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Top 100 roundtable: Infrastructure and energy - the new future

The need for a new energy strategy, based on a green future, has never been more important, while progressing with key infrastructure schemes alongside continued investment will be crucial to the rebuilding of the economy, post-crisis. We take a look back at our first special Ulster Business Top 100 digital roundtable, with A&L Goodbody, and the heads of some of our leading firms, about what’s next for Northern Ireland


Roundtable guests: Michael Scott, John Mulgrew, Paul Stapleton, Mark Stockdale, David Henry, Mark Thompson and Paddy Anderson

Roundtable guests: Michael Scott, John Mulgrew, Paul Stapleton, Mark Stockdale, David Henry, Mark Thompson and Paddy Anderson

Roundtable guests: Michael Scott, John Mulgrew, Paul Stapleton, Mark Stockdale, David Henry, Mark Thompson and Paddy Anderson

What has changed for development in the last few months?

David Henry: The main area is about the office environment, and people talking about not going back to the office until 2021. Developers that had planned for big office development, they may be on hold. There are still priorities. We need the key connections. York Street Interchange still needs to be done no matter what happens, whether people are back in their offices or not. Wastewater – a lot of developments have been put on hold because the infrastructure isn’t in place to deal with demand.

Michael Scott: In all of this, it’s new and hasn’t happened before. The fact that it affects us in the wider society as well. We are all in the same boat together from both economic and societal view.

How have firms dealt with the crisis and coped over the last few months?

Mark Thompson: We were fairly fortunate as our technology platforms are very advanced and we were able to move to remote working seamlessly. What we weren’t prepared for was the immediate and direct impact to what we were doing, and the clients. It was the impact on workstreams.

What impact has Covid had on planned infrastructure, greener energy initiatives and cleaner public transport?

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Paul Stapleton: It has created a great opportunity as we are all looking at things differently now. We have talked about the world of work being different – if that’s different then how we live, and where we live, could be different. The societal models around that could be very different. From an electricity network perspective, we would see Belfast city centre as a huge demand. But there may not be the same demand in the future. It may now be about balancing the regions and investing in areas where there may be new growth centres

Paddy Anderson: I think you have to draw on some positives. There has been an awakening about the importance of us investing in sustainable infrastructure… it applies to how we move around and connect with people. There is a huge emphasis now on sustainable transport and public transport has to lie at the centre of that. In an unusual way, Covid has re-emphasised the importance of moving rapidly towards those very challenging targets. We are powering ahead.

Mark Stockdale: (For our clients) I don’t think much has changed just yet. The world has changed in a big way and renewable energy and the green recovery is being talked about openly. Ten years ago, no one talked about it. The problem we have is that nothing has changed politically, it’s very much seen as a priority for government… Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland that has no support mechanism for any (green energy) development.

What engagement have you had with the Northern Ireland Executive so far and has it been beneficial?

David Henry: Any of the discussions we have had with (Economy Minister Diane Dodds) she has been been listening and very practical and pragmatic in what she is doing, or trying to do… but they need to get quicker.

Michael Scott: We met with Diane Dodds, who was a recent gas customer in Banbridge and we were putting services in. She was very accommodating and we had talked about the challenges we faced with the construction teams out on site.

Paul Stapleton: The Executive has been very open and accessible. I think they, more than anybody, understand the extent of the challenges we are facing.

Mark Thompson: Standing back and looking at this as a businessperson, the pinch point is the Northern Ireland commute bubble… we need to do more with our public transportation system. If I was encouraging the Executive to do something creative it would be a step change as to how we manage public transport, run Translink in a way in which it can be creative because this is the new normal.

Paddy Anderson: We have had a lot of engagement with a lot of the political parties. I think there is a better understanding of the challenges of the carbon targets that we have.

What has been the concern from company bosses, historically, about staff working from home?

David Henry: There may have been a lack of trust over the years as it wasn’t the norm. Once you get over that, it’s not so much about that, it’s about getting the best out of the people coming together, and that’s something I’ve missed over the last few months.

Paul Stapleton: It’s not really about productivity, but about purpose, teamworking and engagement. That’s what is lost in a working-from-home model.

How long do you see the recovery taking for the Northern Ireland economy and what are the next challenges?

Paul Stapleton: One way or the other we are facing a difficult winter, and probably into next year. As the Job Retention Scheme runs out we will see the impact of that. How quickly will depend on the urgency and how quickly we can get strategies in place.

David Henry: I think it is going to be a slow recovery and I don’t think it’s going to be anything like what the UK is going to have – I think we are going to be a lot slower and behind the curve.

Paddy Anderson: We are in for a tough road. The autumn will be interesting to see what impact schools going back will have on the workforce and will that encourage people to get back into the city centre.

Mark Thompson: All of us need to look at our businesses and assess ‘what jobs do we do, and who does them’. Looking at what aspects of those jobs can be done from home and those which cannot… it’s preparing for that.

Mark Stockdale: I think Covid has probably overly impacted the younger generation as well. In many cases it is more junior members of staff who have been furloughed, which is impacting their training and development.