Revised NI budget is unveiled

A multi-billion pound spending plan to address Northern Ireland's infrastructure deficit has been announced.

A 10-year framework for regeneration could see the delivery of £16bn in areas such as roads, schools and hospitals.

Finance Minister Ian Pearson made the announcement as he delivered a revised budget on Monday.

He also confirmed plans to cut the Civil Service by 2,300 in three years.

Mr Pearson said public spending would top £9bn a year in the province by 2007-2008 - up by 20% in real terms over the six years from 2002 - and infrastructure investment will grow by 30% alone next year.

He described the budget and infrastructure spending plans as "an unprecedented expansion of investment".

Health and education will take the lion's share of the spending - health taking 40% of the total annual budget.

To help pay for the increased spending, Mr Pearson announced rises in domestic rates of 9% in each of the next two years and 6% the year after. Non-domestic rates will go up by 3.3% in each of the years.

Controversial water charges are also due to be introduced in 2006 which will increase household bills by several hundred pounds a year.

Mr Pearson said he knew they were a source of concern but they were needed if major improvements in infrastructure were to be carried forward.

He said current health spending would increase by 23%, bringing the annual total to £3.7bn in 2007-2008.

"Those additional resources will go towards delivering targets such as ensuring the maximum waiting time for patients will be reduced to six months by 2010."

He said by March 2008 all patients seeking an appointment would be able to see a professional within two working days and by 2010 the government wanted to reduce the death rate from circulatory diseases by at least 20% in people under 75.

Services to improve

On education, Mr Pearson said there would be an 11% increase in spending over the three-year period and a 62% rise in capital investment.

Outlining the draft investment strategy for infrastructure spending, he said: "This is the first time such a comprehensive and far-sighted view of Northern Ireland's investment needs has been prepared.

"It is a major step forward in the way in which we plan for the future and will deliver benefits to all of the community."

Spending, through a combination of public-private partnership, borrowing and traditional government investment, could deliver £16bn of investment by 2015.

Mr Pearson said it would "radically improve" the quality of public service delivery in Northern Ireland.

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