Economic development agency says it lost its final quarter due to budget uncertainty
Invest NI failed to meet its target for overseas investors to set up here over the last year, with staff also diverted to manage several Covid-19 support schemes.
In its annual report and accounts, the economic development agency said it had helped create nearly 10,000 jobs over the year and sales growth of £1.5bn.
But the agency, currently the subject of an independent review of its performance, managed to secure only 15 first-time overseas investors, below its target of 20 to 30.
In the report covering the year to March 2022, Invest NI said: “We remained on course to deliver against our operational targets until we effectively lost the last quarter to sign up new projects.”
Budget uncertainty meant that Invest NI couldn’t issue letters of offer to help companies between December and the end of March. “This effectively stalled performance across our three main performance areas — R&D, skills and jobs. Clearly, this limited some of our activity, with a consequential impact on some of our outcomes.”
Invest NI also helped manage several support schemes linked to the pandemic, including the Department for the Economy’s £145m Spend Local, which gave £100 to every adult in the region to spend in shops.
The report was posted on Invest NI’s website last week and then circulated with a statement on Monday. The report said: “To say that 2021/22 has been an extremely challenging year for Invest NI would be an understatement, as the ongoing impact of Covid meant the continued delivery of the NI Executive’s emergency schemes remained strategic priorities to maintain businesses.”
It is currently seeking a new permanent chief executive and has hired a head hunting firm to conduct the search. Its former head Kevin Holland resigned late last year. Interim chief executive Mel Chittock said: “Nearly 1,900 businesses sought our support in 2021/22.
“Considering the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and wider economic challenges the year brought it was reassuring to see so many businesses still committing to investment, whether through innovation, exporting, skills development or job creation.
“Not only did we see commitment to grow, right across Northern Ireland, but also a drive to get more people into better jobs.”
He added: “Along with our business support we also continued to deliver four NI Executive emergency support schemes, our own nine Covid recovery schemes, and delivered a significant element of the NI Executive’s High Street Scheme.
“The agility and pace at which our team adapted and responded to these new asks is testament to our commitment to doing what is needed to support our economy and businesses.
“Considering the continuing challenges for both NI businesses and Invest NI, the results we are presenting are testament to the resilience of those businesses we have worked with, and our own team’s drive and determination. I am proud of what we have achieved.”
But Sinn Féin MLA Caoimhe Archibald, chair of the Stormont economy committee when it was still operating earlier this year, said the review of Invest NI provided a timely opportunity to ensure it’s fit to support businesses, create jobs and promote investment.
“There has been significant interest from investors over the past year so it is concerning the target on inward investment has not been met,” said Ms Archibald.
“Sinn Féin has called for some time for reform of Invest NI. The ongoing review of Invest NI is a timely opportunity to ensure it’s fit to support businesses, create jobs and promote the north for investment.
“Invest NI has much more to do to support small local businesses, promote regional balance and maximise the potential of the all-island economy.
"It’s also imperative it promotes the opportunities of continued access to the EU market under the protocol.
“Invest NI’s efforts to attract jobs and investment is also being derailed by British government’s threats to break international law and its support for the DUP’s boycott of local democracy.”
The agency said it welcomed the review by Sir Michael Lyons “and wholeheartedly endorse the importance of independently assessing Invest NI’s efficiency and effectiveness”.
It added: “Ongoing uncertainty on trading relationships between the UK and EU, and the particular consequential impact on trade for manufactured goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland continues to present challenges for businesses in certain sectors where NI is particularly strong, such as agri-food.
“If these challenges can be overcome and negotiations satisfactorily resolved, the unique tariff-free access which Northern Ireland could have to both the UK and EU markets would give a compelling competitive advantage for local businesses serving these markets and a significant attractor for potential new inward investors with a manufacturing focus.”