Budget 2014: Northern Ireland’s first enterprise zone set for Coleraine

How the 5Nines facility may look
How the 5Nines facility may look

Northern Ireland is to get its first Enterprise Zone, years after they were first established on the UK mainland.

Such zones are like business parks where the Government offers special treatment to firms setting up shop, including things like lower business rates.

There are already more than 20 such zones in England.

Yesterday Chancellor George Osborne said in his budget speech that Northern Ireland is to get one too – and it will be located in Coleraine.

Although many of the details are still sketchy, the site will be close to the River Bann on land owned by the University of Ulster (UU) – and the town’s mayor hailed it as welcome news in the wake of the mass job losses pending at the town’s Driver and Vehicle Agency headquarters.

Yesterday, a statement from Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster outlining the scheme said it would provide “rates relief, access to broadband infrastructure and fast track planning approval”.

For what this actually means in practice, the News Letter turned to the Solent Enterprise Zone in Hampshire, where such a scheme has been running for a number of years.

The vast site is a former military airfield, now in the process of being turned into a huge engineering hub.

Jeff Channing, one of those involved with the project, said they offer cuts in business rates of up to £55,000 per year to firms moving in, with an ultimate target of more than 3,000 jobs on the vast site.

“We’re definitely achieving 700 on present projections by 2015,” he said.

“That’s going from almost nothing to 700. It’s working for Daedalus.”

Gordon Gough, chief executive of Enterprise Northern Ireland, representing a string of not-for-profit business support groups, said: “We’re hopefully, I think, bringing investment and jobs to the north-west, and it definitely needs it – it’s an area that’s been hit hard over the years.”

Mr Gough said that “the devil is in the detail” when it comes to this latest plan, but added: “I think it’s good news. Let’s worry about the detail later.”

One of the appeals of the site at Coleraine is its proximity to a trans-Atlantic fibre-optic telecoms cable known as Project Kelvin.

One firm which is already known to be part of the new scheme is 5Nines.

It was announced in October that the firm aimed to build a data centre in the area, creating 15 jobs, and now it seems it will be an early addition to the new Enterprise Zone.

But a number of key questions are unclear – such as precisely when work will begin on the project, how many jobs may ultimately be on the entire site, and its exact size.

A spokesman for the university said it is hoped work will be under way quickly.

Despite welcoming it as a helpful small step, SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, chairman of Stormont’s enterprise committee, sounded a note of caution.

He said “the jury is out” on the effectiveness of such zones, and queried why it was in Coleraine and not anywhere else.

“Many will now be wondering what criteria was used to select the proposed site for this new initiative,” he said.

“There are countless areas across Northern Ireland which could have benefitted from this investment.”

The news comes in the wake of the revelation last week that more than 300 DVA staff are set to lose their jobs – with the great bulk of losses concentrated in Coleraine.

Trade union NIPSA (the Northern Ireland Public Sector Alliance) said the Enterprise Zone seemed like an attempt at “appeasing” its soon-to-be jobless members, and also questioned how effective such projects really are at creating employment.

But the town’s mayor was hopeful the latest move will help ease the blow.

UUP councillor David Harding said: “Last week the town was devastated at the news that hundreds of jobs were to be lost at the DVA, and the town and surrounding area has had to deal with a series of economic blows in recent years.

“We must all redouble our efforts to attract new jobs and investment to the area and I am confident that the creation of an Enterprise Zone in Coleraine will help us in that task.”