Belfast Telegraph

Ulster to sell off family silver to ease pain of massive budget cuts

Stormont ministers have unveiled budget plans to raise nearly £1 billion in new revenue to help offset the impact of £4 billion spending cuts in Northern Ireland.

Half the target will be achieved by a major sell-off of publicly-owned assets, with other measures including £150 million generated from an inflationary increase on rates, £16 million brought in from a levy on plastic bags and £80 million from housing association assets.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson confirmed the details of the package in the Northern Ireland Assembly, after the blueprint was finalised in late-night negotiations.

He said that, in agreeing a four-year budget which was forced by central Government's hard-hitting spending review, the Executive had "come of age", with a package which he signalled would protect the most vulnerable and help ensure economic growth.

Mr Wilson said: "We have proved that we can take difficult decisions, we have proved we can reach agreement.

"We have proved we can work together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland."

The deal was brokered in negotiations led by the DUP and Sinn Fein, but including the Ulster Unionists, nationalist SDLP and the Alliance Party.

The ideas for new revenue account for an estimated 20-25% of the plan, with 75-80% made-up of cost saving measures aimed at managing the Executive's reduced pot of money.

The cost saving and revenue raising measures unveiled by Mr Wilson included:

  • A pay freeze for the 12,000 civil servants under Stormont control and who earn over £21,000. The 14,000 civil servants earning less will receive stepped increases of £250 per year. Other public sector workers are affected by anticipated UK-wide deals.
  • Economic growth would remain the Executive's top priority, but there is a pledge to "bear down" on costs in departments, with a pledge to review quangos within the next six months, after which some could be ditched or merged.
  • Departments will have to prioritise projects, including building programmes, with the essential measures getting priority.
  • Domestic and non-domestic rates will have to take on inflationary increases, expected to average 2% per year, but the Executive argues this is a freeze in real terms.
  • The Executive has resisted the calls to introduce water charges - a promise to extend across the next four years
  • The Executive will raise £35 million over four years by tapping-in to the Belfast Harbour Commission resources, but it is indicated this figure could rise to £125 million.
  • An estimated £540 million will be raised from selling-off assets over the next four years, but that could rise.

Mr Wilson said the draft budget, which will now go out for public consultation, protected jobs and avoided over-loading households with new costs.

He added: "It is good for families, good for business and lays the foundation for a better future."

Other costs will be saved by reducing government spend on external consultants (currently sitting at £20 million per annum) by 10% a year.

Despite the cutbacks, the Executive has identified a number of specific investment priorities.

These include:

  • A partial ringfencing of the health and social services budget. The 77% of the spend allocated specifically to health will be safeguarded and rise by 0.2% on top of inflation over the budget period.
  • An £80 million Social Investment Fund to regenerate deprived working class neighbourhoods still suffering from the legacy of the Troubles.
  • A Social Protection Fund that will provide time-limited support to individuals hit hard by changes to the UK welfare reform. This will be allocated £20 million in the first year with hopes this level of funding can be sustained into the future.
  • An £18 million project, delivered by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, focused on boosting job numbers
  • A £5 million investment in NI Screen to help build new film studios at the Paint Works in east Belfast - a facility currently being used by US production giant HBO.
  • The go-ahead for a new £120 million police training college in Cookstown, Co Tyrone.
  • Confirmation a £110 million project to redevelop the region's three main sports stadiums will proceed.

A late night meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive saw ministers from the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance back the draft budget, while the UUP and SDLP abstained.

But all parties said they were happy for the draft budget to go out for consultation.

Mr Wilson said: "We sought to achieve a complete consensus around the Executive table and while it did not prove possible, no minister voted to oppose the draft budget."

Belfast Telegraph


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