Belfast Telegraph

Invest NI partnership role boosts small firms

By Heather McGarrigle

Invest NI is undergoing radical changes to help more small businesses.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster outlined how, under recommendations in the Independent Review of Economic Policy, the organisation would move from a "client-based" approach to a "partnership" role to boost exports.

Invest NI will also get a fund aimed at job creation and more power to give money to businesses aiming to grow and move into new markets.

She made the announcement at an event in Belfast hosted by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

The minister said the proposals would allow Invest NI to work with a wider business base than ever before.

She told the Belfast Telegraph: "There has been a perception that Invest NI adopted a 'hands off' approach when it came to small business.

"When I first started working in the department, smaller companies felt that because they weren't Invest NI clients, they couldn't get help.

"Businesses need a one-stop shop for advice and support and that's what we want Invest NI to become."

Working alongside councils and Local Enterprise Authorities, business advisory centres are to be established, as well as a telephone advisory service to back up the existing '' website.

Policy chair at the FSB, Wilfred Mitchell praised the joined-up approach: "The FSB has been highlighting the need for the streamlining of the advice available to businesses and welcomes the creation of these advice centres.

"We are delighted that the Minister, DETI and Invest NI share this analysis and are now actively in the process of putting them in place.

"We believe these facilities will give many businesses across Northern Ireland the support and advice they need and this, in turn, should boost the entire economy."

It was recently announced that SMEs and start-ups in Belfast had created 600 jobs over the past 12 months.

Mrs Foster said the Invest NI announcement was a further acknowledgement of the importance of small and fledgling enterprises.

She added: "These companies are the backbone of Northern Ireland's economy."

Mrs Foster later updated the Assembly in greater detail on the implementation of the Independent Review of Economic Policy.

The IREP report saw a need for short-term economic support, with a focus on employment.

A £19m budget allocation has been ring-fenced for a Short-Term Employment Scheme which will promote 5,000 jobs during the budget cycle.

The programme will be administered by Invest NI, which was also responsible for the £15m Short-Term Aid Scheme, designed to help businesses facing financial difficulty during the recession.

In order to help businesses more quickly, Invest NI is also to be given more power over project spending decisions.

The Minister said: "These changes mean that the Invest Northern Ireland Board has, for the first time, the ability to approve expenditure up to £3m for projects supported by Selective Financial Assistance and £6m for all other projects without recourse to me as a minister."