The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) in Northern Ireland is facing a significant budgetary challenge in the coming year. Compared to the previous year, there has been a 14% cut in its day-to-day spending budget, which has put a lot of pressure on the department to make difficult decisions.
The spokesperson for the department has expressed concerns that the 2023-24 allocation does not recognise the one-off decision made last year to use Translink reserves to help maintain services. They argue that the allocation does not reflect the additional funding needed for energy and inflation.
The budget constraints have forced the department to look for ways to save money, including turning off streetlights and reducing public transport services. The cost of street lighting has increased fourfold due to rising energy prices.
The department has already taken some measures to reduce expenditure and raise revenue, including increasing Translink fares, increasing on-street car park charges in Belfast, Lisburn and Newry, and increasing non-domestic water and sewerage charges. In addition, Translink and Northern Ireland Water have been able to deliver additional savings of £19m.
The remaining resource deficit is over £100m, and the department is considering several options to reduce this debt. These options include scenarios such as no road gritting service provided this winter, reduced water and wastewater treatment services, reduced funding for community transport, and emergency-only services for road maintenance and flood management. The department’s capital allocation is £146m less than what it would have required.
The spokesperson for the DfI said that the department is facing extremely difficult and unprecedented circumstances. The Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs (Daera) has also been affected by budget cuts. Its allocation will result in a 1.5% cut to its day-to-day spending budget.
The allocation includes ring-fenced funding of £327.2m for agriculture, agri-environment, and the wider rural economy and £3.1m for fisheries. The funding cannot be used for other purposes. Daera has also faced significant financial pressures associated with the cost-of-living crisis, the rise in bovine TB and other factors.
The budget pressures could also undermine attempts to tackle Northern Ireland’s waiting list problem. The Department of Health has warned that the budget leaves it about £470m short of estimated requirements for this financial year.
The waiting list initiative, which has included creating additional in-house health service capacity over and above normal day-to-day work, as well as paying independent sector providers to assess and treat patients, could be affected by cost-saving measures under consideration. Northern Ireland has the worst waiting list figures in the UK, with approximately 378,000 patients waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment.
The department has told MLAs that its budget is essentially flat in cash terms compared to last year, but it faces additional financial pressures. The cost of meeting health service pay claims is estimated to be £375m, which is the biggest pressure on the department’s budget.
Under the budget settlement, it will not be possible to resolve the current pay dispute. As a result, the department is warning of high-impact cuts. Measures being considered include reducing nursing and residential care placements, restricting domiciliary care packages, and reducing payments for support services provided by the voluntary sector. No final decisions have been taken on what measures to implement.