Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland blackout: Too simplistic to blame Stormont for public service woe

By John Simpson

Right across the public sector, day by day, the pressure of reduced budgets is growing more and more conspicuous.

Every aspect of public services, from education to health and housing, has been reporting examples of economies made, new services postponed and the passing of blame to demographic changes as we cope with an ever older population.

The convenient and oft repeated argument has been that these consequences are a product of the absence of the Stormont Assembly and failure to agree to restore the Executive.

Yes, some questions would be dealt with, rather than left unanswered, when a policy decision is needed.

However, the rhetoric has lost its way. The tension in some public services is caused by a rather less complicated explanation.

The tension is, more often than is admitted, a knock-on from a reducing (real value) budget. In the last seven to eight years, the Northern Ireland block grant, the Barnett allocation, has fallen by about £700m: over £100m each year.

The managers of the public services have known, each year, that the budget framework called for action plans to live within the allocations.

As these action plans proved more and more difficult to deliver, it is easy - but wrong - to blame the absence of a functioning Stormont. Even with local ministers in office, the need to live within the Treasury overall budget would apply.

Sometimes and in some special policy areas, new policies are awaited. That is not an adequate excuse where the causation is not attributable to an absence of local policy decisions.

The problems of efficiently managing the public services on a reducing annual current spending budget have now emerged more clearly. They might have been emphasised earlier if the public sector managers had been frank and factual sooner.

There seems to have been something of a denial of the changes and an attempt to temporise 'hoping that something would turn up', as a special money-tree supplement from Westminster.

An interesting complication has emerged in the arrival (or non-arrival) of the extra budget funds in the package agreed by the DUP with the Government. That package has arrived, or will arrive, with earmarked allocations.

Those allocations, welcome as they are, do not do much soften the arithmetic of day-to-day spending on routine services. To a degree the special DUP-Government packages focus on health and education services and capital budgets.

The year-on-year efficiency pressures on other current spending remain.

So also, therefore, the routine maintenance of street lights, roads maintenance, snow and water damage repairs and grass cutting (and similar less conspicuous services) are the casualties.

These issues can be described as the less obvious signs of austerity cuts.

The Treasury will not be sympathetic: Northern Ireland has had parity of budget cuts, as has happened elsewhere.

Back to an older defence: can this be argued as a special case?

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