It’s all change for Arlene Foster after making the journey from the Department of Environment to take her role as Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister. Owen McQuade caught up with her to see where her priorities lie.
Arlene Foster taking up office has coincided with a series of high profile, timely announcements of foreign direct investment into the province.
Bombardier has announced its largest investment in its Belfast plant to date, with £520 million going towards building the new C Series jet, French IT firm Steria announcing 63 new jobs in Belfast and Citigroup has added to its previous three announcements since it established itself in Belfast in 2004 by creating 145 new jobs in the capital.
What pleases the Minister most, though, is the investment which has come from local firms: “Dale Farm has put £4 million into skills training, which is very positive as it’s always difficult to get entrepreneurs to recognise that they need to put money in to get the benefit out the other side. That’s something we’re very happy to support them in.”
In addition she is encouraged by what she has seen while getting around the province in her short time in office to date. “What pleased me most was that we had a big geographical spread. People might ask: ‘Is a Minister from the west going to put more emphasis on the west?’ Not necessarily, but I do want to see a big geographical spread and I’m getting that voluntarily from the private sector in any event.”
The Programme for Government (PfG) sets out some fairly difficult targets for tourism, another sphere of Foster’s remit. She has been charged with increasing the number of tourists to the province each year from 1.98 million to 2.5 million by 2011 and increasing tourism revenue from £370 million to £520 million in the same timeframe.
On attaining the targets, she begs the question: “It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg situation. Do we need to have more accommodation to meet our targets or do we need the targets to get more accommodation?”
The credit crunch climate, she feels, gives Northern Ireland a real opportunity to bring people to the province, as they may not be able to afford more distant holidays: “With the strength of the euro it’s a good time to make that push and I’ve been saying that to the Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland. We have to take these opportunities, we have a huge bit of work to do here.”
Despite having a full diary, there is still progress to be made, not least on the new Economic Strategy. The economy and enterprise are not only at the top of the Minister’s agenda but also the Executive’s agenda, as is set out in the PfG, and she is hoping to go out to consultation on the strategy before the end of the year. “The priority is trying to have an economy that’s outward looking and I have found that the private sector is looking 18 to 24 months down the line.”
Decreasing the productivity gap between Northern Ireland and the UK average, excluding the south east of England, is also something high on the list of priorities. “We’re 20 per cent behind at this moment in time but it’s a lever, I think, to get more foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland because we have lower operating costs.” David Varney’s report into Northern Ireland highlighted the strong selling points for the province; the youngest population in western Europe and a good skills basis were among those outlined.
The problem, it seems, is getting the message out there. “I’m hoping to go over to Silicon Valley in October as a follow up to the investment conference.
What we’re really looking for is the high value-added jobs – which we are hopefully getting from Bombardier.
“It’s not just that Bombardier was a good deal for Northern Ireland, it’s the fact that it will benefit the supply chain as well, places like Moyola and Maydown Precision Engineering.”
Another way to close the 20 per cent gap is to grow the private sector. “The private sector is key to that and from what I’ve seen from my many visits in my short time here is that the private sector is very much up to that and very much want to be a part of it,” Foster says.
Graham Gudgin’s theory of the pseudopublic sector – that the Northern Ireland economy is made up of 40 per cent public sector, 40 per cent pseudo-public sector and only 20 per cent private sector – is something that strikes a chord with the Minister.
“That’s exactly the sector that needs to change. It needs to transform into the private sector. Graham’s right about that but it does take a little time to have things changed and attitudes have to change.
“There are people in the Assembly who want to do that but we have to do it through the appropriate processes and it does take a little time,” she concedes.
Finding the balance between being accountable for every penny spent and not being afraid to take risks, such is the struggle between the public and private sector, presents a challenge. One of the areas she will be looking to develop is research and development: “I’m hoping that with the emphasis on R&D we will be able to provide those companies, like Randox [a diagnostic company based near Antrim], with the comfort they need to do that sort of work because a lot of it is risk-based, let’s face it.
“The nature of R&D is that things are not always going to go the right way. And if we give public funding to a company for R&D purposes and it completely fails and there’s no outcome, people will question your judgement as it isn’t money well spent,” she says.
R&D, Foster feels, is something the province has enough skills for development and sees it as the Executive’s job to support companies that are trying to do that, though not always solely financially. “If you are a single company starting up you’re on your own unless you have someone to ask… Being able to pick up the phone and ask a question or view is underestimated at times.”
More risk-taking, however, could inevitably lead to a few appearances in front of the Public Accounts Committee and the Minister understands this. She sees the top priority as creating value added jobs in the ICT sector and taking a wider view, preparing our own graduates adequately, ensuring that they come out of university with the right skills and the right degree.
On the other side of the coin, the system may be stopping our graduates from going as far as they could. “At Queen’s, if you get a law degree you get a practice certificate that allows you to practice here. You can’t practice in the rest of the UK or Europe,” she comments. That can rule out a substantial amount of back office support: “There should be no reason why you couldn’t sit in an office in Enniskillen and give support to anywhere in the world.” Indeed Citigroup, at its Belfast operations centre, has shown that that can be done.
Taking a lead in renewables
The subject of energy is not something that can be shied away from. With significant increases in the price of oil and gas, which have gone up by 50 per cent, Foster feels that people are finally waking up to the cost of energy: “I think a lot of people are thinking about energy now because the energy bills are going up. It’s making people think of where they actually get their energy from.”
With the installation of the SeaGen marine turbine in Strangford Lough, renewable energy is an area in which she thinks Northern Ireland could be a world leader: “I mean that genuinely. I have seen some of the engineering skills in Northern Ireland by visiting firms like Moyola and I really do think we could be a leader in the field of renewables.
“I’d like to see SeaGen used in other places as well, like Rathlin, where there’s a very strong current. We’re quite reliant on wind for renewable energy and we need to look elsewhere.”
As regards the Reconnect scheme, it was due to wind up at the end of March, when it began to be re-evaluated. The scheme was put in place to encourage homeowners to make use of renewable energy by offering grants to residents for up to 50 per cent of the cost of installing solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal heat pumps and Foster clearly see’s the results such a scheme can have given the success of the Republic’s Greener Homes Domestic Grants Scheme which has encouraged 50,000 homes to turn to renewable energy.
For Foster, becoming energy-aware starts with being efficient with energy in the home: “People can be quite blasé about energy. They don’t really realise the cost. With prices going up people will become more and more aware of energy efficiency because they’re just going to have to.”
After speculation about doing a gas feasibility study in the north west, she now plans to conduct a study for the south west. “firmus gas pipelines stop about Craigavon at the moment and there’s a need to look a bit wider, which would give us more competition so that people in the west aren’t just reliant on electricity for business.”
Buying in gas as opposed to having to buy it as it is needed is something she will be looking to confront through the common arrangements for gas.
There remains, though, a gas price differential between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with it being dearer in the South.
“I will certainly not be doing anything that will cost us money. The whole idea of having North/South arrangements is that it benefits both sides of the border and that’s something that we’ve been looking at. If we want real competition then we’re going to have to get real about the whole market, looking further beyond even the British Isles, right down into France,” she says.
Learning the ropes during a challenging and changing economic climate, not to mention a literal changing climate, Foster has seen enough in her first month in office to convince her that the province is going in the right direction. Let’s just get the message out.