Local government driving business growth
City and district councils now responsible for local economic development
The Northern Ireland Executive’s Flagship Projects list includes the Belfast Transport Hub, Belfast Rapid Transit and strategic transport corridors such as the A6 and A5,that will improve connectivity between the north-west and Belfast and the north-west and Dublin. Photograph: iStock
Local government reform is set to have a significant impact on business development in Northern Ireland.
Over the past 18 months, city and district councils have been given responsibility for local economic development and promotion of entrepreneurship, positioning them as an engine for economic growth.
“The idea behind the changes, which also saw the number of councils fall from 26 to 11, was to bring in larger councils that could create scale to drive development planning and local economic development,” says Derry City and Strabane District Council director of business Stephen Gillespie.
Business is a huge part of that. “Whether for new foreign direct investment, existing FDI or indigenous businesses, our aim is to make it very easy for businesses to do business, with the target of creating jobs.”
That’s a new departure for Northern Ireland’s councils, which were previously only responsible for the running of leisure centres, bin collections and cemeteries
Now a ‘one-stop shop’ for business, too, Derry City and Strabane District Council plans to support the creation of 10,000 jobs over the next 20 years, with a development plan that includes the doubling of its university and the creation of a new medical school. “It’s a really ambitious plan for us but we believe it will be transformative,” he says.
In developing the region, the council is working closely with its local authority counterparts in Donegal.
Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council recently co-hosted a trade mission of 17 businesses to Boston. There is a good commercial reason for such co-operation.
“The statistics show that 40 per cent of staff on either side of the border come from the other side of the border. So, for every 100 jobs won by Derry, that’s worth 40 jobs to Letterkenny, and vice versa. There is a mature recognition of the fact that by working together we can offer scale, both in terms of students and skills.”
Northern Ireland has a long history of attracting world-class multinationals, with FDI successes including US financial services giant Citi and British-based international law firm Allen & Overy.
“Northern Ireland’s strength is its very young population and good education system. What we need to provide now are the opportunities for those young people to stay and work locally,” says Gillespie.
To this end, the council is targeting key sectors for development: health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing, tourism, creative digital and the business and financial services sectors.
Investment in NI infrastructure, including from private investment, is also helping drive economic growth, says John Hansen, partner in charge, KPMG in Northern Ireland.
“Historically, most of the funding for infrastructure investment in Northern Ireland has come from the UK government block grant,” he says.
However, with on-going budgetary pressures and potentially a smaller flow of low-cost funding into the UK from the European Investment Bank post-Brexit, the traditional reluctance of policy-makers to use private capital to bridge Northern Ireland’s infrastructure gap is changing.
“Alternative financing and innovative revenue-generating models are currently being reconsidered for the delivery of major infrastructure projects, such as the York Street Interchange in Belfast, that did not make it onto the Northern Ireland Executive’s Flagship Projects list,” says Hansen.
Flagship Projects include the Belfast Transport Hub, Belfast Rapid Transit and strategic transport corridors such as the A6 and A5,that will improve connectivity between the north-west and Belfast and the north-west and Dublin.
The hope during the Brexit negotiations is that there is “enough goodwill in the EU, the UK and Ireland, to recognise how important the transition from conflict to peace has been,” says Stephen Gillespie.
“Northern Ireland has been a drain on everybody’s resources for a long time. What we want now is to be a net contributor. We are the only part of the UK with a European border. The loss of free movement of labour would be a real issue for us. But I’m a firm believer in finding the things we agree on first and working from there.”