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Business leaders call for economic focus

Northern Ireland’s top business bodies have called for action on the economy from the Executive as the ink dries on the political agreement securing the future of devolution.

Following the signing of the agreement to devolve policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont, there has been widespread agreement that politicians now need to focus on ‘bread and butter’ issues affecting people and businesses.

We asked some of the representatives from Northern Ireland’s key business and industry associations what they believed should be at the top of the list for Government ministers as they refocus on the economy as their number one priority.

Unsurprisingly measures that would safeguard jobs were at the forefront of the answers given.

While the policing and justice talks were being held 350 manufacturing jobs were lost at Hughes Christensen and a former unit of Nortel.

Bryan Gray, chief executive of Northern Ireland Manufacturing, reiterated his call for a rates break next year to help manufacturers cope with the downturn in orders and compensate firms for soaring energy costs.

Mr Gray said: “We need decisive and immediate action to prevent further job losses in manufacturing and ensure that we maintain our manufacturing base to provide future prosperity.”

Peter Bunting, assistant general Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, echoed his views.

He said: “The priority for the economy must be growth in the manufacturing sector.

“This is where the high-quality employment will come from, and it has additional benefits throughout the supply chain to develop both small and large indigenous businesses.”

Manufacturing and construction have been the two worst hit sectors in the recession.

John Armstrong, chief executive of the Construction Employers Federation, said a healthy construction sector benefited the whole economy and called for the Executive to progress construction capital projects.

“If we are going to get out of this recession we need the infrastructure — the schools, the hospitals — and to cut those projects at this time would be very foolish.

“Secondly, we can see clearly that the construction acts as a catalyst for the economy in general, as every pound invested in construction generates a further £2.85,” he said.

Joanne Stuart, chairman of the Institute of Directors (Iod) Northern Ireland, said that rebalancing the economy to reverse the unsustainable 60:40 ration between the public and private sectors should be a priority.

She also urged Executive to set up a proposed sub-committee for the economy as recommended in the Independent Review of Economic Policy (IREP).

“Until such time as a single, more co-ordinated Department of the Economy can be established, this sub-committee will play a vital role as the ‘champion of the economy’ that we have long called for,” she said.

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, also called for a reduction in administration at Stormont.

“With the devolution of policing and justice in the near future, we will see the 12th department of the Executive being created.

“Surely it is the right time to re-examine the number of departments we have for a small region comprising 1.8m people.”

He added: “The Executive |must give a priority to the publication of draft PPS5 which will protect and enhance our town centres and encourage a town centre first location of multiple supermarkets.”

The Federation of Small Businesses highlighted the need for more action to be taken to improve general business conditions, and believes politicians can play a role in helping reshape the banking system.

Wilfred Mitchell, FSB policy chair, said: “Access to credit remains a massive barrier to the revitalisation of the economy.

“We need to see our local representatives taking an even firmer line in the call for robust action to be taken to get the financial institutions lending again.”

Kevin Kingston, chairman of Chartered Accountants Ulster Society, said the business sector must offer its experience and support to the Assembly to address problems.

“In the private sector, securing sustainable long-term funding going forward is the major challenge which government, the private sector, investors and banks will have to work together to address,” he said.

“In the public sector the challenge is how to re-organise regional and local government.

“This is an urgent issue and the Executive must find the |balance between streamlining bureaucracy within the system whilst maintaining crucial frontline services.”

Belfast Telegraph