Belfast Telegraph

John Simpson: Belfast City Deal's £900m budget won't solve all the issues facing NI plc


The impact of the City Deal will be easiest to see in projects like the regeneration programme for Bangor Waterfront
The impact of the City Deal will be easiest to see in projects like the regeneration programme for Bangor Waterfront
John Simpson

By John Simpson

The Belfast Region City Deal gained official support from six Northern Ireland local authorities, the Stormont administration (in the absence of an Executive) and the UK Treasury. Together, a near £900m budget has been promised to secure the delivery of 20,000 new and better jobs over a 15 year period.

The intention is that the full budget should be allocated during the next 10 years and then implementation would follow over the longer period.

The ambition for the City Deal is dramatic and wide-ranging. However, it must be seen in the wider context of many other features of development policies which alongside the City Deal are only part of the evolving structures.

The City Deal identifies 22 projects to which the interested parties have now made commitments.

They have the potential to be 'game changing' for jobs, living standards and competitive outcomes. The 22 projects have been identified and agreed by the local authorities in a non-contentious agenda.

The projects will, in part, be financed by the financial contributions from the local authorities, supplemented by scope for contributions from the private sector, as well as from the Stormont budget and the UK Treasury.

The local authorities and Stormont will make their contribution from their current budget resources.

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This will represent a form of priority setting from existing funds.

The £350m from the Treasury will be an addition to the NI Block grant, over and above the Barnett formula.

At this stage, the budget administrative arrangements for the City Deal have not been finalised. Governance of the City Deal is still being developed in co-operation with the UK Government, Stormont officials and the local authorities.

The City Deal is a welcome (net) increase in funds for priority developments and represents a more focused effort to invest in projects that will make a difference to jobs, productivity and real incomes.

However, when placed in perspective, the full deal will increase core development programmes across the Belfast City Region by about £60m pa.

The deal will add possibly up to 20% on top of other projects that will be taking place.

The deal is therefore well worth having, but will still leave other planned priorities awaiting decisions, some from the private sector and also in part from other Stormont or local authority budgets.

Arguably, while many of the projects will be financed from existing Northern Ireland public sector funds, the real addition to the local economy is mainly in the £350m which has been promised from HM Treasury.

This money will supplement funding for the 22 projects. Seven are designed to encourage innovation, drawing heavily on the local universities; three are targeted specifically on incentives and mechanisms to promote an economy equipped for the evolution of digital processes, and 12 identify development ideas to enhance the vitality of specific areas.

Eight of the latter group have a tourism and regeneration dimension.

All of the projects will be assessed, in addition to their other merits, for their ability to contribute to improving education, skills and employability for people living in Northern Ireland.

While no budget estimates have been released (and they may only exist in a generic form), the demonstrable impact of the BRCD will be easiest to see in the extra Glider route across Belfast, the Newry Southern Relief Road, the regeneration programmes for Bangor Waterfront, Carrickfergus Castle and city centre regeneration in Newry.

The programmes involving the scientific and digital expertise of the universities may be critically important but, in their early stages, specific investment or scientific advances will emerge more slowly. However, the university boffins must be challenged to produce feasible and attractive revenue earning projects.

One positive first step has been taken: a leading German institute has been asked for proposals on how to develop a major digital strand reaching across many of the City Deal projects.

The momentum of the City Deal is, slowly, emerging.

Belfast Telegraph