Economy Minister Gordon Lyons says the focus is on getting businesses ready for the future
It has been a successful year for Northern Ireland business in the face of continuing challenges, and that is reflected in the calibre of the companies on this year’s Belfast Telegraph Top 100 list.
The companies that have made the Top 100 represent a diverse range of sectors for which Northern Ireland has a strong, and growing, reputation: financial services, IT, manufacturing, food and drink, engineering, construction and many more.
We cannot deny the deep and wide-ranging impact that the pandemic had on the economy, both locally and globally.
My predecessors in the department and I provided some £600m of financial support to local companies — safeguarding business and protecting jobs. Local firms also demonstrated their resilience and innovation as they pivoted and responded to the challenges presented by Covid-19.
Labour market figures are showing the highest number of payrolled employees ever on record in Northern Ireland, and we have seen more than 10 consecutive months of employee numbers above pre-Covid levels.
Meanwhile the NI Composite Economic Index for quarter four 2021 showed economic output growing over the preceding two-year period.
But major challenges lie ahead. Global turbulence is resulting in rapidly rising energy costs, the costs of raw materials are increasing on an almost daily basis and we are likely to see inflation continue to rise over the next 12 months.
My energy strategy, The Path to Net Zero, and associated 2022 Action Plan with its 22 actions, sets out a vision to deliver self-sufficiency in affordable renewable energy for Northern Ireland.
The pathway to energy decarbonisation has the potential to transform our local economy. We will grow the skills base for the low carbon economy providing opportunities for our younger people to be the engine room for our growth. We are developing a suite of new initiatives including a £10m green innovation fund, a hydrogen centre of excellence and one-stop shop for energy advice.
Another key support measure has been my Economic Recovery Action Plan and, in particular, its core outworking, the High Street Scheme.
Official statistics have shown the scheme to be a huge success in achieving its twin policy objectives of reorienting people back to the high street and stimulating the local economy in the wake of the pandemic. A total of £136.5m was pumped directly into local retail, services and hospitality businesses through over 3.7 million Spend Local card transactions, across every part of Northern Ireland.
An average of £97.94 was spent on each card, with many people adding additional spend to the full amount. Feedback direct from businesses, and from bodies such as Retail NI, was overwhelmingly positive, with businesses reporting increased footfall, spending and consumer confidence as a direct result of the scheme.
On a more strategic level, the 10X Economic Vision sets out how we will seek to make Northern Ireland one of the world’s leading small economies. The vision is built upon five steps to success: focusing on our strengths in priority technologies and clusters where we can be world leaders; investing in and supporting our people; diffusing innovation across our economy; taking a new approach to funding; and focusing and capitalising on what makes Northern Ireland unique.
Key to making the vision a reality are the skills of our people. To this end, I launched Skills for a 10X Economy, our strategy to support more people to improve their job prospects and fulfil their economic potential.
Our local workforce is already talented, but it is important that we capitalise and build on that foundation. Access to skills and talent is the number one issue for business right across all sectors of our economy. Skills for a 10X Economy sets out how we will grow professional and technical qualifications through our further education colleges and rebalance higher education with a focus on STEM to equip people for the jobs of the future, which our local businesses are already starting to deliver.
Local businesses have also benefited from my department’s Assured Skills programme in the past year, with our colleges and universities providing sector-relevant pre-employment training to participants on assured skills academies. Academy participants learn the skills they need for roles in areas including financial and professional services, cyber security, software engineering and many more.
In parallel, I initiated a comprehensive review of the careers guidance provided to people, from school-age through to all stages of adulthood. The aim is to ensure they benefit from the opportunities emerging from a thriving economy, and employers can access the skills they need to grow their businesses.
The Northern Ireland City and Growth Deal programme will unlock £1.5bn of investment from the public and private sectors and will create thousands of new, and better, jobs across Northern Ireland, strengthening our position as a global investment destination over the next decade and beyond.
As part of the programme, in March I announced more than £170m of funding for three cutting edge innovation projects at Queen’s University Belfast, including the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, which will be a springboard for manufacturing innovation in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, Ulster University will be leading on multimillion pound projects focusing on creative industries, data analytics, robotics and digital health that will accelerate our position as an innovation hub.
These projects will link at scale to UK-wide networks, helping to step up Northern Ireland’s innovation, skills and digital capabilities to deliver inclusive economic growth and job opportunities in the economy of the future.
Parallel to all of these measures is another important scheme that will act as a catalyst for our future economy — Project Stratum. Funded under the DUP/Conservative Confidence and Supply Deal, this key measure represents a total investment of almost £200m and is transforming the broadband connectivity of 85,000 premises in rural areas of Northern Ireland.
Once completed in 2025, all premises under Project Stratum will be able to benefit from access to gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband, hugely reducing the connectivity gap here and delivering a positive impact on families and businesses.
A further cause for optimism is the continued opening up of international travel. Tourism was a billion-pound sector for Northern Ireland prior to Covid. Our Tourism Recovery Action Plan sets out how we will reach, and surpass, that level once again.
We have supported increased marketing in Great Britain by Tourism Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland by Tourism NI and we can hopefully look forward to a prosperous summer season for our local tourism and hospitality sector.
When I visited the UAE and the US in recent months, I was struck by the positivity and high regard that the international business world holds towards Northern Ireland as a place to invest and do business and we can be proud of what we have to offer the global stage.
It is with confidence, therefore, that I believe we can continue to grow and evolve our local economy despite the new and emerging challenges we face. Together, we can make the 10X Vision a reality and deliver an economy that brings benefits for everyone in society.
Gordon Lyons is the Economy Minister and DUP MLA for East Antrim