Belfast Telegraph

'Stormont's finance minister and Executive have tough decisions over Northern Ireland's spending'

By Will Chambre

As if Simon Hamilton didn't have enough problems as Stormont's finance minister, English councils are now crying foul over their share of Treasury funds...and they want some of that money taken away from Scotland, Wales!

Yep, Northern Ireland's share of the arcane Barnett formula is firmly in the sights of little Englanders.

The Barnett formula was devised in the early 1970s as a way of calculating the need of the disparate parts of the UK. This resulted in Scotland and Northern Ireland getting extra cash based on perceived or real need.

Now the English Local Government Association wants the Barnett formula done away with and a new calculation to be devised.

What is likely to raise a few eyebrows in Scotland, and amongst all shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland, is the language used by the Local Government Association.

They want the money to be "repatriated". That word suggests a certain thinking that sounds like it is getting the money back from some far, distant part of the fading British Empire; or as if the cold, hard cash had somehow been taken unwillingly from the purses of older people shivering in some idyllic and picturesque village in a green and pleasant land that no longer exists.

Indeed the fact that older people have developed the annoying habit of living longer appears to be the driving force of the claim.

The Local Government Association claims that the "ageing population" is placing a drain on council adult services across England.

While this is no doubt the case, the LGA seems to be confused. It seems to suggest that people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are dying conveniently early to keep the rest of the population living the high life of steak and gravy each and every day.

As our local health minister will tell you, this is not the case, and there are statistics to prove it. This means that the English Local Government Association’s demand for a “needs based formula” is problematic, as it will require a clear definition of need.

All of which may mean all sorts of calculations being manipulated, should the Barnett formula be subject to revision, accompanied with a clamour of protests from those sections of the populace likely to lose out.

While the UK coalition government is ruling out any change in the immediate future, claiming that English councils have other ways to increase their revenue, there must be a temptation to change the rules.

At present the Barnett formula is one weapon in the battle to end the SNP's drive for an independent, tartan-clad Scotland. The argument being, you're better in than out.

However, once that vote in Scotland has been taken, whatever the result, we could see moves be to re-distribute - or repatriate - money back to the conservative party heartland of southern England, ahead of the Westminster election.

After all, the votes in Northern Ireland - and indeed the lack of conservative votes in Scotland and Wales - will not count that much in the battle to win a House of Commons majority of any kind.

Which must make the aforementioned Mr Hamilton, and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland executive, more than a little nervous.

After all, it will be all but impossible for Northern Ireland to produce extra cash to offset any changes in the formula, unless of course the NI executive decides to significantly raise the domestic and non-domestic regional rate. Which means that our finance minister and his executive colleagues will have some tough decisions to make when it comes to setting our region’s spending priorities.


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