Belfast Telegraph

Shortcomings with Northern Ireland transport system must be tackled as a matter of urgency

Every day this week NI business chiefs speak out on the importance of devolved government to our economy

By Adrian Doran

Infrastructure is a key driver of productivity and living standards. Day in, day out, Northern Ireland firms rely on our roads, railways, ports and runways to move their goods, services and people around the region and across the world.

For this reason, the quality of infrastructure in a region is often a decisive factor when businesses choose locations for investment.

Unfortunately, it cannot yet be said that Northern Ireland's current infrastructure offering stands us apart from our competitors.

There is no reason why it couldn't in the future, but reaching that goal requires a restored Executive willing and able to work with business and society to develop a clearly articulated infrastructure vision that meets Northern Ireland's needs.

At the heart of the previous Executive's vision were several flagship infrastructure projects, including the A5/A6 upgrades, the Belfast transport hub and Belfast rapid transit.

While the commitment to these flagship projects is welcome, unfortunately their cost leaves little spare capital funding available for other important projects.

Despite Northern Ireland having the highest levels of public spending per capita in the UK, Treasury data repeatedly demonstrates that transport spend in Northern Ireland, as a proportion of overall expenditure, is around half that of Wales, Scotland and England.

This state of affairs cannot continue if we do not wish to fall further behind.

So, how do we increase our infrastructure spending?

The Tory/DUP "confidence and supply agreement" is expected to deliver an extra £400m of infrastructure spending over the next two years, potentially allowing projects like the badly needed York Street interchange to be funded.

However, these extra funds, while very welcome, are not a solution to our long-term infrastructure deficit.

We have to be realistic and cannot expect this chasm between need and available resource to be bridged via extra government spending in an era of tightening budgets.

However, there is a solution. With public funding limits reached, we must look to secure increased infrastructure spending through non-Exchequer sources, such as the European Investment Bank, investment funds (such as those from the big UK insurers), and public-private partnerships.

We also have the recently announced £100m Northern Ireland Investment Fund, as well as the ability to secure a Belfast Region City Deal that potentially could be an important source of infrastructure funding.

However, all of these potential sources of funding need the support of an Executive up and running at Stormont and which is willing to be creative and ambitious in its thinking.

One example of ambitious thinking is the Connected report, jointly commissioned by Ibec and the CBI. This report outlines a vision for a comprehensive, all-island transport network for a prosperous population of 10 million people by 2050.

A restored Executive has the opportunity to work with the Irish government and the EU to approach potential investors with joint projects big enough to secure benefits of economies of scale and cost efficiencies.

One such example could be a high-speed north-south train link that would allow Northern Ireland businesses and commuters easier access to the burgeoning Dublin market in a post-Brexit world.

However, it is also important to note that a reformed Stormont is not just required to access funding - it can also improve the delivery of projects.

For instance, many businesses are still frustrated with the Northern Ireland planning system. We have seen regionally significant schemes, like the A5, A6 and north-south interconnector, get bogged down in seemingly endless planning disputes. Recent statistics also demonstrate that the average processing time for major applications during 2016 averaged 69 weeks across our local councils.

This is far too long, is a barrier to investment and must be addressed.

Inefficient government infrastructure procurement is another issue which has damaged public confidence in the efficient delivery of critical infrastructure.

The solution, a centralised procurement and delivery agency, with the expertise to deliver projects on time and on budget, has been identified.

All that is required is the return of local ministers to drive the measure through.

Business has a vision for a prosperous Northern Ireland, underpinned by world-class infrastructure. However, for that vision to become a reality, we need an inclusive, devolved government in place and making the hard decisions necessary to lay the foundations for future economic success right across Northern Ireland.

A stable government is needed to give confidence to investors, particularly those from outside Northern Ireland, that this is a good place to invest.

Adrian Doran is head of corporate banking at Barclays and chair of the CBI NI infrastructure forum

Belfast Telegraph

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