Belfast Telegraph

Some of Northern Ireland's most urgent economic issues are down to a lack of competitiveness

By Johnny Andrews

The Executive cobbled together a last-minute, crisis budget, but the document doesn't hide its inability to plan for the long-term or build a successful economy.

Northern Ireland now has some figures to make the books balance, but there has been little thought about how the block grant can best be used to create private sector jobs.

When money needs to be saved, ministers' first instinct is still to cut services provided by private sector contractors, rather than tackle public sector inefficiency.

Likewise, some of the heaviest cuts are likely to fall on areas, like further and higher education, which are vital for growing the economy.

The possible devolution of powers to cut corporation tax could be an enormous boost for Northern Ireland. However, some of the most urgent issues which we have to address are down to a lack of competitiveness.

We sit 112th out of 145 countries when it comes to employment flexibility, for instance.

If the Executive wants to help businesses, it should harmonise Northern Ireland's employment legislation with the rest of the UK as quickly as possible. It can tackle high energy costs, by encouraging the exploration of alternative energy sources, like fracking and anaerobic digestion. It already has powers to implement enterprise zones, with fast-track planning procedures and incentives for exporters.

It should put in place a pipeline of infrastructure projects, making sure that underspends, like the £30m returned to the Treasury in July, do not continue to hamper the construction industry.

Vitally, it must reform the public sector, to make it more efficient and inculcate a 'can do' culture across government departments so that they help rather than hinder business.

We've heard a lot about austerity lately, but the budget actually includes a reduction of only 1.6% of the block grant.

The spending cuts seem severe only because, to date, Stormont has talked about rebalancing the economy, but hasn't really done anything of the sort.

Going forward, the Executive must tailor its resources toward private sector growth and an efficient public sector, which doesn't crowd out enterprise.

Johnny Andrews is the economy spokesman for the Northern Ireland Conservatives

Belfast Telegraph

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