Northern Ireland news

ANALYSIS: Smoke and mirrors disguise a humdrum budget

The DUP signs a confidence and supply deal with Theresa May's government in June. Picture by Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

KAREN Bradley's budget announcement was greeted with inevitable politicking and point scoring.

Given that the spending plan was hatched in London by a Tory government propped up by the DUP, nationalists were never going to be sanguine in their response.

Sinn Féin described it as part of the British government's "austerity agenda", while the SDLP said it was a "direct rule budget".

Both were partially correct, as the budget does continue on a trajectory that sees overall spending steadily reduced in real terms, and it was delivered by a British government minister rather than a Stormont finance minister.

But while the figures involved do not match those lavished on the north by the Labour government more than a decade ago, they are not that far removed from the sums the Sinn Féin-DUP led executive was spending on public services not so long ago.

And while the slide towards some form of direct rule appears increasingly inevitable, the British government has stressed that its input remains minimal and that spending decisions were taken following discussions with the north's main parties.

So what we effectively have is holding budget.

Save for cuts to smaller departments, it includes no major changes to current spending patterns and while the option for revenue raising measures is there, these are unlikely to be especially ambitious.

The "inflation-busting" increase in the regional rate has grabbed the headlines but the £25m it is expected to raise represents only around two per cent of the total regional spend.

The key difference between this budget and its predecessors is the £410m secured through the DUP's confidence and supply deal with the Tories. This is ostensibly good news and those who are begrudging of the regional windfall are cast as 'whingers'.

Yet it's hard not to look at the figures and wonder if we're being hoodwinked.

The £100m set aside for the implementation of Professor Rafael Bengoa's recommendations on transforming healthcare is arguably the most 'political' aspect of the budget as it signals a break with the current approach – though that could yet prove controversial.

The DUP has claimed the kudos for securing the funding but it could be argued that extra money from Whitehall for this ambitious project would always have been necessary, as the cash-strapped Department of Health can ill-afford to spare additional funds.

The same could be said for major infrastructure projects like the York Street interchange, which at an estimated cost of £165m would have been difficult to fund from within existing budgets.

Over a decade of devolution, the Stormont executive had also maxed out its borrowing, leaving even fewer options for funding big ideas.

Elsewhere, a bending of the civil service accounting rules allows £100m to be reallocated from capital spending to resource, which is a clever way of 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' to help meet day-to-day costs, while meantime the DUP gets the credit for securing extra capital cash.

Without the sort of 'blue sky thinking' that the executive failed to demonstrate during devolution, the north's budget will always have be reasonably rigid in its allocations.

The hype around the DUP confidence and supply cash notwithstanding, it appears that Karen Bradley has merely carried on where the others left off.

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