Invest NI: “A complete failure”

Has Invest NI met its targets? Paul Mullin reports

Liam Gallagher from the Derry trades union council has called Invest Northern Ireland’s strategy for the North West a “complete failure.” It comes just a week after a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) revealed that Invest NI – the north’s economic development agency – spent less than a quarter of the department’s money in the North West in the last ten years.

Mr Gallagher went on to voice his concerns not just over the figures but how the money that has been given to the North West has been misused. He said: “We allowed a manufacturing base in the North West to simply disappear. Invest NI did nothing absolutely nothing in terms of investment to help maintain the textile industry or help it diversify new markets. We simply accepted that manufacturing was old hat, yesterday’s news and that the way forward was the financial services sector.”

He said that the money has not been spread wisely across the North West and has resulted in the North West being one of the worst affected by the recession. This is backed up by figures released from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) which stated that the claimant count in Northern Ireland was the second highest amongst the twelve UK regions. This is backed even further by a House of Commons study which looked at all 650 parliamentary constituencies and ranked them in terms of unemployment. The Foyle area came third in a league table of UK constituencies worst affected by unemployment.

Mr Gallagher echoed these sentiments: “The reality is that in a population of 107,000 you have an eligible work force of 40,000, of those 24,000 are listed as economically inactive and there are currently 8,600 on the live register. So that gives you an indication of the scale of the problem right now.”

He went onto add that there are less than 3,000 jobs left in the manufacturing industry in Derry, with about in the region of 2,500 financial services jobs, apart from that there is a large part time force working in the retail sector and what he calls a “disproportionate” number of people in public, health and education sectors.

Following the NIAO report many prominent figures in Derry spoke out against Invest NI, including Derry SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood who said: “The report shows proof of devolved government’s failure in terms of jobs in the North West.”

The NIAO report states that just 24% of Invest NI’s overall financial assistance came to the North West since 2002. Other notable figures in the report show that as little as 25.6% of total foreign direct investment (FDI) jobs were in the west of Northern Ireland.

Eastwood went onto say that the report shows Invest Ni’s “long term failure in promoting regional equality in terms of job creation.” He says that the executive leadership now have “to commit to radically change the performance of Invest NI.”

Liam Gallagher thinks that a major source of the problem is what Invest Ni are investing in. “There has been quite a lot of work put into ‘the one plan’ in the North West, were all of the stakeholders, unions, businesses and education sector come together and produced a good analysis of what is required in the North West in terms of high quality jobs. It seems to me that this is where Invest NI should be tying into in terms of research and development.”

The ‘One Plan’ is an ambitious guideline for the regeneration of Derry and was drafted following a huge consultation process across the city. The plan hopes to see an additional £500m in wages and profits in Derry’s economy.  The plan sets out the roles of the public, private and community and voluntary sectors in delivering 12,900 jobs needed to ensure the city is the economic hub of the North West over the next ten years.

The plan describes how the city will be transformed by fundamentally changing the way it does business, and being creative in how organisations and individuals resource and manage themselves.

Mr Gallagher also stressed the importance of getting a solid manufacturing base up and running in the North West again as he said: “You have to have a manufacturing base for your balance of trade, you need to be exporting and growing things. So we need to move away from the financial sector and the heavy reliance on the public sector and start finding markets and find something we can actually export.”

The One Plan is backed throughout the city and although it is seen as ambitious it is seen as achievable. Another scheme, which complements the One Plan, has been set in motion to help combat the economic downturn in the city also. A five point plan has been put in place to try and save Derry City Centre.

Central to the plan is to create a city centre enterprise zone to give independent retailers a helping hand. On the proviso that the executive grants the status, it would mean that businesses in Derry city centre could avail of rates holidays, faster planning decisions and capital allowances to promote new retail and business developments. The other four proposals include the creation of a comprehensive retail development strategy for the city centre; the adoption of a ‘town centre’ first planning policy when considering out of town retail applications; the launching of a shop independent campaign and to increase the amount of affordable parking facilities and public transport in the city centre.

There are more that 130 vacant shops in the city centre, 50 of which have been recent closures. This combined with applications for nine out of town superstores means concern for local business people. It adds weight to the claims made by Mr Gallagher and Colum Eastwood that Invest NI’s strategy in the North West has been a failure and it’s an argument that will continue to run between those in the North West and the decision makers in Stormont.

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