Belfast Telegraph

Police college and big A5 road project get go-ahead

By Noel McAdam

Stormont ministers have turned Santa to give a green light to major projects including the long-delayed A5 Londonderry to Enniskillen trunk road and the controversial police, prison and fire service training college at Desertcreat in Co Tyrone.

The last Executive meeting of the year also gave the go-ahead in principle for the A6 road north of Randalstown, the planned Mother and Children's Hospital and the regional stadiums programme.

After a year of political uncertainty, when at times the Assembly seemed in danger of collapse, ministers wanted to give certainty to flagship capital programmes, including the Belfast Rapid Transport system.

The meeting also decided to divide in half the £60m left in limbo following Chancellor George Osborne's decision not to proceed with massive changes to the tax credits system.

This means around £30m is going towards extra protection for the health and social care functions of the health service, policing and education.

And the Executive will decide what to do with the remaining £30m following the review of welfare reforms due to be conducted early in the new year by a team led by Professor Eileen Evason.

The suggestion is that, if needed, the money would be used to provide additional cushioning for benefit claimants on top of the existing concessions. Just a few hours before taking up leadership of the DUP, Finance Minister Arlene Foster said the Executive had decided to freeze regional rates for the sixth year in a row - maintaining the province's position as having the lowest household taxes in the UK.

Ministers were forced to fast-track a new budget for 2016/17 following last month's Fresh Start deal between the DUP, Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments. They have by-passed the normal procedures for agreeing a budget, avoiding the usual requirement for a draft blueprint and a two-month public consultation.

But the process was further complicated by the looming reduction of the present 12 Stormont departments, including the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), to nine in time for the next Assembly election in May.

Mrs Foster admitted the transition was "not without its own difficulties". But along with the winners came the losing departments - the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is facing an in-year cut of almost 6%, as is the Executive Office, which is to replace OFMDFM.

Other losers in the latest share-out including the Public Prosecution Service, the Utility Regulator and the Food Standards Agency.

And nearly £50m has been earmarked for a voluntary exit scheme for teachers.

Belfast Telegraph

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