Belfast Telegraph

University sets up centre for economic policy

By John Simpson

The University of Ulster has taken a major initiative to contribute to the generation of a stronger local economy by establishing a Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy.

Neil Gibson, now a professor in the university, has been appointed as the first director.

Professor Gibson comes with a well-established reputation, locally and internationally, as a senior consultant with Oxford Economics. He has worked extensively on contemporary economic policy issues, in areas such as securing an adequately skilled labour force or the impact of changes in corporation tax.

He is far from complacent that economic policies as currently applied are sharply enough focused on the best priorities. "It is the right time to set up the centre. Northern Ireland has significant economic challenges ahead - we know the damage caused by the big recession, the economy is not creating enough jobs compared to the UK, we are wrestling with decisions on what (devolved) powers we would like to have and what we would do with them if we had them.

"We need an independent voice looking at the relevant policy questions as they arise."

Does Professor Gibson think that the Northern Ireland Executive policies and actions really do make economic policy the priority? "No, I do not think that they do .. but I have every sympathy with why they don't. If you ask me, or other professional economists, how many of us can say, here are the four or five key policy options, costed out, written in language that could be put on the desks of the Executive, saying this should be done tomorrow and would make things different, the answers would be more aspirational than operational.

"That is the challenge: we need to go beyond general statements such as 'we should improve education, improve enterprise, or export more.' The challenge, drawing on the CBI, the Institute of Directors (IoD), the Chamber of Commerce and other stakeholders, is to identify what the business needs actually are and then bridge the gap to articulate 'what is the actual policy you are asking for'.

"The case for devolution of corporation tax has attracted many headlines. It is easier to understand as a one document solution. Changing the tax rate can be causally linked to the difference it causes. This type of analysis needs to be applied to the other 'asks' that we make. Then the politicians can sit down with a reasoned document asking for a change in the law or procedure because the expectation is that it will deliver 'x or y'. Without that assurance, the proposal simply ranks as an unproven idea and there is no concept of how you turn that into a policy. Elected members are expected to turn imprecise ambitions, apparently in the language of economics, into a legal framework."

Gibson agrees that if he is going to help, he has to be able to criticise in a supportive and constructive way.

The centre will focus on the needs of both the public and private sectors. "We will try to bridge the gap between what businesses need in the policy environment and what Government can practically deliver." The centre will also draw on expertise in other parts of the university and from within the private sector.

There is recognition that economic policy, as applied in today's conditions, poses serious challenges. "We need to know what we would spend more money on to get a good return. Then think how we might do it. Do we have to look at different ways to raise taxes, or borrow, to get at finance? The danger is one of becoming fixated in a world of cuts and not thinking about what we would do differently and seeing if it can be credibly funded."

Passive fatalism on economic prospects may now be set aside as positive new thinking takes centre stage.