Some good news, at last
The announcement that heads of agreement have been signed for a City Deal for the Belfast Region is potentially transformational for the region’s economy. It will be even better if and when we have a functioning Executive and a Social Value Act in place.
City Deals for Northern Ireland (there’s a second one to follow for Derry/Londonderry) will level the playing field with other parts of the UK who have been enjoying their benefits for five years.
For example. Glasgow is getting a £1.13 billion infrastructure investment fund, which is estimated to deliver around 29,000 jobs in the city region and lever in an estimated £3.3 billion of private sector investment. There are similar arrangements in place for both Cardiff and Swansea.
Crucially the money pledged by Westminster to devolved regions is not measured within the Barnett Formula, and is therefore additional to existing budget.
City Deals are based on four core principles - to:
- put cities in control of the economic opportunities and challenges they face as a city
- work with a city’s wider metro area – encouraging deals across the wider economic area will increase the ‘scale of deal’, meaning City Deals will reach more people through a wider geographical reach
- work across local enterprise and local authority boundaries, sectors, and professions – bringing together governments, cities, neighbouring authorities and local business leaders
- give real power to city authorities so they can create economic growth
The Belfast Region deal is not therefore just for Belfast City. It involves six local authorities: Antrim and Newtownabbey; Ards and North Down; Belfast City; Lisburn and Castlereagh; Mid and East Antrim; and Newry, Mourne and Down.
The government and the councils making up the Belfast Region have pledged £500 million. To fully realise the deal the devolved government will need to chip in £350 million once the Executive is restored.
The civil service cannot grant the funding without Ministerial direction but departments were involved in helping develop the programme which is consistent with the Programme for Government.
This is good news because until now there has been a reluctance to give local authorities in Northern Ireland the powers they need in order to make a city deal viable.
Ironically one of the last acts of the then Communities Minister Paul Givan before the collapse of the last administration was to withhold regeneration powers from local authorities reserving them for his own department.
By doing so he argued that the new Programme for Government required a more “joined up” co-ordinated approach to regeneration across Northern Ireland and that citizens didn’t care whether improvements would be carried out by the local council or central government so long as they happened. Whilst this may well be a good insight it had the unintended consequence of reserving vital powers to an entity that isn’t functioning instead of transferring them to bodies that are.
Given that the programme announced this week includes regeneration projects we are left to assume that somehow this position has changed and they can be progressed. And as the DUP brokered the City Deal as part of its confidence and supply arrangement with the British government it must be supportive of the investment. Bottom of Form
The programme outlines the challenges it seeks to address.
· First is productivity. Levels in Northern Ireland are below the UK national average and even further behind international competitors. We have high levels of economic activity and deprivation, with 16% of adults having no qualifications. This is resulting in a skills gap as more and more jobs require educational qualifications.
· Second the low levels of investment in both business and higher education, despite having two universities.
· Third tourism infrastructure. The tourism industry is booming but more investment is needed in attractions to increase visitor numbers.
· Fourth regeneration to revive towns and cities.
· Fifth physical and digital infrastructure including better transport links.
In response the programme will prioritise what it calls four pillars for investment: infrastructure, tourism and regeneration, innovation and digital; and employability and skills. It estimates that a fully delivered deal (including the £350 million from the devolved government) would create 20,000 jobs and make the Belfast Region a driver of a rejuvenated Northern Ireland economy.
There are some specific plans in place. For example the creation of a Global Innovation Institute tasked with expanding the number of hi-tech companies from 200 to 600 and the Screen and Media Innovation Lab to grow creative industries and develop the strongest screen industries sector outside London.
Belfast Region as defined includes large rural areas and the Infrastructure Enabling Fund will ramp up connectivity in some of them in order to test smart agriculture and tourism. Similarly so-called test beds will be set up to develop investment in technologies to important sectors including health, manufacturing and tourism.
Infrastructure projects will help to ensure people living in some of the most deprived areas to employment centres. One specific project will be Phase II of Belfast Rapid Transit, improving connections between north and south Belfast and neighbouring council areas.
Tourism will benefit from what it calls a Belfast Destination Hub which will tell the city’s story and a Game of Thrones theme park at Moneyglass.
There will also be an Employability and Skills Partnership which will focus on getting the economically inactive into employment.
There are some exciting plans, and there will be lasting impact if they are delivered.
But there is one missing piece of the jigsaw. If much of the work generated by the investment went to local organisations this would increase its impact because it would go back into the region, helping the economy to grow even faster.
In 2013 the Social Value Act covering England and Wales came into law. It is designed to encourage commissioners of public service to consider how their spending will secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits. The Act was drafted in order to create a more level playing field for Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise organisations to bid for public sector contracts.
Sadly it does not apply here. The tragedy is that its introduction was one of the measures planned by our last Executive which has fallen by the wayside with its collapse. The announcement that a Bill was being prepared was made just three days before the last Assembly Elections were called. It had all-party support.
It is to be hoped that if and when we do get a new Executive this will be an urgent priority.
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