Town bus services in Armagh and other major towns across the Province look set to be retained – after a £5 million allocation for the Department of Regional Development announced today (Monday).
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton unveiled details of the agreed Executive Budget for 2015/16, which makes additional allocations of more than £150million across all departments.
The Assembly’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – were the only two to endorse Mr Hamilton’s spending plans.
The Minister, meanwhile, said the budget supported frontline services in health and education, as well as underpinning economic growth.
All departments have been in the process of consulting publicly on spending cuts.
It emerged in December that one of the possible avenues for savings being looked at by the Department for Regional Development was the loss of town bus services from Armagh and 13 other towns across the Province, with serious cutbacks at seven others.
Today’s announcement of £5million for the DRD is geared specifically at town bus services and road repairs.
Money is also being made available through the January monitoring round for the repair of street lighting, after it was recently revealed that thousands of lights across the region were not working.
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy had come under fire at Stormont for his management of the departmental budget.
But Mr Kennedy was quick to hit back at the comments made by the DUP Finance Minister.
The Newry and Armagh Assemblyman said: “Simon Hamilton has taken a cavalier approach to reducing potential overspend by the Executive by failing to take central responsibility for the outstanding Belfast Port £20million.
“The truth is the money was extracted from my budget and spent at the centre. During his time as Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson accepted that extracting the money from the Port was both unlawful and that the money removed from my budget was spent centrally.
“It is disappointing that some continue to want to play party politics than face up to financial realities.”
The Minister also set out the position in relation to the spending for street lighting, as he confirmed that additional street light repairs will start immediately.
Mr Kennedy said: “I asked for street light funding in October and received it in January, now it has been made available street light repairs will be ramped up from today.”
The Finance Minister outlined today the various allocations which would be made, saying the agreed budget “deals with many of our pressures, reflects our priorities and prepares for the future”.
Mr Hamilton said: “This budget, and the agreement that has been reached on welfare reform, puts the Executive’s finances back on a long-term and sustainable basis. It underpins economic growth and paves the way for allowing Northern Ireland to set its own rate of corporation tax with sizeable investments in job creation and skills development.”
Turning to the budget allocations, Mr Hamilton added: “The final budget makes additional allocations of more than £150million.
“The central pillars in constructing this budget for 2015-2016 were the protection of key frontline health and education services, investments to support economic development in Northern Ireland and putting in place the foundations for the reform and restructuring of our public sector.”
The Minister confirmed a £204million increase in spending for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety originally outlined in the draft budget.
He said: “This additional £204million reflects the Executive’s determination to protect front line services in the health sector and sees a final budget outcome for health which is some 3.4% higher than last year.”
The Department of Education receives £64.6million in extra funding on top of that already allocated in the draft budget.
The Minister said: “This reflects, not just the Executive’s own commitment to a high quality education system that contributes to the success of our economy and society, but it is also in recognition of responses to our public consultation.
“I trust that this sizeable additional allocation will permit much of the pressures facing classrooms across Northern Ireland to be alleviated.”
These two departments, Health and Education, will account for 65% of all resource expenditure in Northern Ireland next year.
Education Minister John O’Dowd today welcomed the increase to the education budget and was quick to outline how some of the additional funding would be allocated.
Minister O’Dowd said: In light of this additional funding from the Executive and in reviewing the wider education budget, I am allocating an additional £80million to the Aggregated Schools Budget for 2015-16. This funding will help ensure that schools can continue to deliver high quality education and enable them to plan according to their school’s needs and priorities. This means there is no reduction to schools’ delegated budgets.
“I am also allocating £2.5million to the Pre-School education programme to restore the draft budget reduction. Pre-school education builds upon the learning that children experience at home and provides a rich variety of challenging play activities in a stimulating environment. It is an essential stepping stone on a child’s educational journey and I am pleased to be able to invest further funds to the programme.
“I am also conscious of the valuable role of our youth services in supporting and encouraging our young people to reach their full potential. Recognising the positive contribution our ELB youth services make to education, employability and life skills for young people, and to ensure that this important work can continue, I am allocating £2million to ELB youth services, again restoring the reduction made at draft budget stage.”
The Final DE Budget 2015/16 will be confirmed in the next couple of days.
Turning to other departments at Stormont, Finance Minister Hamilton also referred to the “significant allocation” of a further £20million to the Department of Justice “specifically to meet pressures on the PSNI”.
The final budget sees the Department of Employment and Learning receiving a total of £33.2million in additional funding. This is made up of £20million in recognition of the work our universities and colleges do in building a skilled workforce and £13.2million of the £30million Change Fund, which includes projects on collaborative skills development with DETI, the United Youth programme pilot and apprenticeships and youth training.
Other allocations have been made to departments to meet a range of pressures.
· Department of Enterprise Trade, and Investment (DETI) receives £3million which goes to Invest NI as well as £7.4million in Change Fund allocations.
· £2million to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for the Going for Growth strategy and the Department’s HQ relocation;
· £2million to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to deal with pressures relating to NI Screen/Cinemagic, PRONI and the production of the outline business case for the sub-regional stadia;
· £5million for the Department for Regional Development for Translink town bus services and road repair programmes;
· £1.9million to the Department of the Environment for the local government de-rating grant;
· £3.1million for the Department of Social Development to reinstate reductions applied to the Social Fund and to fund the National Citizens Service; and
· £1.5million to OFMDFM for victims’ services.
· £10million for Together: Building a United Community.
Commenting on the Northern Ireland Investment Fund, the Minister explained: “The Executive has endorsed the allocation of a further £28.8million of Financial Transactions Capital to the Northern Ireland Investment Fund meaning that some £40.9million will be in the Fund next year.”
In terms of capital investment, Minister Hamilton went on: “The Executive’s 2015-16 budget allows for £1.1billion of departmental capital spend. In addition to this £50million provided under the Stormont House Agreement for shared and integrated education will increase the potential departmental capital spend to some £1.2 billion.”
The Minister said: “I can announce my intention to bring forward to the Executive a paper proposing the creation of a Social Innovation Fund, with £5million funding from dormant accounts, potentially reaching £10 million from additional finance. This will allow social enterprises, charities, faith based organisations and community groups to access loan financing that will enable them to expand the good work that they do.”
The Executive has also agreed the January Monitoring Round for 2014-2015.
The Minister said: “After a challenging year, the Executive is now clearly on course to live within its means in 2014-15. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement provided additional funding for 2014/15 and with reclassifications and reduced requirements declared by Departments the Executive has been able to allocate resource expenditure in 2014-15 totalling £14.2million, including funding for street lighting repairs and short term support for the Ulster Orchestra, whilst capital allocations totalled £27.2million across a number of departments.
“I am very pleased to announce that the Executive agreed to provide £38.5million of Financial Transactions Capital funding to the University of Ulster to assist in financing their Greater Belfast Development Scheme. This is on top of £35million previously provided.”
Returning to the 2015-16 budget, the Minister added: “Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that our budget is in better shape because of the financial package associated with the Stormont House Agreement, agreement between the Executive parties on welfare reform and Barnett consequentials flowing from the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, it does not mean that the challenges facing public spending in Northern Ireland have evaporated.
“I have been warning for many months that pressure on public expenditure would inevitably result in a change to the shape and nature of our public sector. That remains true.
“Despite allocating an additional £150million in this budget, it would be a misjudgement to believe that we can take our foot off the pedal of reform. A better budget than we might have dared to imagine six months ago does not mean that difficult decisions can be avoided. Reform and restructuring remain as relevant now as they did before.
“The Executive will shortly adopt a comprehensive programme of public sector reform and restructuring which will encompass a wide range of strategies, including a combination of measures such as a Voluntary Exit Scheme (VES) and recruitment freeze.
“The flexibilities agreed in the Stormont House Agreement to utilise up to £200million of RRI borrowing to pay for a VES in 2015-16, will greatly assist the Executive in its aim to reform and restructure.
“Agreeing this budget was as big a test as any our administration has passed since the restoration of devolution. No budget would have meant no Stormont.
“It may not be ideal or to everyone’s satisfaction, but agreeing it in the context of severe pressures on public spending represents a sign of growing maturity. It should act as a stimulus as we step into a future full of challenge.
“Let us use this agreed budget with its focus on public services, the economy and reform to renew and redouble our efforts to make progress and keep Northern Ireland moving forward.”
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