Stormont’s dead hand slows pipeline of key infrastructure

Industry body slates Executive’s failure to fund and implement critical projects

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan with Northern Ireland MInister for Finance Simon Hamilton.

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan with Northern Ireland MInister for Finance Simon Hamilton.

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 01:04

Investment-seeking trips to the US and stating the obvious appear to be among the favourite past- times of some Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive.

Minister for Finance Simon Hamilton managed to avoid these traps – until now that is.

He has yet to join a PR trip to the US, but here is a taste of what Hamilton has been saying at home: “Spending public money on enhancing infrastructure not only makes Northern Ireland more appealing to investors it also creates a bedrock for enduring economic growth.”

This we already know.


Question
But here is a question that, as Minister for Finance, he is well placed to answer.

Why has the Northern Ireland Executive not made investment in infrastructure one of its priorities?

Why has it not identified and fast-tracked more major transport, education, energy or telecommunications projects?

Current projects include the redevelopment of Windsor Park football grounds and the new University of Ulster York Street campus in the heart of Belfast.

But what is stopping the Executive from creating a pipeline of infrastructure projects like these that would boost construction and generate associated spending?

Granted there have been major capital spending cuts imposed from Westminster, but should this mean the Executive sits around hoping things will one day get better?

What it requires is imaginative thinking – such as looking at new concepts and finding alternative funding, whether it be new options offered by the UK government or others sources such as the European Investment Bank.

There is a lot of frustration that a devolved government has not found a way to advance more infrastructure projects that would create and sustain jobs and also deliver a spending boost for the economy.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI NI) believes political leaders urgently need to get their act together on this issue and has a blueprint for how they should do this.


First step
Its Investing for our Future report identifies the first step as “infrastructure prioritisation” and says it is vital the Executive take “a more holistic and long-term view of the kind of infrastructure needed.”

The CBI argues that “maximising” the economic value of capital projects will also lift the local economy. It says every £1 spent on construction brings a £2.84 boost net benefit.


Constraints
The business body rejects the notion that budget constraints restrict what the Executive could and should do. Instead it recommends the Executive should actively seek alternative financing to “augment conventional funding”.

It also raises a persistent concern about whether or not current infrastructure decisions “appear to be taken in a fully informed manner”.

“Do economic considerations, demographics and future user need always trump political imperative? If they do not, then it is vital more is done by Ministers and political parties to ensure that they do.”

One way around this the CBI believes might be to create a new super agency focusing solely on infrastructure , without political overtones.

It says until a better system is in place every infrastructure plan should be tested against key criteria, including assessing the economic benefits of doing, and not doing, it

Hamilton says he is “acutely aware” that the Executive “can sometimes fail to spend public money on infrastructure projects as quickly as we would like”.


Centralising
He is a fan of “centralising” the North’s infrastructure investment plan and looking at how it can learn from countries with successful track records such as Canada and Australia.

In the meantime he has asked a special group to look at how the Executive can improve delivery of infrastructure schemes.

More talking, less doing: yet another favourite pastime of Northern Ireland Ministers.

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