Belfast is scheduled to hold the “world’s biggest pie fight” later this month in an attempt to break a Guinness world record. Chances are though that before that, the North’s Executive may well be on its way to setting a record all of its own when it comes to fights over slicing up an estimated £750 million welfare pie.
This week Northern Ireland is in the grip of yet another budget crisis – this one centres around a row over welfare reforms. According to the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, these reforms could take £750 million out of the local economy because of proposed welfare benefit cuts.
However, unless political leaders can agree some kind of deal on the welfare front within the next couple of weeks the North will also face a more pressing budget shortfall of more than £600 million. There are lots of other serious repercussions over the current political deadlock – not least the issue of the devolution of corporation tax powers to the local Executive.
In the meantime, though, as the North’s political leaders embark on their next round of talks and tale-telling about one another, there is a growing sense of frustration among many in the business community that the welfare gridlock could wreck projected job and investment opportunities.
Nowhere is that sense of annoyance with what is going on at Stormont more apparent than among the members of the Roe Valley Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is made of business people from Ballykelly, Dungiven and Limavady – an area which has some of the worst unemployment rates in the North.
Three years ago the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development announced plans to relocate its headquarters to a former army barracks in Ballykelly. Minister of Agriculture Michelle O’Neill believes the relocation will be “a catalyst for change and regeneration stimulating much-needed job opportunities, not just in Ballykelly but across the northwest” – it is expected for starters to bring about 700 jobs from Belfast to Ballykelly.
The Minister has said that the total cost of the proposed relocation is likely to be in the region of more than £40 million – quite a hefty bill against the backdrop of sweeping budget cuts in the North and for an Executive under extreme financial pressures. However, according to her, the relocation budget has been secured. In April, her department lodged the official planning application for its new £20 million headquarters on the Ballykelly site.
The former army base covers about 720 acres and she believes that situating the the department’s headquarters in Ballykelly will act as an incentive for attracting other investors to the site. It has been claimed there have already been 40 “expressions of interest” from potential private sector investors in the site which could one day translate into “thousands of new jobs”.
However, David Brewster, president of the Roe Valley Chamber of Commerce, says business people in the area are fed up with promises. “We’ve been hearing for a long time about what the relocation of Dard’s headquarters could deliver, but this area has been kicked mercilessly by the recession and there’s still no sign of the first sod being cut.
“We would of course like to think there will be an economic boost from the relocation of Dard,” he adds, “but that is just one small part of what this huge brownfield site could deliver for the area.” Brewster founded his law firm in Limavady in 1992. He says it is vitally important that the local Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council and the Executive realise the potential that the former army barracks could deliver.
"This area has one of the lowest recorded levels of economic activity in Northern Ireland. If you look around, there are virtually no factories. When Seagate closed its Limavady plant in 2008, there were lots of promises made – but what happened? Nothing.
“We have lots of SMEs in the area but are more small – than medium-sized businesses and most employ fewer than 10 people. It is therefore essential that something is done now to stimulate the local economy,” Brewster says.
However, he and others are concerned that the current political crisis at Stormont could result in projects like the relocation of the Dard HQ to Ballykelly being put on the “long finger”.
O'Neill has told The Irish Times that she is determined this will not happen. "I remain committed wholeheartedly to this project and I will continue to make sure that we deliver on moving my headquarters to the northwest because I believe that it is the right thing to do for public service.
She adds: “The relocation of my departmental headquarters to Ballykelly will stimulate the local economy through increased local spending, provision of high-quality and high-value public sector jobs and potentially jobs associated with the construction and ongoing servicing of a new building.”
She says she believes the relocation will “also help to share wealth across the economy and contribute to better-balanced economic growth, by commencing to address disparities in the distribution of public sector jobs in the North of Ireland. “It will be a massive boost for residents, businesses, employees and visitors,” she has pledged.
If everything goes to plan, she hopes that construction of her department’s new headquarters will be under way on the site of the former army barracks by next May – that is, of course, if no new political or budget crises get in the way.