Less uncertainty is a good thing
It’s not always easy to tell when Northern Ireland has an historic week.
Deals can be made, assurances sought and given, and significant progress can be apparent, only for everything to unravel or, more often, transpire to be empty words.
However, the DUP’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservative Party has some concrete positives for local society, to the tune of £1bn of new spending, flexibilities in an already-earmarked £500m, a commitment to support local enterprise zones, and the wider policy compromises that have been made.
There are also likely to be political consequences stemming from this deal.
Overall the local picture will probably – probably – be one of greater local political stability and of a budget that is increased in the short term.
This is great news for the third sector and, while decisions have to be made about how to distribute the new funding, there will be direct and indirect positives for social enterprises and charities, and for the people they serve.
Between Brexit, no Stormont and a stuttering economy generally, times could hardly be tougher for local voluntary organisations, many of whom have had to circle the wagons, put staff on rolling three-month contracts and consolidate wherever possible to maintain stability. This deal should offer some succour but it will not cure all ills.
“They say that a relaxation of constraints on access to an existing £500m pot for education investment, under the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, should be factored in by me.
“And also that the promise that NI will get some additional Enterprise Zones will be highly valuable.
“So in total the package of support they've won is certainly more than £1.5bn - and possibly as much as the rumored £2bn they were demanding.”
All we have so far are headlines for where the money will be spent. But it is possible to infer what this means, and what it could mean, for the local picture.
Perhaps most interesting to the third sector and the people who rely on voluntary and community organisations is the £100m, spread over five years, that is set “to target pockets of severe deprivation so that all can benefit from growth and prosperity”.
This could mean a lot of things because deprivation tends to manifest itself in all manner of different ways. With Welfare Reform just around the corner, this could provide mitigations beyond those that have already been set out.
Alternatively, it could be used in other ways, either as a salve for other existing problems or aimed at the causes of deprivation.
Community and voluntary organisations are at the forefront of tackling deprivation and the sector should seek to put its best foot forward and bring ideas to the table about how this money can be allocated.
Another £100m, this time over two years, will be allocated to address “immediate pressures” in health and education. Again, the third sector might have some great ideas about where this could provide value, but there are huge statutory shortfalls here, particularly in health.
In fact, in healthcare there is no realistic limit to what could be spent to try and tackle demand. Restructuring is required and so it is heartening to see £200m set aside “to support the Northern Ireland Executive’s delivery of its priority of health service transformation” – this could be a real boon for the Transforming Your Care/Donaldson/Bengoa reforms, although political will is still essential.
While this £200m will largely be one-off spending as our enormous health service tries to morph from one model into another, the knock-on effects for the third sector are important to bear in mind. In a new, community-and-home-focused health picture, social enterprises will be a vital partner.
There is also an extra £50m over five years to help with our chronically underfunded mental health services. This is good news because provision is sorely lacking. There are any number of ways this money could be spent and make a significant difference.
A total of £400m has been allocated over two years for infrastructure spending. The York Street Interchange project is mentioned specifically, but there should be extra funding to go towards other priorities.
This is unlikely to have a direct bearing on the sector but NI has poor infrastructure and, simply put, if we spend this money wisely everyone will benefit.
The same comment applies to the £150m over two years that will help improve our broadband picture. This completes the financial arrangement between the Tories and the DUP.
As well as the £1bn in fresh money, there will be extra flexibility for the £500m already set down for housing and shared education. What this wriggle room will entail, time will tell.
Stability, sort of
Overall many aspects of our current uncertainty have been lifted. Many, however, still remain.
Stormont talks were said to be getting into the home straight – but this is Northern Ireland, where timescales don’t mean much – and the £1bn carrot offered by Westminster will make it much harder for Sinn Fein to turn their back on forming a new Executive.
As things stand, the deadline for formation of a New Executive has been missed, but the Assembly would not be in full session again until September and there is still plenty of time for some arrangement to be put in place.
It is in the interests of local society in general, and community and voluntary organisations in particular, that the Assembly finds its feet again. That is true without the extra money from London. With that money, we find ourselves in a position of opportunity, hopefully regardless of whether or not Stormont can find its feet again.
How that money is ultimately spent will be a matter of discussion but that is to be expected.
Uncertainty over Brexit will carry on but withdrawal – of some sort – from the European Union is inevitable and some direction from parliament is paramount. No government is worse than a bad government.
The DUP backed leave and so will have been supportive of the government in spirit even without their deal. This support will not be unfettered, but for them to step back from unity with the Tories would require some clear and obvious harm to be on the cards for Northern Ireland.
If significant economic harm comes into view, such as with some cumbersome border arrangement or a bad deal for farmers, expect them to do more than shift in their seats in the Commons.
They will also want to protect Northern Ireland’s wider interests – which includes the third sector – but it would be unwise to assume that there are many red lines for the DUP, even with the power they now wield.
So we have a situation that is better than last week, or which should be, but several layers of uncertainty persist. Still, it’s progress, and if it ultimately brings Stormont back from the brink, facilitates healthcare reform and makes significant improvements to infrastructure, it might even be historic.
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