“There is much to welcome in the content of the document, including strong commitments on Research & Development; improving our economic skills base; encouraging export driven companies; and the proposed overlapping with the Programme for Government, and by-and-large we support the direction and targets contained within the strategy.
As I have referenced before with other government initiatives, too often directives are progressed within departmental silos when best practice would indicate that a cohesive joined-up approach could be employed to much greater effect.
We believe the best approach to reinvigorating the local economy is by encouraging a collaborative effort, where Departments work toward cross cutting goals in a joined up manner, and so we welcome the general approach adopted within the strategy, with the hope that it will encourage a significantly improved collaborative framework to guide the main economic drivers.
So, yes, there is much of merit in the strategy but one slight concern which is evident very early on is the lack of consideration given towards a shared future. Many parties do well to pay lip service as and when the situation requires it or the headline opportunities present themselves, but the language employed from the outset of the strategy is notably lacking, for example when it commits to building “a safe, peaceful, fair and prosperous society”, the obvious omission being “shared”. Further to this point, there is little credence given to the ever-present elephant in the room, the cost of division. In actual fact, the term “division” is referenced only twice within the document, with no real attempts made to address costs of division and the impact they have on our economy and economic development.
The greatest distortions in our local expenditure relate to the costs of managing our divided society. This division manifests itself in terms of how some businesses provide their goods and services; obstructions to labour market mobility; deterrence to inward investment and restrictions on internal investment decisions; and the absence of a cultural environment which can attract and nurture creativity. Therefore there is a clear relationship between a shared future and the onset of economic prosperity and whilst I appreciate that this economic strategy is intended to be a positive document that will encourage all sectors to work together, clear targets for breaking down divisions would not necessarily be seen as negative.
Delving further into the document, it is encouraging to see the inclusion of goals and mile-stones in relation to tourism potential.
More than £300m has been invested in our tourism infrastructure in anticipation of this year, delivering architecture that is transforming both our skyline and our prospects.
Building upon such a landmark year and encompassing events in 2013, there exists the potential to challenge and change global perceptions of our society; to market Northern Ireland as a destination to live, work, invest and learn; and to grow our economy.
From a tourism perspective alone, we have the capacity to attract an additional 833,000 visitors over the next 18 months, and if we are to continue along such a pro-active path, we could generate an extra £140million of revenue and create an additional 3,570 additional jobs over the next three years.
While the goals and mile-stones listed within the economic strategy are welcome, there is an uneasy feeling that they do not quite go far enough and are too short-term in focus. The opportunities that will come from 2012/13 should be embraced fully, but we cannot be so naïve as to think that such mainstream and unifying events and celebrations will last forever.
There is a need to develop a full and comprehensive tourism strategy, laying out a long-term action plan, along with specific economic targets. In addition such a plan could include the protection of natural, built and archived cultural assets; the development of cultural tourism; and recognition of the important economic role played by NI’s airports.
While the recent gains made in relation to the devolution of Air Passenger Duty are to be welcomed, there are many other important factors that will have an impact on the success of attracting visitors. A comprehensive aviation strategy is essential if we are to credibly compete nationally and internationally and any long-term growth in tourist potential is largely dependent on the success of NI’s airports.
To illustrate and highlight several areas of need, there should be a genuine commitment given to develop route access by connecting Belfast International Airport with key markets in Germany; Austria; Canada; and the United States. Consideration should also be given to enabling travelers with onward connections in the US to clear customs in Northern Ireland as is the case in Dublin. We boast a colourful, capable and captivating society here in Northern Ireland and we owe it to ourselves to be ambitious and not solely rely on attracting tourists from other airports south of the border or across the water.
I would conclude by saying that on the whole this is a strategy that should be welcomed and the Alliance Party endorses it today.”