Big cuts in public spending in Northern Ireland are on their way, finance minister Sammy Wilson has confirmed. Ministers will consider slimming down the public sector and outsourcing various activities, he said.
“One of the things we are going to have to look at is are there different ways of doing things: are there things we are doing in the public sector that we shouldn’t be doing at all,” says Wilson. “You have got to say, what is the core business of this department and concentrate on that core business. That may well mean that we stop doing certain things and outsource others.”
The finance minister accepts that the UK Government will reduce its financial support for Northern Ireland. But, he adds, “I don’t want to speculate what the cut is going to be.”
Nor will Wilson predict what cuts there will be in local public services, other than that water charges are likely to be introduced after all. Putting them on hold has an annual cost of around £210m, he says, which is “probably not sustainable in the long run”.
Wilson’s comments underline the significance of remarks made last week by First Minister Peter Robinson, who called for a cut in the number of Stormont departments and a slimming down of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
With a reduction in departments and fewer civil servants, the demand for office accommodation could be much reduced. This means that the stalled Workplace 2010 programme is likely to be re-established, says Wilson.
The controversial programme to sell and lease back government office accommodation was abandoned last year when property values collapsed and the two preferred bidders – Land Securities Trillium and Telereal – merged.
Wilson says that the enforced halt to the scheme may “have been a blessing in disguise”. With the age and poor condition of the estate, the retendering for its sale and leaseback will return to the Executive’s agenda – but for less accommodation than it currently owns. “Given the uncertainties about what we do in the public sector, then the shape of the estate is something we need to look at and the amount of the estate,” he says.
The extent of cuts in public sector activities is likely to be increased by the commitment to support the expansion of the private sector. Wilson confirmed that this remains the Executive’s main priority.