Adopting a business charter could ease Northern Ireland's economic woes
Northern Ireland's economic problems are well documented. Too small a private sector tax base, high levels of inactivity, poor educational performance at the lower end, high levels of localised deprivation and a fiscal position that relies heavily on support from outside.
They are of course all intertwined and there has been a long list of strategies, interventions and research to try to find effective solutions. It is not easy.
Many of these problems are shared across the world and have proved difficult (but not impossible) to remedy.
It is almost certain any solution will need to be multi-faceted with business government, academia and the public all playing a part.
Left to its own devices the private sector will not cure all economic ills, but equally government intervention has proven ineffective in addressing many of the stubborn challenges.
Thinking about solutions is always harder than identifying, or even sizing, problems, but one idea worth consideration is the adoption of a business charter. A set of desirable attributes we would like to see in our businesses that would help with orientating the Northern Ireland economy towards the sort of outcome we all aspire to.
This would not be without its challenges, businesses already face significant costs and burdens and the addition of any further 'asks' needs to be very carefully considered.
However, when we look at the scale of the challenges facing Northern Ireland it is clear we need businesses' help to provide solutions so a good starting point is to record and recognise what they do.
Working on the PwC global Cities of Opportunity project (edition 7 will be published later in the year) it is evident that cities around the world are moving into this space, seeing firms as part of the solution to their socio-economic challenges and moving beyond the world of just being happy they are there at all. A business charter is not a new idea. Scotland has its own 'business pledge' with firms able to sign up if they pay the Living Wage and meet two other criteria out of a selection of nine, and show a commitment to achieving the others over time.
So what would be in a business charter? It would be a list of desirable attributes that link to the long term challenges facing the Northern Ireland economy and that the forthcoming Programme for Government identifies as key priorities. In this regard it would be a rather broader version of the Scottish Pledge. A few suggestions might be:
- Does the business have a recognised corporate social responsibility programme?
- Does the business have an initiative to work directly with the long term unemployed/inactive?
- Does the business have a relationship with local schools or colleges to offer careers guidance and training?
- Does the business have an externally accredited job training programme leading to formal qualifications?
- Does the business pay the Living Wage?
- Does the business have an active 'buy local' strategy in its supply chain management?
- Does the business have a strategy on emissions and carbon footprint?
These are just a few suggestions, and each of them would need debate, refinement and there are many others that could be considered. Each one would need to be spelled out clearly as to what would be considered acceptable under each heading.
How would we ensure sufficient take-up? If the charter gained traction firms are likely to want to achieve it for marketing and publicity reasons but there are plenty of firms operating in non-consumer sectors that may not be motivated by the validation alone. Could it become a condition of giving public money? If a firm is in receipt of Invest NI support (or even more controversially of rates relief) would having the charter mark be a requirement? This is possible but perhaps a little heavy-handed given the challenges facing businesses at the moment. Perhaps simply publishing the 'scorecard' would be sufficient, allowing peer pressure to do the heavy lifting?
Being in the very fortunate position of being a judge on the Belfast Telegraph Business of the Year Awards gives me the opportunity to 'peek behind the curtain' of many of our top businesses and the good news is that a voluntary business charter would simply be recognition of the approach that many firms already take.
There are plenty of firms for whom helping the local community and helping deliver a better Northern Ireland is something they feel passionate about. It helps motivate and attract staff and adds to a sense of corporate well-being that supports the bottom-line.
The question of what more can be done does not only apply to business. Academics, government and even the public need to be asking the same questions but perhaps a business charter would be start. A way to say that Northern Ireland is open for business and that our businesses are key drivers of change and we are looking to them to help in return for our commitment to trying to provide the most competitive trading environment possible.