Northern Ireland

Street lights could be out over winter due to Stormont budget cuts

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Media captionLights may not be repaired during the winter, according to the minister Danny Kennedy

Tens of thousands of street lights could be out across Northern Ireland over the winter due to budget cuts, a Stormont minister has said.

The warning comes from Roads Minister Danny Kennedy whose department is facing £15m cuts.

Mr Kennedy also said he has had to stop approving some new work for road maintenance, grass cutting and gully emptying.

The move comes after Stormont agreed to endorse the June monitoring round.

Last week, it was revealed that Stormont departments, excluding health and education, were to have their budgets cut by a total of £78m.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton also warned that further cuts, amounting to £87m, would be required if a deal on welfare reform was not agreed.

Northern Ireland is being penalised by the Treasury for not endorsing welfare reforms passed by Westminster in February 2013.

Sinn Féin has led the opposition to the reforms.

In a statement to BBC Northern Ireland's Nolan Show on Wednesday, Mr Kennedy said his department was "facing a significant budget shortfall".

"My department has consistently relied on securing additional funding in monitoring rounds to fund essential roads maintenance and street lighting services," he said.

Image caption The budget, known as the June Monitoring Round, was endorsed by Stormont last week

"This year, I have already had to reduce services in these important areas in anticipation of not securing additional funding.

"Having already started from a position of a significant funding gap, I now need to deliver budget reductions of 4.4% - £15m as a result of June monitoring."

The Ulster Unionist minister said he had "no option" other than to stop issuing new work to certain contractors, who undertake one quarter of the department's work.

The schemes affected include footway and carriageway repairs - including potholes - grass cutting, gully emptying, road marking and traffic sign maintenance/replacement.

Mr Kennedy said he had also taken the "difficult decision to stop funding external contractors for the repair of street lights that fail, unless they pose an electrical hazard to members of the public".

"This has the potential to result in tens of thousands of street lights being out across Northern Ireland over the winter period," he said.

'Extreme budget challenges'

Mr Hamilton, the finance minister, said he noted Mr Kennedy's comments with concern.

"Whilst I think that some of his comments could be categorised as exaggeration, I have considerable sympathy for the arguments he makes," he said.

"Northern Ireland is facing extreme budget challenges. But it is important to lay the blame in the appropriate place.

"Last week the executive agreed to reduce budgets by almost £78m and we face further reductions in the region of £87m. Why? Because of the foot-dragging and failure of leadership of Sinn Féin and the SDLP over welfare reform."

'Scare tactics'

Sinn Féin accused Mr Kennedy of "grandstanding over budgets with the finance minister".

"The minister is quite aware of the problems that arise following torrential rain with our drainage systems too often unable to cope with it," assembly member Francie Molloy said.

"I am therefore concerned to hear reports that Minister Kennedy is contemplating cutting back on clearing gullies, street lighting repairs and other maintenance as a result of budgetary pressures."

SDLP regional development spokesperson John Dallat said Mr Kennedy should "stop using scare tactics over cuts to his budget".

"It would be a much better use of the minister's time to begin actively challenging the two main parties who are responsible for the current stalemate rather than causing anxiety among those who expect him to protect the services he is responsible for," he said.

"This is not the way to win wars."

Of the £78m cuts announced last week, the three hardest hit departments are Employment and Learning, which is losing £16m, Justice, which is facing a £22m cut and Social Development, which is losing £13m.

A majority of Stormont ministers passed the deal on the June monitoring round.

However, the two Alliance ministers voted against it and Mr Kennedy abstained.