Stormont approves budget plan


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 the London 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.

“We have proved that we can take difficult decisions, we have proved we can reach agreement,” Mr Wilson said. “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 Féin, but including the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and the Alliance Party.

The ideas for new revenue account for an estimated 20-25 per cent of the plan, with 75-80 per cent made up of cost saving measures aimed at managing the Executive’s reduced funding.

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 arn 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 cent 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. “It is good for families, good for business and lays the foundation for a better future,” he said.