Belfast Telegraph

Cutting back on MLAs will help us on road to growth

A slimmed down Executive of eight departments is vital if we are to meet challenges ahead, says Glyn Roberts

Peter Robinson once observed: "Devolution has been good, but could be better." I agree: it has been good for business, with policy initiatives such as extending the Small Business Rate Relief scheme, reversing car park charges and others.

Throughout direct rule, the business community was among the strongest cheerleaders for the restoration of devolution - and that remains the case. However, for a region of 1.7m people, 12 government departments is too many.

The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) believes the system needs a radical overhaul and that we need no more than eight departments.

Now that the Executive has found its feet and successfully addressed the thorny issue of the devolution of policing and justice, it is time the number and functions of departments should be looked at again.

While we would welcome moves to create a merged Department of the Economy, we should not ignore the question of what other departmental mergers could take place to ensure more efficient devolved government. For example, having three departments (environment, social development and regional development) responsible for town-centre regeneration and planning makes it difficult to get a joined-up approach.

NIIRTA would like to see a merger of these three departments into a new Department of Strategic Development, with one minister in charge of transport, planning and regeneration.

For a region our size, eight departments is all we need to provide effective, streamlined government, which has clear strategic objectives. Both Scotland and Wales, having much larger populations, have eight departments, so why can't we?

With an eight-department structure, you could also appoint additional junior ministers to focus on policy areas, such as tourism, transport and housing, at relatively small cost. The Independent Review of Economic Policy (IREP), chaired by Professor Richard Barnett, raised the issue of a merged Department of Employment and Leaning-Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to create a Department of the Economy. That being said, such a merger must make economic sense.

Further and higher education should be moved to the new department, as it essential that we have the skills and training needed to revitalise our economy.

It is crucial that further and higher education forms the core of this new department.

A Department of the Economy, alongside potentially devolved corporation tax powers, would be key asset in our drive to attract more foreign direct investment and building up our indigenous business sector - not to mention being able to provide the skills-set to achieve this. Given that many powers and functions of departments are also being devolved to the streamlined local council structure, this is another reason to downsize departments.

A slimmed-down Assembly, say to around 70 MLAs, should also be on the agenda. We also need a review of cross-border bodies to see how we can make improvements.

A wider discussion is needed among all the political parties and key stakeholders on how to streamline Executive departments.

Given their experience of working with Executive departments, we would also urge the First and deputy First Ministers to consult with key organisations in the private, public and voluntary sectors, as well.

A revamped, refocused and reprofiled set of Executive departments will be better placed to respond to the economic challenges and ensure we can move Northern Ireland toward a sustainable recovery.

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