Ford speech at Chamber of Commerce Five Leaders in Five Days event

Here is the speech Alliance Leader David Ford delivered as part of the Chamber of Commerce’s Five Leaders in Five Days series.

Alliance wants to deliver an Economic Revolution in Northern Ireland

David Ford said: As a Party we are not afraid to stand out from the crowd, to take the hard decisions that will lead to real change in Northern Ireland. We stand by our principles and talk openly and honestly about the changes that need to occur to make Northern Ireland a better place for everyone.

As much as we would like to engage in the populist giveaways announced by other parties, this is not the economic reality in which we live. We have been honest with the electorate and we will be honest with you – our business leaders.

Our public spending is under severe pressure, our health service is facing a £1bn shortfall, unemployment is continuing to rise and there are growing demands for social housing. These are cost pressures that will not go away in the short-term.

Our most urgent and most central need is to invest in private sector growth. All political parties are agreed that a reduction in corporation tax is necessary.

Alliance believes that this reduction would best and most quickly facilitate a step change in the local economy. Through attracting and incentivising local high value added companies to Northern Ireland and also shifting the pressure on indigenous businesses from managing costs to maximising profits. As you are aware a reduction in corporation tax will come with an estimated cost to our block grant of £250m.

There is also a clear need to invest to address skills shortages and raise skill levels – an issue that I will return to later in my speech.

Alliance remains committed to our deeply held belief that addressing the cost of division and tackling segregation is central to the creation of a strong, resilient, prosperous society. To this end, we successfully secured recognition of this within the budget. We will continue to push to ensure that each and every Department examines the level of duplication within its service provision and puts in place steps to address it.

Alliance has also raised the issue of water charging and the need to take the hard decisions in raising additional revenue to ensure. This is inescapable if the Executive is to continue to invest for the future and re-direct revenue toward achieving economic transformation.

We have called for an end to populist approaches to policy development, and have provided leadership in the development of policies that will make a sustained impact to the issues facing individuals and business, such as investment in the Green New Deal.

As a minister I have remained committed to ensuring that the Department of Justice provides the best return on the investment it receives. I have sought to address low productivity and higher spends that are not justified when benchmarked against our neighbouring jurisdiction. I’ve stuck to my plans to bring legal aid under control and to reform our prison system. When an Alliance Minister determines that change is necessary, change will happen.

By now you will be aware that the Alliance Party is committed to change. When we apply this to the economy, we mean a revolution, not tinkering about the edges protecting the status quo or relying on other regions to develop new markets and for our economy and businesses to follow suit. Not strategising or hypothesising, but action. We want Northern Ireland to be a ‘leader not a follower’ in the business world.

So what do we mean by this change?

We mean change that will result in the growth of the private sector, generating wealth and increasing employment opportunities for all members of society. We mean the strengthening of our economy through the development of a strong, export focussed private sector, with companies that can compete on an international stage. We believe our society should be one in which entrepreneurship and risk must be supported and rewarded, our resources should be sustainably managed and exploited and all members of our society should have access to training and employment opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential.

Alliance believes that Northern Ireland has the resources to emerge from this period of austerity stronger and more competitive. There are clear opportunities for the growth our economy, whether via the green economy, agri-foods, our creative industries, high-tech manufacturing or ICT.

Our approach to achieving this change requires a renewed focus across government and the private sector. It is vital that government provides leadership, facilitating investment, building upon the competitiveness of local business and encouraging growth.

It is a necessity that the Executive reduces the number of Departments from 12 to 8, rationalising the way it interfaces with business. We believe that the development of a Department for the Economy, incorporating the functions of DETI and DEL and some aspects of DARD, would better promote the needs of business and address barriers to economic growth.

Regardless of the size and structure of government, departments must co-operate to achieve key strategic objectives. We have highlighted the need for legisation to place a duty to co-operate on our Departments and we will work for its introduction in the forthcoming Assembly. It is unacceptable that a silo mentality to policy development should continue to operate.

We believe that the Executive and our MPs at Westminster should also work to address the impact that a lack of access to finance is having on business growth.

Alliance is committed to applying pressure to Northern Ireland’s banks to increase the flow of credit to SMEs. We also believe that the Executive can be more innovative in its approach to financing local business and should examine European funding opportunities to support local business, as well as support the growth of the venture capital market.

A robust economic action is also required. Successful regions have a clear strategy based on rigorous and ongoing diagnosis of existing strengths. Northern Ireland must follow this best practice. Northern Ireland is already behind in the development of such a strategy. Alliance is committed to ensuring that a strategy is in place by the end of this year.

This strategy must inform our approach to inward investment and ensure that efforts to grow our indigenous business sector are maintained. It must provide a ‘road map’ that sets out how the Executive will maximise investment in the key economic drivers of skills, infrastructure, research and development, enterprise and energy.

Of these, we believe that investment in skills is a most critical driver for the local economy.

The need to invest and re-design our skills and training infrastructure is an immediate imperative. Lack of investment and a failure in the past to ensure that the skills and training infrastructure is fit for purpose, has impacted negatively on the competitiveness of our economy.

Currently too many people have low or no qualifications, too few people are available to work, we have poor levels of labour productivity and too many of our young people leave education unable to find employment that utilises their training.

Alliance will ensure that the money invested in skills and training provides the necessary support to grow the economy and provide a positive outcome for our current and future workforce. We are committed to transforming our skills and training landscape.

Addressing the unacceptable deficit in basic literacy and numeracy skills and the lack of employability skills demonstrated by college leavers and graduates is of vital importance All university students should be offered the opportunity for work experience over the life of their degree. Too often opportunities for placement are restricted to vocationally orientated subject areas. Ongoing investment in our management and leadership skills is also required.

It is vital that funding supports a skills infrastructure that reflects employers needs and supports the future growth of the economy. We believe that the following four steps must be taken to achieve this:

1. simplification of the advisory landscape;

2. a clear point of entry for employers seeking to train and up-skill their workforce;

3. the provision of learning methods that are flexible and responsive; and

4. support for training and qualifications that match employers needs and represent value for money.

It is also necessary to raise awareness among individuals and employers about the importance of education and training, currently workers here receive less training while in employment than any other region in the UK. Central to this will be consideration of the most cost effective approach to incentivising investment, whether through tax credits, directs grants or subsidised training.

Given the predominance of small businesses in Northern Ireland, we believe that the development of employer networks to plan and purchase training is a viable way forward. Networks can provide a number of benefits to members including the development of a critical level of demand, increasing the availability of training and reducing the unit cost.

Informed and impartial careers advice is also required. Appropriate advice and guidance should be provided that reflects the needs of specific users and is informed by current and future job opportunities. We believe that DEL should seek to maximise resources available by developing an innovative and flexible approach to careers delivery.

It is essential that our colleges and universities are funded and structured in such a way that allows them to react quickly to the needs of business and individuals. By this we mean the provision of learning methods that are flexible and responsive such as part-time, modularised, on-line and delivered on a demand-led basis.

This is what Alliance is committed to delivering, and now it is once again time for me to be honest with you.

If we make these changes, then business must also deliver. We need a commitment from you our business leaders that you will continue to invest in skills training, that you will work with our schools, colleges and universities to provide work experience opportunities and shape delivery, that you will provide apprenticeships and internship opportunities and that you will act socially responsibly to provide access to employment opportunities for individuals who have been outside the workforce.

Personally, I am very impressed by the joined up working that the business sector has demonstrated recently. You have worked together to influence government and to provide the Executive with clear plans and priorities for economic growth. The publication of the Jobs Plan and the cross sectoral commitment and drive behind the Green New Deal are two notable examples.

As a Party we are committed to ensuring that this investment and drive is also reflected by the Executive. Our Executive must work harder and smarter. It must also work faster – now is the time for revolution.

The Alliance approach is not about developing ideas and policies, it is not about strategising and consulting – it is about delivery.

Alliance is committed to delivering an economic revolution. The window of opportunity is closing. The Executive has had four years and so far has failed to deliver the step change required. Every party believes that we need economic growth but all parties must now step up and commit to immediate action. Alliance believes that the Executive must develop a road map for economic growth as a matter of urgency within the new mandate. This must be in place before the recess – to allow all minister to work together to achieve and deliver.

We have developed a five point plan that we believe should form the basis of the road map and believe that the Executive must commit to delivering this within 12 months. Our five priorities are:

A commitment to identify and address the costs of division

Corporation Tax fully negotiated with Treasury and legislation through Westminster

Allocation of funding support for the Green New Deal

Development of a more responsive system of skills delivery

More finance options for high growth small businesses

Supporting this five step plan is a need for Departments and Ministers to co-operate in a strategic way to address the underlying problems of our economy and realise opportunities.

A commitment to a twelve month time bound action plan will allow you, our business leaders, to measure the success of government. This will allow you our business leaders to hold Northern Ireland political leaders to account.

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