External chair to be appointed to probe into the economic development body
Economic development agency Invest NI is undergoing an external review of its operations, Business Telegraph can reveal.
It will consider how Invest NI should implement the 10X Vision for the Economy launched last year by then Economy Minister Diane Dodds.
But MLAs Caoimhe Archibald of Sinn Fein and SDLP’s Sinead McLaughlin said any review should go much further and include Invest NI’s record on spreading prosperity across all parts of NI.
It’s understood Invest NI has faced some criticism over how it’s worked to realise the 10X economic strategy, which identified 10 principles for economic growth such as more innovation and a green economy.
A review could also trim some aspects of the work of Invest NI to avoid duplication with other bodies.
Invest NI’s most high-profile role is to draw foreign direct investment through offering support to companies based overseas so that they create jobs here.
But it also offers Northern Ireland businesses advice, mentoring and grants.
Northern Ireland’s 11 councils now have responsibility for local economic development, which could be one area for trimming the work of Invest NI.
And the decision of Westminster’s Department for International Trade to set up an office here to advise companies on exports and how to benefit from UK trade deals also impinges on Invest NI territory.
The departure of Invest NI chief executive Kevin Holland, who was appointed to the role in late 2019, was announced at the end of November. The role of interim CEO is being filled by Mel Chittock, an executive director in finance and operations since 2011.
A spokesman for the DfE commented: “The New Decade New Approach Agreement commits the Executive to carrying out a review of arms-length bodies. The department also recently published the 10x Economy Vision, which outlines a bold and ambitious future for Northern Ireland.
“The ability of Invest NI to deliver effective interventions in support of the department’s policy priorities is critical to a successful transition from vision to reality. The Minister is currently considering next steps.”
It’s understood the department is keen to complete a review ahead of the Assembly election in May, so that it’s ready for a new Economy Minister.
A source, who did not want to be named, said the review will be chaired by an individual from outside Northern Ireland chosen by Mike Brennan, Permanent Secretary at the DfE, and Invest NI chair Rose Mary Stalker.
Its most annual report and accounts state that it has nearly 600 staff. Its most recent budget for 2020/21 was £306m.
Its allocation from the latest draft budget has not been confirmed though it is losing £23m a year for the next three years due to the loss of European funding post-Brexit.
Sharon Hetherington, the department’s finance director, told its scrutiny committee at the Assembly last week it will be “significantly impacted”.
The source described the process for Invest NI as “an entire review of its operation and what it’s doing”.
According to its business plan for 2020/21, the agency typically makes around 10,000 business interventions — a term for its support measures — in year.
The source said: “Do we need all those interventions, is there a lot of bureaucracy and is there a lot of process over outcome? Yes, there is.
“It’s not that you want to dismantle the whole thing but there needs to be a refresh to focus on a few key activities.”
SDLP Foyle MLA Sinead McLaughlin said any review needed to do more to ensure investment and job creation was spread fairly across NI. “More needs to be done to support the North West in particular, but also other areas with above average unemployment and economic inactivity.”
Sinn Fein economy spokesperson Caoimhe Archibald said her party believed a “fundamental and comprehensive review of Invest NI” was required.
“Invest NI has failed to deliver regional economic balance...
“As the local economic development agency, it must ensure support for local start-ups and seek to empower small and micro-businesses and entrepreneurs... and must work to realise the potential of the digital and green economies, alongside working to attract inward investment.”
She said Invest NI also needed to promote Northern Ireland’s status with dual access to UK and EU markets under the NI Protocol.
Invest NI is one of dozens of arms-length bodies being reviewed in a process led by the Department of Finance.