agendaNi looks at Arlene Foster’s economic action plan.
A new ‘department of the economy’ has been strongly backed by Arlene Foster in her response to the Independent Review of Economic Policy. It would merge DETI and DEL. As an interim step, the Executive would set up a sub-committee to co-ordinate economic strategy.
“The report represents a significant piece of work which will help shape economic development policy in Northern Ireland,” she said. It was ultimately up to companies, not Invest NI or DETI, to invest in skills, exports, R&D and innovation, to boost competitiveness, Foster added.
There are four key parts to her action plan:
Co-ordination of economic policy – the new proposed department, as part of a smaller Executive. An Executive subcommittee on the economy is suggested as the interim step, including the Enterprise, Employment, Regional Development, Finance and OFMDFM Ministers;
Government assistance to industry – Invest NI needed to offer support to a “much wider” business base. A review will be carried out to see how support for innovation, R&D and export growth can be improved. Finances will become tighter so advice and other forms of help are also important. A dedicated ‘small business unit’ is recommended.
Autonomy, flexibility and decision-making – DETI civil servants are discussing how the current processes could be improved. Where major projects require DETI and DFP approval, these cases should be considered by a ‘central project review group’.
Policy development and monitoring – The department will take on responsibility for reporting on Invest NI’s performance.
The Economic Development Forum has been stood down and will be replaced by a smaller advisory group, by April. Membership will be drawn from Invest NI, businesses, the skill sector; an independent economist will also join it. A steering group to implement the Minister’s recommendations will also be set up.
There was a broad political welcome for the action plan, though Sinn Féin called for more to be done to help the social economy.
Enterprise Committee Chair Alban Maginness welcomed the sub-committee proposal and called for Invest NI to be “given as much freedom as it can to get on with the job of regenerating our economy”. Foster agreed on the need for flexibility but said it was important to strike a balance between that and the large amounts of money involved. Talks are taking place with DFP and a result is expected by April.
“The outworkings of the review will be one of a number of factors which will shape our economic future,” said InvestNI Chairman, Stephen Kingon. “In particular, the Minister’s commitment to act quickly to develop new governance arrangements by April of this year, to give early consideration to higher delegation limits, streamlined approvals processes and budgetary flexibility, [has] the potential to transform Invest NI’s operational environment, reduce bureaucracy and enhance responsiveness. These can only be good for the businesses we support.”
Chief Executive Alastair Hamilton said that many of the proposals were “already work in hand and this will be accelerated.”
CBI Chairman Terence Brannigan welcomed the statement on behalf of businesses.
“While clearly we need time to digest the comprehensive statement our initial response is that the Minister has come forward with a sensible range of proposals and actions regarding the future management of the Northern Ireland economy,” he said. Brannigan supported the amalgamation of DETI and DEL, the smaller advisory unit and also the continuation of selective financial assistance for firms.
He concluded: “Irrespective of some initial tentative signs of the beginnings of recovery, our economy remains fragile and, if we are to consolidate and hasten this recovery we must be more agile, significantly reducing the lag between discussions, decisions and actions.”
Changes to the number of departments need to be decided by the Executive and the proposal will be considered as part of a wider review of how government works in Northern Ireland.