CBI calls for change in infrastructure

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland  - 27 March 2008 -  General view of 'The Arc' under construction at the Abercorn Basin in the new Titanic Quarter area of Belfast. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / PressEye.com Energy is the key infrastructure priority for business, according to a critical CBI assessment of infrastructure policy.

A major CBI report has concluded that the Executive needs to introduce major improvements in how it commissions, procures and delivers infrastructure in Northern Ireland. ‘Infrastructure – investing for our future’ assesses the current systems of infrastructure prioritisation and delivery.

Energy “requires government focus” and the second North/South Interconnector is the “single most important infrastructure priority” for CBI members. They also want to see the urgent delivery of the gas pipeline to the west.

Michael Wightman, who chairs the CBI’s Northern Ireland Improving Infrastructure Committee, said: “It is absolutely crucial that the Executive takes every step that it can to ensure that Northern Ireland maximises its infrastructure base and, therefore, seeks to enhance our competitiveness and attractiveness as a region to do business and invest and ultimately to create jobs.

The committee’s Vice-Chair, Adrian Eakin, added: “The business community continues to be incredibly frustrated at the lack of an appropriate pipeline of infrastructure works and the silo structure that remains among Executive departments when it comes to infrastructure prioritisation and delivery. We must learn the lessons of experiences in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland and build on their models – models which have the confidence of the political and business communities alike.”

The tone of CBI policy documents has become more forthright since the 2011 Assembly election. The report rejects any notion that financing projects from outside the public sector represents privatisation. Publishing the timescales of capital works as soon as possible will improve public confidence.

Current infrastructure projects “do not always appear to be taken in a fully informed manner” and the CBI suggests that the “political imperative” is often considered more important than economics, demographics or the future needs of citizens. Ministers need to work together more collaboratively and be prepared to take tough decisions.

Northern Ireland also has a reputation as the “most litigious region” for procurement within the British Isles. This reiterates the need for more centralised control of the process. The Finance Minister should have overall responsibility for infrastructure delivery.

The province, the CBI says, should follow the example of Scotland and the Republic by setting up a central procurement and delivery agency. If a budget is unrealistically low, the commissioning body may end up with a large long-term bill for maintaining and replacing the assets involved. On planning, the CBI praises the progress made by Alex Attwood as Environment Minister e.g. approving the Windsor Park and University of Ulster developments. It backs a short, clear and strategic planning policy statement and says that planning powers should move from the Department of the Environment to the proposed ‘department of the economy’. The CBI also calls for limits on the ability of objectors to bring judicial reviews.

The York Street interchange, A6 and A5 schemes and Sprucefield by-pass should be delivered “faster than currently planned”. Other transport priorities are the integrated transport hub at Great Victoria Street, the Belfast Rapid Transit project and more park-and-ride schemes. A Belfast City Airport-London link is strategically important due to the potential for financial services growth.

Broadband ‘not spots’ need to be cleared up and digital policy needs to be seen as “central to fuelling long-term growth”.

In regeneration policy, there is a danger of “spreading the cake too thinly”. Cities matter in global economic growth and Belfast needs a strong focus from ministers e.g. developing the Sirocco site in East Belfast and tackling the shortage of grade A office space in the city.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has welcomed the report and plans to discuss it with the CBI “in the near future”.

The full document is available at www.cbi.org.uk/ni

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