The issue of how to ensure economic growth right across Northern Ireland – sub-regional growth – has been a hot topic for many years, particularly in the West, where the economy has lagged behind Belfast and its surrounds in terms of growth, and crucially, jobs.
The 2011-2015 NI Executive’s Programme for Government pledges to ‘address regional imbalance (in the economy) as we move ahead’. It also follows an announcement that a ministerial subcommittee to ‘rebalance the regional economy’ was to be set up including the Derry-based Deputy First Minister and Environment Minister.
Now however, BtP can reveal that ‘sub-regional growth’ is to be shelved as a priority for the next Executive Programme for Government, a massive blow to places like Derry, Omagh and Fermanagh.
The Economic Advisory Group which advises the ETI Minister on the economy has written to the Finance Minister, soon to be First Minister Arlene Foster, to rubbish the principle of including sub-regional growth.
Writing in March 2014, the chair of the EAG, Kate Barker tells the Minister;
“Members recognised the desire for economic growth to be spread across Northern Ireland and the pressures which often come from individuals and lobby groups for economic activity to be specifically directed to certain areas. However, we were unconvinced that a specific sub problem has been properly identified and articulated.
We would advise that, prior to any specific policy initiatives being promoted, there should be a detailed analysis and understanding of the particular issues at hand in any particular sub region.
Members also expressed the view that Northern Ireland is not a large area, and hubs of employment, such as Belfast and Londonderry draw in workers from a wide catchment area. Consequently the concentration of enterprises does not capture in any meaningful way the concentration of employment which will be much more widely dispersed. This is not dissimilar to other city regions within the UK, e.g. Manchester in the north west of England, in which a central hub acts as an economic driver for the whole of the local region. It is our view that this is remains the best model for Northern Ireland and generic interventions at a sub regional level may well result in an inefficient and sub-optimal allocation of resources.” (emphasis added)
Worrying for those campaigning for regional economic parity will be particularly furious at the final sentence in the correspondence; ‘In summary, we would suggest that promoting sub regions within Northern Ireland should not be considered a high priority for economic policy at this time.’
In composing the next Programme for Government, the Executive parties, particularly those with strong representation in the West of NI will come under increasing pressure to ignore this advice and deliver on economic prosperity for the whole of the province.
As we know, if it’s not in the Programme for Government, it can be talked around but not delivered..