Belfast Telegraph

Stop whining and start trimming verges, Stormont minister Kennedy urged

By Noel McAdam

A Stormont minister has been told to quit whining about cutting his budget and start cutting the grass instead.

Northern Ireland's unkempt and overgrown countryside is creating a very poor image for tourists, Assembly Members heard yesterday.

Finance chief Arlene Foster, who used to have responsibility for tourism, said she was concerned by the lack of grass cutting as roadsides, verges and central reservations become increasingly overgrown.

And she urged Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy to re-examine his departmental priorities.

She said the Ulster Unionist minister was dealing with a 0.6% cut to his resource budget compared to 10% in her own department.

But Mr Kennedy strongly rejected the figures, and said the real gap in his departmental budget now amounts to £60.5m.

Mrs Foster was responding to her DUP colleague Stephen Moutray, who suggested overgrown roadsides, verges and central reservations were portraying a very negative image of Northern Ireland this summer.

And the Upper Bann MLA asked her to encourage Mr Kennedy to prioritise his resources "in a way that will once again make Northern Ireland an attractive place to live, to work in and to visit".

Mrs Foster said Mr Kennedy had commented that the Executive's budget had required him to make drastic cuts to road maintenance.

"However, contrary to what he has implied, his department's non-ring-fenced resource budget for 2015-16 has been reduced by only 0.6%. That is one of the best outcomes for any department," she said.

"So, I urge the minister to look again, particularly at the lack of grass cutting, because, although it is a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, it creates an image that we want to avoid, particularly for tourists to Northern Ireland. We are presenting a very poor image to those who visit our country."

Mr Kennedy hit back, however: "It has been put forward in the 2015-16 budget document that the reduction to my department's budget is only 0.6%.

"This is a figure that has been arrived at through the restating of baselines and presentation of figure work which hides the true funding impact on my department's budget for 2015-16. My department's budget has had cuts of £50m applied.

"This together with the £15m gap (£13m due to a DFP rates revaluation) between NI Water's requirement as per the Utility Regulator's final determination and their existing budget resulted in total pressures of £65m.

"An additional £5m was allocated to my department by the Executive between the draft and final budget. Thus the true pressure on my department's budget is now £60.5m."

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