Northern Ireland news

Conor Murphy to meet Treasury officials after revealing £600m spending shortfall

Conor Murphy said available funds fell some £600 million short of what departments had so far bid for

STORMONT'S coffers are facing a £600 million shortfall next year even before fresh spending commitments arising from the New Decade, New Approach deal are factored in.

Finance minister Conor Murphy revealed the scale of the potential deficit yesterday as he announced that the regional budget would be set at the end of next month.

But the SDLP's finance spokesman highlighted how £150m has been "handed back to the Treasury" because it has been unspent by Stormont departments.

The executive has agreed to delay Stormont's spending plans until after the Westminster budget is unveiled on March 11, despite previously indicating otherwise.

Mr Murphy, who will travel to London on Thursday to meet Treasury officials, said the funds currently available fell some £600m short of what departments had so far bid for and commitments in New Decade, New Approach would bring further pressures.

The Sinn Féin minister explained his decision to wait until after the Chancellor's budget by saying the delay would enable a "fuller understanding of what funding may be available to us".

He said whatever emerged on March 11 came on the back of "nine years of austerity" and public spending would be "challenged as a consequence of that".

"We want to provide first-class services, we want to provide all that is promised in the programme for government, we want to match the commitments that were made under the New Decade, New Approach document – that is all a very significant challenge for an incoming executive, but we want to do that in a collegiate and collaborative way," he said.

"This is the Department of Finance budget as we present it but it is in effect the executive's budget and so we want to ensure that we get that right."

SDLP finance spokesman Matthew O'Toole said the executive needed to "get better at managing budgets".

The South Belfast MLA said supplementary estimates debated in the assembly yesterday revealed a "significant underspend" in capital for 2019-20, which in addition to more than £150m in financial transactions capital spending which had been returned to the Treasury, painted a "bleak picture of budget and project management".

“Given the urgent need for capital investment – something every party in this chamber agrees on – we simply can't accept a situation where resources are being handed back unused," he said.

Ulster University senior economist Dr Esmond Birnie said it was understandable that the finance minister was seeking more funds from Whitehall because Stormont had "aspirations far in excess of cash resources".

He said the issue "did not arise out of the blue in early 2020" but had been "brewing for a decade or more".

However, Dr Birnie said the Treasury was unlikely to give the finance minister what he was asking for.

"They may show a little bit more generosity in terms of loans or various regulations rather than in terms of hard cash," he said.

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