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Esmond Birnie

Cash-strapped Executive facing some very tough choices on revenue-raising

Dr Esmond Birnie


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The Infrastructure Committee was told that several years of reduction in Translink's operating subsidy was about to produce a crisis. Its services might have to be cut back to the limited number of bus routes which are commercially viable

The Infrastructure Committee was told that several years of reduction in Translink's operating subsidy was about to produce a crisis. Its services might have to be cut back to the limited number of bus routes which are commercially viable

The Infrastructure Committee was told that several years of reduction in Translink's operating subsidy was about to produce a crisis. Its services might have to be cut back to the limited number of bus routes which are commercially viable

"Money, money, money, must be funny, in the rich man's world." So sang Abba. Members of the Northern Ireland Executive probably don't feel the current money situation is at all funny.

Permanent secretaries and ministers have been setting out their shopping lists as they tell the Stormont committees just how much extra funding they would like.

The Infrastructure Committee was told that several years of reduction in Translink's operating subsidy was about to produce a crisis. Its services might have to be cut back to the limited number of bus routes which are commercially viable.

One response to this might be that this was a bit of scaremongering ahead of the forthcoming Executive Budget.

However, Translink's budgetary problem has been developing for some time.

A few years ago the Assembly's research service reported that Translink was receiving a lower subsidy rate than some of the private sector transport operators in GB.

In the classroom it is similarly woeful. Education Minister Peter Weir argued recently that an extra £400m was needed for the capital budget (maintenance and new buildings) and a similar amount for current spending (notably, for teachers' pay). The Department's finance director made a case for an extra £427m in 2020-21, rising to £716m in two years' time.

Early last month when Stormont was restored I reckoned that at least an extra £4.5bn was needed to deal with obvious capital needs (fill the potholes, clear waiting lists and implement Bengoa, and water treatment plants for NI Water) as well as at least half a billion extra annually (mainly for schools).

Statements coming from ministers and their officials would imply those figures may be on the conservative side.

A very large sum of money may be implied by capital needs relating to, for example, further and higher education, improvement in the transport and digital networks and there are some recurrent demands (notably for policing and the new institutions under the New Decade, New Approach deal will have to be financed).

None of this allows for some longer term pressures on spending - what will be the implications of the carbon zero commitment and what happens if the UK Treasury refuses to fund agricultural support at pre-Brexit levels?

Some extra help may come from a Barnett consequential following on from the next UK Budget, but is the March 11 Budget going ahead, and what will be the result of the turf war between Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street?

Will the fiscal conservatives or the fiscal reckless win? In any case, what the Executive must do is engage in single-minded priority setting, gain as much efficiency as possible in public procurement and be prepared to make unpopular choices about revenue-raising.

Grand projects like a very high speed electric train to Dublin or a bridge to Scotland are off the table except in the very long run.

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