treasury is threatening to impose the £87 million penalty for inaction in January.