Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is a contemporary example of an organisation shattering perceptions of the remit, responsibility and ambition of local government.
A multi-award winning local authority, Mid and East Antrim leads the way in the transformation of ever-more efficient and improved public services for its 139,000 citizens.
The borough has a proud manufacturing heritage, diverse and dynamic business community, and a rapidly expanding tourism and hospitality sector.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s key role as an enabler of sustainable economic growth and investment is critical, particularly at a time of great political uncertainty at Westminster and Stormont.
The area has a dynamic and innovative skills base and infrastructure, and is home to a community brimming with ambition and talent.
It is also a borough that has sustained a number of significant economic shocks in recent years, notably with the closures of manufacturing giants Michelin and JTI Gallaher in Ballymena.
In recent weeks, around 1,200 workers were made redundant when coachbuilder Wrightbus entered administration, bringing the total of well-paid manufacturing jobs lost to the area in the past couple of years to more than 4,000.
The immediate mood in the aftermath of the latest in a line of body blows was one of shock, within a community in which a third of jobs are through the manufacturing sector.
As news broke of the Wrightbus announcement, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council immediately activated its Rapid Redundancy Response Programme, set up following the Michelin closure and led by the elected members and Chief Executive Anne Donaghy.
The Council facilitated a Northern Ireland-wide campaign, along with central government and business leaders from throughout the region, who rallied behind the workers and their families.
Direct engagement took place between Council at the highest levels of the UK government, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as well as the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and his Permanent Secretaries.
The collective response on the ground was immediate.
There is so much positivity in this area about growing jobs. The strength of people in Mid and East Antrim is their willingness to work together and with the Council.
Within a week of the announcement, an appeal to Northern Ireland’s manufacturers was met with an overwhelming response.
A job fair for affected Wrightbus staff had the backing of more than 80 firms, who provided the workers with 1,900 active alternative job opportunities, many of which were permanent, manufacturing posts.
Advisory clinics also took place locally, with Department for Communities staff on hand to provide a wraparound support service to advise, support, assist and signpost those affected.
All the while, negotiations continued behind the scenes to secure a buyer for the business.
Donaghy said the outpouring of support and mobilisation of vital services in response to the economic crisis was proof of how strong local and central government can be when they work as one.
She said: “We put out an appeal for help and we got it in bucket loads.
“In the absence of a devolved administration, our councillors are the most senior democratically elected representatives to help those within our community.
“The swift response to the Wrightbus news shows that local government is about much more than legislation.
“Local government is there to respond to help people when that help is needed.
“It’s about families and communities and making sure we rally around them when we can.
“I believe local government has to push the boundaries of their powers in order to serve the people throughout our community, and that requires us to work very differently.
“The secret to that is to have a strong and dependable network. Councils should be the nucleus of an area, facilitating a much wider approach to tackling major issues and providing local leadership when it comes to economic development and improving the lives of local people.”
While the area has suffered a series of major economic setbacks, the people of Mid and East Antrim have repeatedly demonstrated their resilience in the face of such adversity.
Those tasked with leading the fight back are adamant that Mid and East Antrim’s standing as a key driver of the Northern Ireland economy will remain due to the enterprise, innovation and vision of its citizens and business leaders.
A number of hugely significant investment projects planned for the borough have given cause for optimism, and the wider economic vision for Mid and East Antrim is an extremely positive one.
A wide range of innovative initiatives already place through the Council’s economic strategy Amplify, and those still in the pipeline, not only have a short-term positive impact on the economy and community, but are geared towards long term growth and improvement.
The first of many examples of this innovative approach adopted by Council in securing £80 million of investment through the Belfast Region City Deal, to be injected into a number of major regeneration, tourism and innovation and skills schemes across the borough.
Perhaps most innovative of these is the transformation of the former St Patrick’s Barracks site in Ballymena into a new science park, the Integrated Industrial Inspiration and Innovation Campus, or ‘i4C’.
Council’s vision is that i4C will inspire and harness the talents of hundreds of young people every year – identifying the entrepreneurs of the future and pairing them with existing entrepreneurs, linking the coders of the future to coding clubs, and providing a pathway for future apprenticeships. This will bring a defined and sustained focus on innovation to the borough for many years to come.
As the engine room of Northern Ireland advanced manufacturing it was a no-brainer that the area felt confident across the borough at both political, manufacturing and industry level to compete for the biggest UK infrastructure contract, the Heathrow Expansion Project, previously approved at Westminster.
Council is proud the bid it initially led up, before the Graham Group took up the reins remains in the final stages of the competition, having been selected as one of the last 18 sites out of an original 127, and just one of two remaining bids in Northern Ireland.
This ambition is only possible when the public and private sector work side by side to support a joined up vision, and, if successful, this bid would result in an investment of up to £5 billion locally and the creation of 5,000 jobs.
The establishment of the borough’s Manufacturing Taskforce in 2018 is another example of a highly innovative approach to creating and sustaining jobs, safeguarding and growing the economy for the future.
Dedicated to reenergising the local manufacturing sector, the Manufacturing Taskforce was established in response to the closure of JTI Gallaher and Michelin, and is chaired by Donaghy.
This initiative has brought together more than 100 representatives from manufacturing companies, industry bodies and the public sector to map the sector’s path to renewed success.
Donaghy continues: “There is so much positivity in this area about growing jobs. The strength of people in Mid and East Antrim is their willingness to work together and with the Council.
“Together we will continue to fight for our industrial future of our area, including building a 9,000 sq ft manufacturing workspace for start-ups at the former St Patrick’s Barracks site in Ballymena, and working to secure Queen’s University Belfast’s £60 million investment in St Patrick’s Barracks to build an Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre.
“I always say the future is here, we just need to build it. We have all the ingredients, the vision and the determination to build a bright, prosperous future for Mid and East Antrim and our people.
“Local government is at the very heart of that future. Councils are now about much more than legislative requirements.
“I believe local government has to push the boundaries of their powers in order to serve communities and in Mid and East Antrim I am so proud of what we have achieved, and the ambitious, innovative plans we are already delivering.”
1-29 Bridge Street
Ballymena BT42 1AB