Executive, spend now when you’ve got it, to save jobs

Despite the local emphasis of the reporting, thanks to the size of the public sector locally, Northern Ireland is not the worst region hit by unemployment to a UK level of 2 million with another million to come. But there’s no doubt, the unprecedented surge everywhere comes as a shock and we have some of the worst black spots. The three highest percentage rises are in the same parts of Northern Ireland – Magherafelt, Dungannon and Cookstown – all in Mid Ulster. “These areas have had relatively low levels of unemployment so the sharp rise in unemployment is coming from a very low base,” says Richard Ramsey, Northern Ireland economist at Ulster Bank. The national debate on public spending is confusing – severe cuts will follow short-term increases. Public spending. has increased but will not hold that level for long – how long we are unlikely to know until after the UK 2010 election, although the April 22 budget may give some pointers. But we can expect that public spending will then become eye –wateringly tight, whoever wins the election, with a corresponding effect in the province.LARGEST INCREASES IN JOB SEEKERS’ ALLOWANCE CLAIMANTS BY LOCAL AUTHORITY
Jan 2009 compared with Jan 2008
Magherafelt (Mid Ulster): 186%
Dungannon (Mid Ulster): 161%
Cookstown (Mid Ulster): 149%
Vale of White Horse (west of Swindon): 147%
East Dorset (north of Poole): 146%
Purbeck (south-east of Poole): 144%

“If you look at the Magherafelt and Cookstown areas in particular, they have a large exposure to the construction sector and Northern Ireland as a whole has a larger exposure to the construction sector than any other UK region.

“Within Northern Ireland it’s these areas in Mid Ulster that have the highest concentrations of construction. So given the housing market downturn, it is not surprising that these areas have been hit hardest.”

Martin McGuinness among other ministers trumpeted an “ investment strategy ( which) will result in up to £20 billion being invested by 2018 to tackle the legacy of decades of underinvestment.” But those levels are now little more than a wish list. In the meantime, they must spend wisely what they’ve got. Further Westminster clawbacks are unacceptable. The Belfast Telegraph has pointed out that 22 major government projects — such as the Maze redevelopment and rail line upgrades are currently on hold. If they were up and running, these multi-million pound projects could create or safeguard hundreds of jobs.”

All must realise that we are at peak level of public spending now. These levels are set to reduce, perhaps dramatically in the years ahead. The Budget on April 22 will give the direction of travel. So get on with it, is the message for the Executive.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London