North given close to £1bn in Budget sweeteners (and they're all claiming the credit)

Chancellor Philip Hammond delivering his Budget statement to MPs in the House of Commons. Picture by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire
Gary McDonald Business Editor

WHEN there's a bit of spare cash coming the north's way, it's funny how just about everyone wants to take the credit for it.

There is total extra spending of £320m for Northern Ireland government departments, an above-inflation uplift in the block grant which will increase the Stormont budget to more than £11.7 billion by 2020.

Add to that a boost of £350m for the Belfast Region City Deal, a one-off payment of £2m to revive the city centre after the Primark fire and £300m towards integrated education.

"It was us that did it," trumpeted the DUP.

"We have been lobbying the Chancellor on these issues," the FSB said.

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"Our extensive engagement at Westminster with MPs and ministers has successfully delivered these results," Retail NI claimed.

You get the picture . . .

Regardless of who should take the plaudits, it all added up to the thick end of a billion quid for the north, which was given rather a lot of Budget airtime for a region of just 1.8 million people (especially since many larger UK regions went without a single direct reference).

In the round, it was a good news budget for the north but still represents something of a missed opportunity, especially since there was no movement on scrapping air passenger duty or cutting VAT on tourism.

Analysts claimed the so-called 'Halloween Budget', the last one before Brexit, was not as scary as many had predicted.

Of course, unions and business groups had wildly different views of Philip Hammond's 75-minute speech, ranging from "rock solid" to "austerity horror show."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "Working people cannot be fobbed off again with promises of a better tomorrow that never comes.

"The Budget does not undo the austerity that has devastated public services, and it lacks the investment needed to speed up wage growth after the longest pay squeeze in 200 years."

But Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, said: "This was a rock-solid budget, bringing more treats than tricks for business.

"It recognises the enormous contribution enterprise has made to balancing the UK's books through jobs, pay and tax and responds to many of the recommendations that firms have made."

Others claimed years of "wrecking ball austerity" had left local services in a perilous state, and that it will take many years and substantial investment for them to recover.

However, Brexit remains the elephant in the room, and fiscal watchdog the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has warned of the "severe implications" for the economy in the event of a no deal, adding that the vote to quit the EU has already weakened growth.

It claims that, notwithstanding potential future revisions, the referendum vote to leave the EU has weakened the economy, and a disorderly Brexit could have severe short-term implications for the economy, the exchange rate, asset prices and the public finances.

Mr Hammond actually talked more about public loos than Brexit. So here's hoping the economy won't go down the toilet after March 29.

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