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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2008, 17:24 GMT
Is budget 'as good as it gets'?
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

Peter Robinson
This was Finance Minister Peter Robinson's first budget
After 12 weeks of civil war in the Stormont executive, Finance Minister Peter Robinson's final budget felt like the start of a January truce.

Given the inevitable tensions within the four-party coalition, nothing can be taken for granted.

But with the SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie beaming about the cash she has received for housing, and the Ulster Unionist Health Minister Michael McGimpsey pronouncing the settlement "as good as it gets," it is hard to see either of their parties endeavouring to stop this budget in its tracks.

When Peter Robinson announced his draft budget in October, the DUP deputy leader pleased ratepayers with a freeze on the domestic rates.

He also won plaudits from business leaders for his emphasis on the need to turn Northern Ireland into an innovative entrepreneurial economy rather than an area reliant on the public sector.

But the two smaller partners in the Stormont coalition were left underwhelmed.

Michael McGimpsey had called his allocation "a stand-still budget", whilst Margaret Ritchie expressed concern about what she described as the "significant challenges" which it posed for her department.

The final budget should enable the minister to achieve much more in terms of mental health provision, cervical and breast cancer screening and other urgent health requirements

This final budget had addressed those concerns.

Ms Ritchie is a clear winner with 205m extra over three years.

This should enable her to build 5,250 new affordable homes over that period.

Although the draft budget contained 700m, the minister says that none of this was for affordable housing, so the extra money will be vital if she is to meet her new target.

The local Construction Employers Federation reckons that, given the signs of a plateau in the private housing market, the minister will have no difficulties finding the builders to do the job.

What may be more challenging could be the business of coordinating housing associations and other partners to reach the increased targets.

Analysing the new money for health is more difficult.

READ THE BUDGET STATEMENT

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Speaking in the Assembly in November, Minister McGimpsey talked about the local health service being underfunded by 300m compared to England.

He added that the draft budget would leave a 600m funding-gap in three years' time.

Health officials say the gap remains, but the final budget should enable the minister to achieve much more in terms of mental health provision, cervical and breast cancer screening and other urgent health requirements.

Have the Ulster Unionists got a good deal or are they making the best of a bad job? Expect to hear more of this as UUP and DUP backbenchers continue to cross swords over health

Interviewed for the BBC's Stormont Live, Minister McGimpsey reckoned the final budget gives him 150m more over the next three years.

He broke this down into 30m extra revenue, 60m in guaranteed funds from money not spent by other departments which is usually allocated during the year and the flexibility to re-use his own savings within the health department which the minister believes is worth another 60m.

However, if you talk to other parties, they are not convinced, pointing out for example that health would normally get its share of money reallocated from other departments during the year, so this cash can hardly be counted as new.

Also, they point out the Health Department's flexibility only kicks in after it has made the 3% efficiency saving required of all departments.

According to these calculations, the fresh money, even including 13m for health innovations and 14m for the fire service, amounts to a total of only 57m extra over three years.

We have moved forward from the November night when Peter Robinson threatened that, if the parties could not agree a programme for government then there would be no government
So have the Ulster Unionists got a good deal or are they making the best of a bad job? Expect to hear more of this as UUP and DUP backbenchers continue to cross swords over health.

One other area we heard more about today was money for innovation.

Peter Robinson has distributed a total of 90m coming from London, Dublin and the local budget.

It's spread across many departments, but Employment Minister and UUP leader Sir Reg Empey gets a big chunk - 40m - which is due to be spent on science research and projects involving universities north and south.

As the details are debated, the coalition partners will no doubt disagree on some points - the Ulster Unionists, for example, are signalling their concerns over the plans to fund the water service.

But we have moved forward from the November night when Peter Robinson threatened that, if the parties could not agree a programme for government then there would be no government.

With all the ministers signing off on this final budget, for now it looks like the Stormont show is still on the road.



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