Page last updated at 07:29 GMT, Tuesday, 7 April 2009 08:29 UK

Party 'finds 400m for economy'

By Martina Purdy
BBC political correspondent

SDLP leader Mark Durkan unveiled the plan at Stormont
SDLP leader Mark Durkan unveiled the plan at Stormont

The SDLP has claimed its review of Northern Ireland's budget has identified £400m that could be used to kickstart the beleaguered economy.

Party leader Mark Durkan will unveil the proposals at a news conference later on Tuesday.

He said it was important to "strain every spending line" and free up reserve funds held by public bodies.

It's understood the party is to propose a Belfast city centre site for a sports stadium to help boost the economy.

Money could be redirected from the £40m failed Maze stadium project and invested in a stadium behind the Europa bus station. The party believes this would be commercially viable and attract private sector investment.

Other proposals in the party's discussion paper, New Priorities in Difficult Times, include selling off a city centre car park in Belfast's High Street to raise funds.

It also suggests selling the Housing Executive's Belfast headquarters, then renting them back, to save £17m.

It's understood that the SDLP will also propose selling off small forests across Northern Ireland which are not widely used by the public.

The party wants to freeze the bonuses and recruitment of grade five civil servants who earn more than £80,000 a year.

It is understood the SDLP also wants to freeze assembly members' pay and adjust salaries to three quarters of that earned by Westminster colleagues.

"We have to recognise that there are reserves being sat on by various public bodies and in this context you have to say are those reserves best used by sitting where they are or should they be borrowed now... and built up again," Mr Durkan said.

"Having money locked up in reserves at a time when we are asking health trusts to come forward with proposals to cut nurses' jobs, with proposals to shut old people's homes and cut children's respite services just does not make sense."

'Under pressure'

The SDLP's plan comes as the recession puts Stormont's spending plans under pressure.

In March, Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie confirmed the collapse in property prices will cost her department £200m over the next two years. Earnings she had hoped to make from property and land sales will not now materialise.

The Finance Minister, Nigel Dodds, has also warned that cuts being suggested by the Chancellor Alistair Darling could have a "serious impact" in Northern Ireland.

In February he said: "The knock-on effect of the announcement in the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Report that he would seek to find £5bn of efficiency savings across Whitehall departments has the potential to seriously impact the Executive's budget plans in 2010/2011.

"The extent to which this will affect Northern Ireland will not become clear until the budget is unveiled in April."

An independent think tank, the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland, has warned that radical action will be required from the executive to tackle the effects of the recession.

In February, the institute's director, Victor Hewitt, told two Assembly committees that measures such as the abolition of free transport for senior citizens, increases in rates and a higher VAT rate should be on the agenda.

Commenting on the proposals, Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey said: "I think we have a responsibility to look at any possibility of freeing up resources to redirect them towards front-line services... I think the Executive is duty bound to do so."

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