Stormont stalemate: Financial pressures mount on the hill

It looks increasingly likely that December’s emergency budget drafted for Stormont will be put into action, as civil servants call for urgent financial direction.

The budget comprises of three options – including the potential pulling of £20 million (€22.7 million) from DAERA’s funding in less than two years.

The budgetary outlook highlighted that if the proposed full cuts go ahead, the following action will need to be taken:

  • Deferring planned expenditure in respect of the TB Strategic Partnership Group;
  • Deferring the Sustainable Agricultural Land Management Strategy;
  • Scaling back on existing rural development and environmental programmes.

However, according to the document this would still leave residual pressure of £5 million (€5.7 million) and £25 million (€28.5 million).

The extra money would have to be funded from:

  • The cessation of all rural affairs programmes;
  • Reducing payroll costs;
  • Reducing running costs;
  • Working closely with Department of Finance to secure additional funding from monitoring rounds which would also reduce overall pressures.

David Sterling, Northern Ireland’s head of civil service, recently told MPs that a budget would need to be in place by February 8, or it would be “incredibly difficult” for key services to operate.

Talks

The figures – revealed as one of three scenarios outlined in the latest briefing on Northern Ireland’s budgetary outlook – represent the loss of more than a tenth of the department’s annual spend.

But with just days to go until a new budget needs to be in place, agreement at Stormont appears to be some distance away.

The permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said introducing a second budget for Northern Ireland could be on the cards.

However, political commentator Noel McAdam explained that even if a deal is reached, it’s unlikely politicians will be in office in time to make much of a mark.

He said: “I think it’s a good sign that there is not much coming out of the talks; it’s usually a sign of serious engagement with round table sessions planned for this week.

“But even if a deal emerges they won’t be back in office in time.”

‘Unique challenges’

Ulster Farmers’ Union president Barclay Bell said that while he recognised the importance of funding for areas such as health and education; the agri-food industry faces unique challenges because of uncertainties surrounding Brexit.

He said: “Along with agriculture, the food industry employs 100,000 people in jobs well spread across urban and rural areas. It is worth more than £4.5 billion (€5.1 million) a year.

“That makes it a cornerstone of the local economy; but, in the face of the challenges success cannot be taken for granted.”

Given the limited options for reducing costs, there are concerns that cuts of the scale suggested would hit front-line services and long-term investments – which could impact on the industry’s competitive position.

TB programme could be hit

Bell said: “I am concerned that our ability to tackle the scourge of bovine TB for both farmers and taxpayers could be compromised.

“We could also see environmental programmes scaled back and a land use management scheme suffer because of a lack of resources.

“This would undermine the thinking in the ‘Going for Growth Strategy’ in which farming efficiency and productivity drive a successful food industry, adding more jobs to those already created,” he concluded.

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