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Competing globally is the key to building our future

The global financial crisis has had a profound impact on the property and construction sectors in Northern Ireland, with recent government figures suggesting a real-terms fall of 35% in construction output alone since 2007.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' Northern Ireland construction market survey also continues to report a challenging environment, with the province remaining the UK region with the largest number of chartered surveyors reporting declining construction workloads.

While the underlying causes are rooted in global economic uncertainty, the impact is felt locally in terms of jobs and growth.

The economic shockwave caused by the financial crisis demands an international response. But it also challenges each country to make the most of its own unique strengths to map the best possible route towards recovery.

Northern Ireland can justifiably take pride in a highly-skilled construction sector, combined with experience and expertise. This is a potent and highly-exportable blend.

Northern Ireland construction professionals and companies already carry out specialised work in numerous overseas markets.

And the RICS, with our global network of more than 110,000 members - in addition to 50,000 students and trainees - in 146 countries worldwide, is playing an active role in developing international links that will benefit Northern Ireland's construction sector.

Many economies have placed infrastructure development at the heart of their growth. But with the global outlook, such development is likely to be uncertain for some time.

The recent OECD Infrastructure to 2030 report concluded that national governments alone would be unable to fund future infrastructure needs.

The RICS is also making its voice heard in this debate. Building on joint research by the University of Ulster and Aberdeen University, we have set out our thinking on the Private Finance Initiative and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).

The report draws on case studies from the UK, Australia, Canada, the United States and India. It concludes that constraints on government spending and the focus on tackling national debt will increase the requirement for substantial volumes of private sector capital to meet essential infrastructure needs.

Here in Northern Ireland, a lack of infrastructure spending has been a brake on productivity. And as the infrastructure investment gap widens, the province, too, must consider alternative funding methods.

PPPs are no panacea, nor are they a substitute for publicly-funded procurement. But they should be considered as one potential solution to help ensure high-quality infrastructure development.

While multiple financing methods are a key element in securing growth, Northern Ireland could also benefit from more flexibility on fiscal measures - specifically the ability to vary the rate of corporation tax.

Lower corporation tax may lead to a reduction in the block grant of between £150m and £300m annually, but in the context of a block grant of more than £9bn, it is a price well worth paying to rebalance the economy and create new jobs by attracting foreign capital.

My visit to Belfast this week (which has included meetings with RICS members, politicians and others) has reinforced my view that Northern Ireland is well placed to return to prosperity.

Key to that success will be an active pursuit of export market opportunities, coupled with the right approach to infrastructure investment and measures to boost Northern Ireland's competitiveness.

Get it right, and the inward investment will flow. That is the challenge. That is the opportunity.