Business Soapbox: Brian Donaldson
After May 5, Northern Ireland will have a new Executive and Assembly, but our politicians must take responsibility in key areas like corporation tax, planning and education to help encourage a thriving private sector business economy
While private business likes to operate with as little interference from government as possible, achieving a better balance in Northern Ireland's economy requires the appropriate policymaking from the Executive in a number of key areas.
The Executive that emerges after the elections on May 5 will face a critical economic agenda at a time when return to growth is hesitant and beset with difficulties, not least a low level of consumer confidence.
But a vibrant and outward- looking private business sector remains the only way to generate growth and jobs and to create the wealth that ultimately pays for public services.
The most pressing economic issue for the Executive will be a decision on corporation tax. The argument that a more competitive tax regime will stimulate both home-grown and inward investment has been well made by the combined voices of the business representative groups in Northern Ireland and there appears willingness within the outgoing Executive to grasp the nettle.
However, the Treasury's consultation paper on devolving greater fiscal responsibility to the Executive spells out the consequences to the block grant from Westminster and there will be those opposed to taking the element of risk required. I believe that over the next few months business needs to reassure and convince the doubters that the opportunity is worth taking. By accepting a degree of fiscal responsibility our devolved institutions would become more like a true government rather than simply an administration.
In a period of public expenditure austerity, spending decisions in the years ahead must reflect the economic priority of the times. If a reduced corporation tax regime is to increase our attractiveness to overseas investors, it must be combined with public investment in our strongest asset — our people. Education at all levels is vital to developing the qualifications, skill sets and confidence of our young people. They are the key to generating future prosperity.
I believe there remains considerable potential to reduce our administrative costs and drive better value for ratepayers and taxpayers. For a population of only 1.7m we continue to have a top- heavy administrative system designed for an era that has long passed. Far fewer councils and a reduction in the number of government departments must become a policy priority.
As a business serving the Northern Ireland market, we would also hope that a new Assembly might become more efficient in its own right and speed up the legislative process to ensure that necessary changes in the law are implemented at the same pace as we see elsewhere in the UK.
We remain gravely concerned over a planning policy that continues to favour out-of-town hypermarket developments at the expense of the independent retail sector. The lessons learned in Great Britain about the damage done to independents by the unchecked development of major shopping complexes needs to inform Planning Service policy here in Northern Ireland. The recent decision to proceed with an edge-of-town development in Banbridge flies in the face of the evidence collected over the past decade about the adverse effect of such decisions. A review of policy is long overdue.