Stormont must open its wallet to create vital jobs
The chancellor provided an extra £132m for capital projects in Northern Ireland. So what's keeping the Executive from spending it, asks Johnny Andrews
David Cameron recently made a welcome economic announcement for Northern Ireland, emphasising many of the themes which NI Conservatives have stressed over the past year or so; building a shared future, boosting the private sector and improving infrastructure.
We're fortunate to have a prime minister who cares deeply about this part of the UK and is prepared to make special provision to help us.
The Conservative-led Government is trying to force the Executive to make some progress on combating division.
However, our ministers' inaction on the economy over the long term is a huge issue and has led to a number of worrying signs.
In the rest of the UK, the economy is improving, but Northern Ireland is lagging behind: our house prices are not rising, the construction industry remains in trouble and unemployment is at its highest level for 15 years. Stormont is clearly not doing enough.
That's why NI Conservatives are calling upon the Executive to spend more of the money that the Government has provided for capital spending on more projects which are ready to start. That means hospitals, roads and other infrastructure critical to the economy.
The chancellor, George Osborne, has provided an extra £132m for this purpose, much of which appears to be lying idle, and the money set aside to improve the A5 road has not yet been reassigned, now that the project is dead in the water.
We want to see the Executive create enterprise zones, which the Government has provided money to do. We're the last part of the UK to use these powers, which offer businesses rates relief if they sell goods abroad, higher allowances to buy equipment and tax credits for investing in research and development.
The prime minister also granted the Executive greater borrowing powers and signalled it can keep cash from the sale of public assets.
This tool should be used – albeit with safeguards in place to make sure that the public gets the best deal and a fair price for its land.
There are other issues, too. When Liam Fox visited Northern Ireland recently as a guest of the NI Conservatives, he called for Northern Irish employment law to be harmonised with employment law in Britain. We wholeheartedly agree.
To encourage businesses, we need to end the culture of tribunals which stop companies creating jobs.
The total number of people in work in Northern Ireland fell by 1,510 in the first three months of 2013. Admittedly, we have seen some job announcements lately, but we lost a net total of 41,480 jobs in total between 2008 and 2012.
Since then, only 1,800 jobs have been replaced. It will be a significant challenge to change these figures substantially.
Some sectors have performed well. For instance, our pharmaceutical firms, like Norbrook, Randox and Almac, are buoyant.
Information and communications technology and software companies also continue to create jobs. But there is a lack of skilled graduates to fill positions in these sectors.
It is critical that areas of the economy which are booming – like pharma, software, and food and drink – are looked after properly.
We need to make sure they can call upon the skills they need, training-up the potential workforce for the jobs which are available.
If we can produce more graduates in computer subjects and ensure that science, technology, maths and engineering are emphasised at school, it can make a real difference to the performance of our economy.
Economic recovery and long-term prosperity rest squarely on creating more jobs in the private sector. The Government is taking the lead and providing Northern Ireland with the help which we need to succeed.
Now the Executive needs to act in order to provide the conditions to create jobs, or else this opportunity will be lost.
NI Conservatives' priorities are jobs, jobs and more jobs. We need to see ministers adopt this attitude in order to deliver a hopeful and prosperous future for everyone.