Belfast Telegraph

Can Arlene find the formula to succeed?

By John Simpson

The current economic recession is a serious challenge for the Stormont Executive.

Some trends are outside local influence. Nevertheless, there is significant scope for the regional administration to soften the blows, manage the reduced budget, improve the management of public sector finances and support extra employment opportunities.

Minister for the Economy, Arlene Foster, chairs a sub-committee of the Executive which has been tasked to prepare an appropriate strategy for the years up to 2014, which will become part of the forthcoming Programme for Government.

The minister is being helped by a group of specialist advisers, led by Kate Barker and assisted by Professor Frances Ruane. The Economic Advisory Group (EAG) has recently published its critical assessment of the current official policies and has demonstrated that there is plenty of scope for restructuring and strengthening.

If the economy is really to be the priority, the Executive sub-committee has a trenchant message for other ministers on the Executive as well as for the wider community.

The thrust of the EAG is clear in its annual report (found at www.eagni.com) and offers a fresh look at the application of Stormont policies across a range of topics.

To summarise the EAG proposals, the top-line focus is on self-help to enhance the competitiveness of local businesses, along with sharper Government action on particular issues where it can be influential.

It is no surprise that the three key strands are a sharper agenda to improve workforce skills, a prioritised infrastructure development plan and steps to improve the efficiency of public services with particular (but not only) reference to planning services.

A key component of forward regional economic strategy from the EAG relies on the incentive effects of a reduction in corporation tax. The EAG assumes that this is a given objective with a virtual promise of delivery by the Treasury. Now the minister's sub-committee must respond to the news that any change in corporation tax may not be effective before the end of the current Executive term.

Invest NI has already had to adjust to lower ceilings on financial aid for new business investors.

These EU determined ceilings will be tighter after 2013. Another potential constraint may come from the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills which is consulting on removing all of Northern Ireland from being automatically included in the parts of the UK eligible for regional aid.

The proposal is that only parts of Northern Ireland may qualify. Other parts may be excluded, based on differences in sub-regional living standards. This poses the possible exclusion of the greater Belfast region which would attract sharp criticism.

The agenda for the sub-committee on the economy must be ambitious and, following the advice of the EAG, must be designed to be practical and operational. It sets a challenging agenda but not necessarily an expensive one. If the objectives are well specified, delivery can be more assured.

Arlene Foster's sub-committee has an achievable agenda: can we expect -

  • A clear implementation plan for a comprehensive skills agenda?
  • A statement of ambitions and methods to develop coherent energy policies?
  • Selected sectors and characteristics for increases in business investment incentives?
  • A consolidated set of planning policies to give some priority to the needs of the economy?
  • Pursuit of efficient delivery of public services (with emphasis on efficiency rather than job protection)?
  • An operational set of priorities for tourism and services for external markets?
  • A McCarthy (or Christie) plan to shrink the size of the public sector?

Ministers, no ducking and weaving - you will be judged by results.

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