Belfast Telegraph

Invest NI in credit, but hard questions still need answered

By John Simpson

Invest NI's figures for the year ended March 31 2011 reveal that "despite the serious challenges . . . the agency exceeded all of its key targets . . ."

The headlines for Invest NI were: Investment commitments by client businesses amounted to £638m; 41 inward investment projects promised 2,816 new jobs and investment in R&D and innovation rose to £147m.

These are positive developments. The end of year statement details a long list of gains. However, despite the prevailing impact of a serious recession, it makes no explicit assessment of the quantitative impact of that recession and the success or failure of Invest NI clients when responding.

Invest NI deserves credit for the positive gains but the credit should be qualified.

The Key Performance Targets for 2010-11 included the promotion of 1,800 new jobs as part of the development of new foreign direct investment. The published results showed the promotion of 2,816.

To achieve 56% more than your target is good news but it does raise a doubt about the realism of the target. Similarly the target for additional client investment of £277m was exceeded by 65% to reach £457m.

Also relevant is the impact of Invest NI in influencing improved earnings levels for employees. The estimates were that the new projects would generate 1,931 jobs (out of the target of 1,800!) with salaries above the private sector median comparator. The outcome, at 2,279, was 18% better.

To develop a fuller picture of the interaction of Invest NI with its clients, Invest NI has provided supplementary evidence on some of the basic trends on the overall performance of clients including total employment by its clients, changes in overall output and export performance.

In 2007-8, Invest NI clients had 120,000 employees. Although there has been major new investment since then, with the promotion of an average of 5,000 jobs each year, such has been the 'running hard to stand still' impact that in each of the two following years, the total number employed fell to about 112,000 in 2009-10.

Invest NI clients have reduced employment in parallel to the rest of the economy. It is no criticism of Invest NI that some of its clients reduced their employment. In a recession, that is unavoidable.

The report offers some evidence on whether Invest NI obtained value for money. Financial assistance offered to investors fell in 2010-11 to £108m. This was the lowest of the last four years. However, total planned investment by businesses was also lower than other recent years.

The ratio of assistance to total investment, at an average of 17%, was broadly in line with those recent years with an exception in 2009-10 when the ratio rose to 27%.

The supplementary evidence also confirms that the recession has affected output and external sales by Invest NI clients. Sales (or turnover) by clients have fallen by 13% in the two years 2008-10 and external sales in the same period fell by 13%.

Against this background, which is a reflection of what has been happening in the wider economy, the positive gains in 2010-11 can be seen as a notable performance.

Two reassuring developments emerged from the Invest NI statement.

First, in an overdue focus on a serious deficiency in the linking of Invest NI with a stronger urban regeneration policy, a commitment has been made to aim for 1,500 jobs in businesses in Neighbourhood Renewal Areas. The test now lies in the particular incentives for these needy urban areas. Invest NI will need to attract a broad range of businesses of which 'Go for It' applicants would be only a small element.

Second, there is confirmation that Invest NI has prepared a case for the European Commission to gain an extension or variation in the rules on selective financial assistance after the proposed end date of 2013. This case will need to be persuasive and will need political backing.


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