He was speaking to NICVA members at a special event held on Wednesday (25 October) at NICVA when he outlined how the Programme for Government would seek to transform the areas of Health, Education, Justice and Housing which together account for between 75% and 80% of devolved spending in Northern Ireland.
Around 150 delegates from NICVA member organisations were present to hear a full briefing, entitled, Making this a better place (by tackling disadvantage and driving economic growth) by Mr Sterling who then took a variety of questions from the floor.
Mr Sterling disclosed figures that outlined Northern Ireland’s vastly differential health and education outcomes and outlined how the actions the PfG would take to restructure both areas would address those outcomes, as well as the actions that needed to be taken.
On Health, Mr Sterling said that we needed to build extra capacity within communities, provide more support in primary care, reform our community and hospital services and work with staff and service users to produce new models of care.
Underlining that health required an annual 6% budget increase – equivalent to £300 million – just to remain consistent, he said that not changing would only result in increasingly divergent outcomes.
In Education a better alignment of accessibility and the curriculum and the maximisation of early years potential is required. Not taking action in these areas will lead to a continued growth in the number of schools that are financially or educationally unsustainable, inefficient or delivering sub-optimal outcomes.
In the area of Justice, Mr Sterling outlined the Justice 2020 strategy and how it focussed on the courts, policing, reducing offending and access to justice. He outlined that we experience the lowest crime rates in the UK but that detection rates for some crimes were very low and reoffending was high. There would be a cost to reorganising various estates but that the benefits would be felt by everyone in Northern Ireland.
On Housing, Mr Sterling outlined that Northern Ireland faces a population that is growing, ageing and changing, leading to an increase in the demand for housing overall and a specific increase in the demand for smaller, single-occupancy, houses. He identified a need to build 6,700 houses a year to cope with demand – a demand that was currently not being met.
All this needed to be performed, he emphasised, against the backdrop of a real terms cut to the Executive’s budget of 1.6% in 2018 and 3% the year after. Bridging this gap, Mr Sterling said, would require fresh thinking. He provided figures that demonstrated how much lower household bills are in Northern Ireland and said that generating more income shouldn’t be off the table.