A bright future

Chief Executive of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council Roger Wilson talks to agendaNi about developing the local economy by building on the area’s strengths.

From its inception, the number one priority for Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, which after Belfast is the largest council area, has been growth in the local economy.

Looking back on its first year of operation, Chief Executive of the newly formed local authority Roger Wilson said: “When the new Council was formed, we looked at existing strategies and plans and set an ambitious goal for the area’s future. Our elected representatives and officers have confidence in this area, they recognise that what we have is unique.”

This confidence isn’t misplaced, last year a Royal Mail survey found the Craigavon area to be the best place to live and work in Northern Ireland. The borough is no small-fry either, the newly enlarged area contributes nearly 10 per cent of Northern Ireland’s GVA, meaning that the value of goods and services produced in the borough is the second highest of any council area in Northern Ireland. A significant area for jobs, the borough boasts some of the province’s biggest employers including Moy Park and Almac Pharmaceuticals and is home to leading household names such as Linwoods, Irwins Bakery, Tayto and Fane Valley.

The thriving local SME sector has around 7,500 VAT registered businesses, many forming part of the supply chains as strategic partners for those larger entities. Wilson cited the ‘Made in the Borough’ event held last year to showcase businesses in the area: “This showed the diversity of the companies we have from the large global corporations to new business start-ups with only a few employees,” he said.

Investment

The Council is currently working with Invest NI and other stakeholders on its proposition for attracting inward investment. Roger Wilson believes that the success of existing FDI companies in the area helps sell the benefits of establishing a presence in the borough. “Companies tell us that our highly competitive operating costs and availability of suitable land and accommodation were significant factors in deciding to locate here. What keeps them here is the calibre of the workforce and the quality of the infrastructure,” he said.

Looking back on the first year he commends the elected representatives for coming together to meet the challenges of forming the larger council. This could have been politically challenging, but they have instead focussed on the economy, jobs, tourism and regenerating the town centres across the area. “The larger organisation has greater power, resources and influence, and the wider talent pool allows us to achieve more, particularly with the new functions such as planning,” added Wilson.

The approach taken by the politicians has been to “play to the strengths and build on the unique elements of the three legacy areas”. Armagh has strong heritage, culture, tourism and built environment; Craigavon is a strong commercial centre and Banbridge is strategically located on the Belfast-Dublin corridor, with a strong retail and cultural offering.

The new planning function, which was transferred to the Council following the Reform of Local Government, now underpins the Council’s efforts in economic development, with its strategy feeding into the local development plan. Since the creation of the new Council, there has been a significant increase in the number of planning applications and a large number of major applications are anticipated over the next couple of years. “It is important that we have a service that is able to exceed our customers’ expectations,” added Wilson.

On Brexit, Wilson said that it is still early days. The Council is looking at the issue on a corporate level to determine what Brexit means for the area. The Council is responsible for administering and delivering several European programmes and there are implications for other functions such as waste management. “We have to look at the implications of Brexit, both positive and negative, and see how we will practically respond to them,” he said. “The Council has responded to the consultation on the Executive’s Programme for Government, highlighting how local councillors are uniquely placed to determine the impact of EU funding programmes first hand, so they should be given the opportunity to input into any future negotiations.”

Future

In looking to the future, Wilson highlights the Council’s ambitious investment strategy, including the rationalisation of leisure facilities in Craigavon. The Council plans to replace three leisure centres and the water sports centre with a new-build £30 million state-of-the-art leisure facility at the Craigavon Lakes, which will include a new water sports facility. Next to the new leisure facility the Southern Regional College (SRC) is spending a similar amount on a new regional college. SRC also plans to build new colleges in Armagh and Banbridge.

The Council is working with the Osborne Group to redevelop Armagh Gaol into a boutique 5-star hotel. Wilson says this project illustrates the advantage of the bigger council in being able to leverage more resources to get such a project moving. This investment is part of a wider tourism strategy the Council is developing in partnership with Tourism NI.

The Council’s economic development strategy targets key growth sectors including health and life sciences, agri-food, advanced manufacturing and digitech. The area has a particularly strong agri-food sector which has been highlighted as part of the Council’s ‘Food Heartland’ initiative. The sector includes local producers such as McCann Apples and Wilson’s Country, processors such as Moy Park and Irwins, and indigenous caterers like Simon Dougan’s Yellow Door.

The Council’s strategy has been to raise the area’s profile and to get people to recognise that investing in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon is not only good for the borough but for the Northern Ireland economy as a whole. “We are centrally located with good road and rail links and affordable office accommodation. The future is bright for the area. Our councillors are very ambitious and we have talented officers who can deliver on these ambitions. We have an exciting vision for the area and we have the determination to achieve it,” concluded Wilson.

Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, Economic Development team on 0300 0300 900      

Email: info@armaghbanbridgecraigavon.gov.uk

 


Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon

A strong entrepreneurial region…

  • Largest council area outside Belfast with a population of 205,000

  • Nearly 10% of GVA output of Northern Ireland

  • A hub for Life Sciences and Advanced Manufacturing

  • The food producing heartland of Northern Ireland

  • Strategically located on the Belfast to Dublin and Belfast to Enniskillen economic corridors

  • The area is a growing tourist destination

  • A solid skills base facilitated by the business led approach by our schools and further education colleges

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