Belfast Telegraph

Glyn Roberts: Why we need to reboot Northern Ireland plc

The next Stormont Executive must be more agile, strategic and delivery-focused, writes Glyn Roberts

A new Stormont Executive must help make Northern Ireland the best place to shop in the UK
A new Stormont Executive must help make Northern Ireland the best place to shop in the UK

The world has moved on since we last had a working government at Stormont. Brexit uncertainty, climate change and trade wars are huge challenges to the UK economy and will impact on Northern Ireland.

That is why a restored Assembly and Executive need to be rebooted and become less about process and more about delivery. It cannot be business as usual with a few tweaks here and there; we must see real change.

We have heard in recent years about creating a "Northern powerhouse" in England. So, how do we create a Northern Ireland economic powerhouse? How do we achieve a 5% growth rate, instead of bumping along at less than 1%?

How do we make Northern Ireland the best place in the UK and Ireland to shop, socialise, locate and start a business? What do we need to do to make Northern Ireland an ecosystem of innovation?

Fundamentally, what should our region have achieved economically, socially and politically by 2030? Big questions like these require big answers from our political leaders.

I'm not doing down the 10 years of devolution.

It did deliver a number of positive outcomes which Retail NI successfully lobbied for: the small business rate relief scheme, town centre first retail planning policy and business improvement districts are among the outcomes that helped move our economy forward. But we need much more if we are to deliver the answer to my previous questions.

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Part of the answer lies in how we formulate policy.

Retail NI wants to see a more agile, strategic and delivery-focused Executive. So, how do we achieve this?

Stormont needs to operate like any other coalition administration, with collective responsibility and an adequately-funded and effective Opposition. Inclusive power-sharing will always be the bottom line, but a new Executive needs to move away from just being about conflict management and deliver more tangible change.

Every other coalition government agrees a draft programme for government first and then decides which party gets which ministries. Under the current system, they do it the other way around, which has led in the past to poor collective responsibility, a departmental silo mentality and weak policy development.

The programme for government process was long and convoluted, taking up nearly half of the Assembly term before it published the final document.

Even when published, the final draft lacked detail and had shed-loads of wriggle room on policy.

That's why it is important that the current talks process has included a programme for government sub-group, which should be addressing this problem and ensuring that a new administration can hit the ground running.

Retail NI and our partners, Hospitality Ulster and Manufacturing NI, have called for a fourth strand to be established in these talks to include key civic society organisations supporting the parties in building a genuine partnership approach to a rebooted economic agenda and a radically different and more ambitious programme for government.

The programme for government needs to be more than just a deal between five parties and, instead, should also include the key partners in the economy, such as business, trade unions, local councils and the voluntary sector.

We shouldn't be seen as just consultees, but as essential partners in the delivery of prosperity for Northern Ireland.

In Retail NI's recently published Regeneration NI Plan, we set a number of new policy priorities for a new programme for government.

First on the list for Retail NI is fundamental change to our broken and antiquated system of business rates. It is a scandal that Northern Ireland has the highest business rates in the UK, which is a huge burden on our members and our colleagues in the hospitality sector. It is very welcome that the Department of Finance has already begun a comprehensive review of rating policy with a view to providing options for an incoming finance minister.

Next is infrastructure investment. With the Belfast Regional and Derry Strabane City Deals moving forward, it is crucially important that our rural towns and villages are not left behind.

Retail NI has called for the establishment of a rural town and village infrastructure fund to support the regeneration of our rural towns and villages.

Investing in our rural towns should be on the list of key infrastructure projects, alongside the A5, A6, York Street Interchange and the Belfast Transport Hub.

We also need to do more to support the growth of our two airports and examine the potential of a high-speed rail service between Belfast and Dublin.

We need to see a rural small business strategy established to provide support for existing businesses and the next generation of SMEs, a review of rural transport connectivity and faster progress on the rollout for rural high-speed broadband.

Let's also realise the huge economic potential of our six further education colleges.

As a former chair of Colleges NI, I know first-hand of the amazing job they do in developing entrepreneurial skills and creating the next generation of small business owners.

If there is one thing you can't have too much of, its entrepreneurs. We need a new 14-19 strategy, which provides a new vocational route, running parallel to academic, from school right through to university.

All of this will cost money. But if we are ever to break the cycle of limited economic growth and realise our true potential, then we a need a major investment by the British Government and possibly the Irish Government and the EU to make this happen.

To enable a new Stormont administration to tackle all of these challenges, a prosperity investment fund should be established as part of a new Good Friday Agreement for the 21st century.

While money is important, it is leadership above all else that we need. Now, more than ever, we need our political leaders to lead the way with big, bold solutions and to take the difficult decisions.

Real leaders do not see problems; they seek solutions.

I want to see a Northern Ireland which is an outward-looking, confident, tolerant, welcoming and inclusive region that has something to give to the rest of the world.

It can be done.

  • Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI

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