Much-needed spending on roads and rail links will make life much easier for businesses, writes Ann McGregor
A look at the list of organisations on this year’s Top 100 is a reminder, if it were needed, that Northern Ireland is home to fantastic businesses — innovators, exporters and global industry leaders in multiple fields.
Supporting their continued prosperity and helping firms of all sizes to realise their growth potential requires continued investment in an infrastructure ecosystem that supports how they do business.
Good quality infrastructure helps open up markets and trade opportunities, reduces costs, increases productivity, improves access to skills and labour and on the whole, makes life much easier for business and individuals.
It is our view that the region’s recovery from the pandemic relies heavily on addressing the scale of historic underinvestment, prioritising projects and resourcing them appropriately.
From funding constraints to a risk of legal challenge, many obstacles have stood in the way of efficient delivery of major capital projects. Increasingly, our planning system is cited as one of the biggest barriers to both public and private sector investment.
With the average processing time for major applications across all councils more than double the target of 30 weeks, reform is long overdue. The Department for Infrastructure’s review of the Planning Act was considered by business to be a missed opportunity.
Some proposals around statutory consultees in particular were welcome, but it lacked the ambition needed to tackle the delays and inefficiencies constraining economic recovery and low carbon investment.
While legislative reform needs to be delivered early in the next mandate, it should be preceded by urgent non-statutory reforms, particularly around the pre-application process.
When we think of infrastructure, it is physical connectivity in terms of things like roads and rail which may come to mind soonest. Yet many agreed flagship projects such as the York Street Interchange, a project that for too long has been surrounded by a lack of clarity on where, when and how it is to be delivered, remain undelivered,
Against the background of our ambitious climate targets, our rail infrastructure demands urgent attention. Progressing a high speed rail connection between Belfast-Dublin is an opportunity to advance all-island trade by capitalising on Belfast’s proximity to the border and could be a significant advantage when attracting foreign direct investment.
The pace of digitalisation has accelerated rapidly and the pandemic means that what we used to call ‘the future of work’ is already here. So it is absolutely critical that businesses and individuals have access to a resilient and secure digital infrastructure too. Achieving 100% broadband coverage is crucial and needs to be done as quickly as possible.
Energy and sustainability is a priority for businesses and their Net Zero aspirations must be supported by our investment strategy. Green infrastructure investment must therefore be a priority. This means that energy projects such as the North-South interconnector need to be delivered quickly. There is also a requirement to invest in more green spaces and blueways, to provide carbon sinks that absorb CO2 and create safe spaces which support the population’s mental well-being.
While it is tempting to always champion the big flagship projects, we strongly believe that a greater focus on getting the basics right by adequately resourcing our existing infrastructure and finishing what has already been started is really important.
This means prioritising areas including transport, communication, water, sewerage and energy. For example, funding for NI Water is urgent, with years of under-investment hampering our construction sector significantly. The draft Programme for Government has encouraged a perspective that we can support everything but budgetary constraints mean that in reality, this isn’t possible and a system of prioritisation is necessary — water and sewage are two high priority areas.
At NI Chamber, we believe that investment in infrastructure is central to addressing regional imbalances. City Deals provide the impetus for that focus and making sure that the benefits of infrastructure can be spread across the region.
Good quality public infrastructure that covers all parts of Northern Ireland is necessary to improve the movement of people and goods within the region and to facilitate inclusive growth.
This includes road and rail, but if businesses outside of Belfast are to reach their full potential, we also need to deliver them full fibre broadband, 5G and access to alternative fuels like hydrogen. Many firms are benefiting from Gas to the West — we need to see more of this kind of vision.
City, town centre and community revitalisation should be prioritised, particularly in light potential fallouts from the pandemic. Practically, this could include developing infrastructure to support flexible working in remote locations. There is a requirement to look at how regional facilities adapt to accommodate changing patterns of work and leisure.
A strong, strategic investment-led focus on infrastructure has been lacking in Northern Ireland for some time and this has been to the detriment of business, consumers and the economy. Infrastructure delivery at pace is a necessity if NI is to succeed in achieving its ambitious new statutory emissions targets, with an immediate focus on 2030.
In a response to the draft Investment Strategy last month, NI Chamber endorsed the need for a dedicated finance plan that is properly resourced and shared in some detail, our view that governance and oversight of the strategy should be bolstered. Historically, NI’s performance on the delivery of infrastructure projects is poor. It is therefore crucial that more efficient and effective delivery mechanisms are in place within the next Investment Strategy because in business, delivery is what matters.
To successfully rebuild and recover, what our economy needs is a new, ‘living’ investment strategy, which can adapt to the very fast moving pace of change, particularly in terms of sustainability. Just like businesses, it must have really strong oversight, flexible planning and be able to move on if something isn’t working. Our top performing firms have earned their place on this list before most of this work has even started — if we can start investing and delivering on these projects quickly and efficiently, the potential for businesses in all parts of NI to thrive is huge.
Ann McGregor is chief executive of the NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry