Belfast Telegraph

Working together is the only way out of the financial crisis

Public expenditure cuts will be the acid test of devolution, says Seamus McAleavey

I have spent the last couple of weeks meeting MLAs, ministerial advisors and permanent secretaries of government departments.

A Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA)-led delegation has also had a meeting with every one of the finance directors of Northern Ireland's government departments.

The basis of our discussions centred around one all-important topic - the likely impact of the Budget settlement on Northern Ireland for the next four years starting in 2011.

There is no doubt in my mind that the settlement for Northern Ireland will be the toughest that any of us have ever seen.

In July, NICVA received a report we commissioned from Oxford Economics and ERINI that predicted that we were likely to lose more than £1.2bn in real terms over four years. This was a conservative, non-alarmist estimate.

Privately, the economists thought that it was more likely to be £1.5bn to £1.9bn. Everything that I am now hearing makes me believe the higher estimate is the correct one. These are enormous reductions that will impact the lives of everyone.

The decisions which lie ahead for the Executive are the most difficult they have ever faced and will place all the ministers, both individually and collectively, under severe strain.

I believe voluntary and community organisations with experience in effective public service delivery can help deliver smart solutions in these tough times.

Let me explain what I mean, and how the voluntary and community sector can help be part of the solution to Northern Ireland's many problems. Here's just two examples of what can be done.

Home-Start is a voluntary organisation that works with families with children; more than 3,000 children in Northern Ireland are helped by the organisation with 900 experienced volunteers.

Home-Start focuses on preventing problems before they become insurmountable and very often they are a family's last chance. In financial terms they can support 40 children living at home for the cost of taking one child into care.

Another example is that of Seacourt in Larne. Thanks to the work of the Seacourt Community Council, the estate has been completely transformed.

It has gone from an area blighted by anti-social behaviour, boarded-up houses, sectarian and violent incidents and plagued by graffiti to becoming a three-time winner of the best kept large housing estate competition with a long waiting list of people wanting to live there and houses that have quadrupled in their value.

So we have smart solutions for tough times, but what needs to happen is that these possibilities have to be grasped - not starved of funds.

In our meetings with MLAs, special advisors and permanent secretaries, we have taken a more sophisticated and hopefully more helpful stance, suggesting a range of smart solutions in these increasingly tough times.

The financial crisis facing the Northern Ireland Executive is daunting - of that there is no doubt.

To face the problem the first thing the Executive should do is to be absolutely frank with the people about the scale of the problem. Then they have to act together to agree priorities across all departments.

They also have to think about new approaches, reconfiguring services and working with those who can help make a difference and create positive outcomes.

Seamus McAleavey is chief executive of NICVA

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