OPINION: Devolved government is working

FINANCE Minister NIGEL DODDS has announced that 100,000 households will get £150 to help with energy bills, argues that the hardship package is a sign that devolved government is working

In May 2007, when devolved government returned to Northern Ireland, local people had become tired of a direct rule government that was unresponsive to the needs and ambitions of our community.

Since then, the actions of the Executive have illustrated the

tangible benefits of having a locally elected and accountable administration.

The Executive has already frozen domestic regional rates, deferred water charges, and introduced free travel on public transport for pensioners, as well as introducing plans to abolish prescription charges.

The Lone Pensioner Allowance was introduced in April this year, providing pensioners over the age of 70 living on their own with a 20 per cent reduction in their rate bill. Already, more than 20,000 pensioners are benefiting from this.

Changes to the rules around savings within the Rate Relief Scheme are also making it easier for pensioners to claim relief through that scheme.

Indeed, households are on average 1,000 a year better off than they would have been under direct rule.

On the business front, industrial rates have been frozen at 30 per cent, with rate relief being provided to those in the freight and transport sector.

The Programme for Government unveiled earlier this year reflected the aspirations of the new Executive, placing economic development at the heart of plans to provide a growing and vibrant economy that will benefit all our citizens.

Yesterday in the Assembly I was able to announce a package of measures aimed at helping local people and businesses through challenging times.

At a time when local enterprises, particularly the construction industry, and low-income households were asking for help, I, as a locally elected and accountable Finance Minister, was able to bring forward a series of measures that will directly benefit these groups and will help boost the economy at a critical time.

For low-income households, I was able to make 15 million available for a fuel poverty package that will see 150 being credited to the

electricity accounts of those 100,000 households on income support or pension credit.

I also announced my intention to introduce a rate rebate scheme for those that carry out energy efficiency improvements to their homes, enabling more householders to benefit from reduced home-heating costs.

The local business community are also in need of additional help at this time and I was able to bring forward a series of measures that will be of assistance to local enterprises. I announced my intention to introduce new legislation to allow for a targeted small business rate relief scheme.

Importantly, this would be funded centrally and not by charging other ratepayers more.

I also decided that non-domestic rates should be frozen in cash terms for 2009-10, further enhancing the competitiveness of local firms,

protecting jobs and incomes and representing a real saving for all hard-pressed businesses operating during difficult times.

The construction industry, which has suffered from the downturn in the private property market, will benefit from the 115 million of

construction projects that can now be brought to the market by next March.

Total capital investment in Northern Ireland should exceed 1.5 billion this year. This represents the highest ever investment in local infrastructure and compares to the 676 million being spent only five years ago.

It cannot be denied that we are operating in challenging economic circumstances, however, I believe that this makes a locally accountable administration even more essential.

I am confident that the measures I introduced yesterday, which included almost 70 million of funding to boost the economy and help vulnerable people, will be of real benefit to our community at a time when it needs it most.